The Natural Just 21, Florida's Miguel Cabrera is getting better with every at bat

April 26, 2004

In the hushed visitors clubhouse at Turner Field two hours before
last Friday's game in Atlanta, some of the Marlins slouched on
leather couches flipping through magazines while others sat
hunched on folding chairs with headphones on. Alone in a corner
of the room was rightfielder Miguel Cabrera, sitting upright like
an attentive student, his eyes fixed on a 12-inch-square video
monitor that showed a tape of Braves pitchers. "Miguel's
constantly absorbing information--watching tapes, asking
questions, paying close attention in the dugout," says
centerfielder Juan Pierre. "It may not seem like it, but the kid
still has a lot to learn."

Indeed, the education of Cabrera, who on Sunday turned 21 and
played in his 99th major league regular-season game, has just
begun. Last June he was wearing the uniform of the Double A
Carolina Mudcats; four months later he was playing outfield for
Florida, homering four times in the Marlins' postseason run to
the World Series title. This season Cabrera has shown no hint of
a sophomore slump. Through Sunday he was batting .333 with six
homers and a robust .756 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, Florida,
8-4 at week's end, was in sole possession of first place in the
National League East.

Cabrera, a righthanded hitter who bats in the No. 3 spot, is
naturally gifted. He effortlessly played third base, leftfield
and rightfield for the Marlins last season, and his bat speed is
so quick that upon contact there is a loud crack so distinct that
teammates and coaches know immediately it is Cabrera in the
batting cage. In the six months since Florida became world
champion, Cabrera has matured into much more than just the raw
talent he was last season, when he hit .268 with 12 homers in 87
regular-season games. "From the first day of spring training, you
could see that he was a different man," says shortstop Alex
Gonzalez. "Physically, stronger. Mentally, more confident."

Cabrera spent the off-season at home in Maracay, Venezuela, where
he played winter league ball and spent three days a week working
out at a gym. At 6'2" he kept his weight at 205 pounds but built
up considerable muscle mass. "I'm still adjusting, and getting
more at bats is the best way for me to get better," says Cabrera.

One aspect of Cabrera's hitting that Florida batting coach Bill
Robinson has worked on is swinging with power to the opposite
field. Last season, Robinson says, Cabrera had a tendency to
shorten his swing on pitches on the outside portion of the plate,
causing him to reach and slap the ball. Robinson wants to see
aggressive cuts on those outside strikes. "Sometimes when he's in
the batting cage, I'll tell him to let loose and crank it as hard
as he can [on outside pitches]," says Robinson. "And he'll just
start hitting balls out."

"We haven't found a weakness with him yet," says Expos manager
Frank Robinson, who watched Cabrera hit three home runs during
the Marlins' three-game sweep of Montreal last week. "There are
ways of getting him out, but if you do it too often, he'll
[adjust and] burn you."

Though stoic on the field, Cabrera is a fierce competitor (before
every game he writes sangre, Spanish for "blood," on the tape he
wraps around his wrists), has a big sense of humor (he says he's
watched Old School about 15 times) and is still a kid at heart.
"I'm taking my time here," he says. "I feel much more confident,
and every day I feel like I'm getting better."

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE In his second major league season, Cabrera has become a powerhitter to all fields.