San Pedro De Macoris, Dominican Republic -- Behind an anonymous 6-foot gate on an unmarked street in a noisy little town lies all that Daniel Cabrera ever wanted. He had been in a major league baseball uniform for only one month when he moved his family out of its tiny home into this one - much larger, much nicer, much more comfortable.
The front room is a mini-museo for the Orioles' young pitcher, including a framed No. 35 jersey, photographs of Cabrera with his parents standing on the field at Camden Yards, and a framed scorecard from his first complete-game shutout. Under one photo of him whipping a ball toward the plate, Cabrera wrote Y que Dios me proteja - "And God protects me."
This is all he ever wanted, all he ever dreamed of. But now - and he doesn't even seem to realize this - Cabrera, the 6-foot-7, 24-year-old right-hander, is on the verge of something much bigger. Fewer than three years removed from Single-A baseball, Cabrera is poised to start the 2006 season as an anchor on the Orioles' pitching staff.
To the chagrin of fans, Orioles brass has thus far failed to secure a dominant No. 1 or No. 2 starter heading into next season. Whenever other teams call with trade offers, there are two things they want: Cabrera and Erik Bedard, the Orioles' other young pitcher.
They all want Cabrera for the same reason the Orioles refuse to part with him: He's on the brink of a breakout season.
"I want spring training to start now," he said last week. "I'm ready. I've been doing a lot of things, working these last couple of months. Now I want to see what happens with it."
Cabrera's journey started here in San Pedro de Macoris, a coastal city known in the baseball world for producing players such as Sammy Sosa and Alfonso Soriano. Cabrera was a skinny, unpolished 17-year-old when Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting, found him. The Orioles signed the young hurler for $10,000 then, and before Cabrera even turned 23, he was standing on a big league mound.
He finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2004. Last season, despite missing much of August with a back injury, he showed flashes of what's to come. His final numbers - 10-13, 4.52 ERA - don't reflect his potential. The Orioles' anemic offense did him few favors.
The Orioles averaged 1.5 runs in his 13 losses. After coming off the disabled list Sept. 1, Cabrera allowed just eight earned runs in his final five starts. He picked up only two wins, though.
Cabrera doesn't reflect on his career and see anything that resembles a quick rise. That's because he was out there every day, working with a purpose. And here's what gives the Orioles immeasurable hope: He hasn't stopped working, which is a big reason Cabrera carries increased expectations heading into the 2006 season.
Cabrera didn't even catch his breath after returning to the Dominican Republic after last season's finale at Tampa Bay. He started right in with his offseason homework: developing a third pitch.
He always felt like he was at a disadvantage in a 2-0 count. With only two reliable pitches - a fastball that routinely tops 95 mph and a solid slider - batters knew exactly what was coming. Not next season, Cabrera promises. He has been throwing six to seven days a week, and his changeup has developed nicely.
"It looks really good right now," says Bernhardt, who continues to work with Cabrera. "This will give him one more thing when he's up there. It's one thing to have a good fastball, but when you have another pitch like this, [it] makes the batter's job much more difficult."
In addition to throwing daily at a nearby field here, Cabrera has been pitching with a winter league Dominican team. "I have no wins," he says with a chuckle. "It's like last season [in Baltimore]. We score no runs."
His numbers in the winter league have hardly been impressive. In an outing last week, his first of the league's round-robin playoff, Cabrera lasted only 4 1/3 innings, giving up four earned runs on seven hits. But Cabrera says he isn't pitching in the league to win games or post great numbers. He's simply preparing for the Orioles' season.
Cabrera says he doesn't get too worried about the Orioles' offseason maneuvering.
"I'm going to do my job no matter what," he says. "Maybe it's easier to win if it's 7-2, but you can also win 3-2, right?"
The young pitcher has other reasons for hope: For starters, he plans to report to spring training 15 pounds heavier than last season. Cabrera says he currently weighs 260 pounds.
He's also looking forward to working with newly signed catcher Ramon Hernandez and new pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
"Did you see what [Mazzone] did with Jorge Sosa?" asks Cabrera, well aware that Sosa went from four wins to 13 and cut his ERA from 5.53 to 2.55 in his first season working with Mazzone in Atlanta. "That's a big difference. I want to see what he can do with me."
Cabrera has an easygoing nature about him away from the mound, and he seems sincere. This kind of demeanor is easy to trace back to family. Cabrera is 24, well-known in his home country and making good money. Yet he chooses to continue living with his parents.
And when he returns to Baltimore, just like last season, he says he'll live with his father.
"I want to live with them forever," he says of his family.
But what about someday when you're married?
"She can live with us, too," he says, "if she wants."
You can see something change in his eyes when he talks about baseball or his mom. And when he talks about the two at the same time ...
"Wait here," he says, leaving the porch and disappearing inside the house. He digs through his mother's room and returns with a baseball. It was from his first major league game - a 1-0 win over the Chicago White Sox - which happened to fall on his mother's birthday.
He wrote on it: Mi primer juego - my first game - dedicade para mi madre - dedicated for my mother - el dia de su cumpleanos - the day of your birthday.
His home is modestly decorated. There's room for more balls, more photos, more mementos. There's plenty of empty space, just in case the best is waiting around the corner.
Points after -- Rick Maese
That time of year: I love college bowl season. The slight problem I'm having, though: My apartment walls are paper thin, so my television volume is always near mute. Do you know how hard it is to read Lee Corso's lips? Or Lou Holtz's jowls?
Latino roots: I am of the belief that a baseball team cannot invest enough in a country such as the Dominican Republic. If you don't count Barry Bonds (and I usually try not to), baseball's past five Most Valuable Players have Dominican roots: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, A-Rod again and Miguel Tejada. If you're an Orioles fan, you've got to be wondering why Orioles management hasn't visited the region more often. I'm told Jim Duquette's trip to Santo Domingo shortly after he was hired marked the first front-office visit in a while. The good news: There's talk of a January trip by Orioles brass, which may even include owner Peter Angelos.