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Sorry we closed early yesterday. The health inspectors came in and had us hopping. The rumors of unsanitary conditions in the kitchen are completely unfounded. But, to be safe, I'd stick with the pretzels and peanuts, at least until Thursday.

Anyway, watching Daniel Cabrera pitch on TV Monday at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field reminded me of his big-league debut there almost four years ago -- May 13, 2004.

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The Orioles needed a spot starter for the first game of a doubleheader and called Cabrera, then 22, up from Double-A Bowie, where he had pitched five games and hadn't yet recorded a win. The previous year he had been at Delmarva, and had skipped over Frederick to go to Bowie.

He was almost a complete mystery. All we knew was that he was huge, threw hard and spoke almost no English. We also knew that the previous offseason, before he was fired, ex-GM Syd Thrift made sure Cabrera was on the 40-man roster because he was afraid he'd be snagged in the Rule 5 draft.

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So that day the kid was jumping Triple-A and making a start against a White Sox offense that included Carlos Lee, Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko. In the press box before the game, the four beat writers informally wrote down what we thought Cabrera's line would be that day. I don't think any of us had him getting out of the fifth. I know none of us came close to predicting that he would allow just two hits through six shutout innings and lead the Orioles to a 1-0 win.

It was an impressive showing, but what stuck with me was Cabrera's post-game interview in the tunnel outside the clubhouse with bullpen catcher Rudy Arias acting as his interpreter. We lobbed the standard questions and then someone asked if Cabrera had been intimidated at first facing guys like Thomas and Konerko.

Cabrera listened to the question in Spanish and asked for it again. Then he quickly shook his head and responded. Arias listened, smiled and then translated something to the effect of, "He says he doesn't care about who's hitting. He feels he can get anyone out."

We walked away thinking, 'Could this kid be for real?' He stayed in the big leagues, won 12 games and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2004. He hasn't won that many games in a season since, and last year he led the league in losses.

One writer friend of mine said if he were a GM of a team, he wouldn't take Cabrera for free. That he isn't worth the heartache or rotation spot. But O's manager Dave Trembley said he believed Cabrera would be a different pitcher this season, and, for the most part, he has looked it. He had allowed just five walks in his last three games heading into Monday. Against Chicago, though, he walked seven in 6 1/3 innings, but made key pitches and escaped with two earned runs allowed.

It was the new Cabrera and the old Cabrera butting heads. And you still have to wonder who is going to win that battle in the end.

Daily Think Special: Has Daniel Cabrera turned the corner and learned how to pitch? Can the light stay on consistently? If he turns in another rough year, should the team cut its losses? Or if he turns in a great year, should they trade him when his value is high? What's your prediction for his win-loss record and ERA in 2008?

Bonus Think Special: Didn't get as much response to one of yesterday's questions as I would have liked, so like the leftover chili, we are serving it again. If you were putting together a baseball card of the three best prospects the Orioles have signed and developed since 1954 and you couldn't use the four (Brooks, Palmer, Ripken and Eddie) who went on to the Hall of Fame from the Orioles system, who would you include? Mine are Boog Powell, Dennis Martinez and a tossup between Mike Mussina and Dave McNally.

AP photo

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