If Cabrera turns the corner, credit Palmer with a save

The Baltimore Sun

When you look at Orioles pitcher Daniel Cabrera, what do you see - the intimidating 6-foot-9 fireballer who might develop into a right-handed Randy Johnson or the awkward, overgrown kid who's not really a kid anymore?

Hall of Famer Jim Palmer looks at Cabrera and sees the whole spectrum. The big-time talent. The so-so athletic ability. The inconsistent mechanics. The incomplete pitch repertoire. The intermittent confidence.

Cabrera is one complicated young man.

That's why Palmer asked pitching coach Leo Mazzone the other day whether he could help. That's why Mazzone invited Palmer to Cabrera's bullpen session Thursday in Chicago. That's why there was no clash of egos between one of the best pitching coaches in the game and the greatest pitcher in Orioles history.

"I'm here and I'm available for anybody," Palmer said. "I talked to Leo and said, 'I don't want to interfere.' He said, 'You're not going to interfere.' He wants Daniel to be good. I want Daniel to be good. We all want Daniel to be good."

Which brings us quickly to the million-dollar question.

Why isn't he?

And so begins the conversation with Palmer, who is always honest and never shy, especially when it comes to the subject of pitching. He has watched Cabrera for several years and wondered - like everyone else - whether he'll ever harness his terrific natural ability.

"He has super, super talent to throw a baseball," Palmer said, "but can he command it?"

The answer, of course, is sometimes. Everybody saw Cabrera dominate a great New York Yankees lineup last September. And everybody has watched him lose the plate and walk the ballpark. Most nights, you get to see both pitchers in the same game.

Former Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller used to look at erratic marvels like Cabrera - Sidney Ponson and Matt Riley jump to mind - and joke that they're the kinds of guys who get a pitching coach fired. Except he wasn't really joking.

Palmer sees all the contradictions that make Cabrera such a complex coaching challenge. He is an amazing physical specimen who isn't particularly athletic. He's also a young pitcher who knows he has a gift but doesn't have the confidence to completely unwrap it.

"I suggested when he first came up, Daniel needs to play pepper," Palmer said. "Nobody plays pepper anymore, but he needs to. He needs to have somebody hit him fly balls and ground balls. He's unbelievably well-conditioned. Let's get him baseball conditioned."

Palmer also thinks Cabrera needs to perfect his changeup and learn when to throw it, something that has to happen in cooperation with catcher Ramon Hernandez.

"You're not going to be successful with two pitches," Palmer added. "He needs to know when to throw the changeup ... and when it's just going to speed up a guy's bat. Bottom line, he's going to have to get some help behind the plate. He has to let [the hitters] know he has that pitch."

There are times when Cabrera can get by on raw talent and times when he can't, which explains the wide variance in his performance from game to game. He has the ability to overpower hitters when he can locate his fastball and breaking stuff, but he's just as likely to lose focus and unravel.

"Even when you have overwhelming ability, you still have to pitch," Palmer said. "You can't be successful day in and day out if you only throw. He's still at that point. When I talked to him [Thursday], he said he hasn't ever been really confident."

In terms of mechanics, Palmer, Mazzone and bullpen coach Bruce Kison worked with Cabrera on improving his balance on the mound and shortening his stride when he pitches out of a stretch.

"When you get that far out there with your front foot, you go from 6-foot-9 to 6-6," Palmer explained. "That's still a very tall pitcher, but you don't get nearly the leverage you get at 6-9."

Palmer was quick to concede that most of his observations were nothing new to Mazzone, who has been trying to get a handle on Cabrera for the past 18 months. But it may be helpful to hear them from someone else, particularly someone who pitched his way into the Hall of Fame.

"Don't think that Leo doesn't know this stuff," Palmer said. "He's very aware of it. He's very supportive."

Both know Cabrera still has a chance to be a special pitcher, but it's not like he's a special case.

"You pick up Baseball America and look at their Top 10 prospect lists and you'll see a lot of guys who throw like Daniel Cabrera ... 93-96 miles per hour, good breaking ball ... baseball is littered with people like that," Palmer said. "Doesn't mean he won't succeed and it doesn't mean he will. You've got to take those skills and make him into a good pitcher."

By all accounts, the bullpen brainstorming session went well. Tomorrow in Texas, we'll find out whether it made any difference.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Saturdays and Sundays.

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