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Back where he belongs

Cabrera back where he belongs

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JUPITER, Fla. -- Getting full-squad workouts under way Wednesday morning placed slugger Miguel Cabrera back where he is most comfortable: on the baseball field.

One of the league's elite hitters, Cabrera was back laughing and joking around with his teammates while getting his work in.

After stretching and taking part in fielding drills, Cabrera got his bat and took some batting practice off live pitching. In a group with Mike Jacobs and Aaron Boone, Cabrera first faced Yusmeiro Petit and then Jose Garcia.

When the hitting sessions ended on the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium, Cabrera was mobbed by autograph-seeking fans as he advanced from one field to the next. As he walked slowly, he signed as many autographs as he could before continuing to take his hacks in the cages.

Now the highest-paid Marlin, Cabrera invariably assumes a leadership position on the young club.

"For me, there are vocal leaders and guys who go out there and do it and the guys who follow them," new manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's a guy who goes out and plays. For me, if you go out there and play every day, that's a guy who is a leader.

"The coaching staff here that was here from last year -- and they know him -- they say he's a great guy in the clubhouse. He goes out and leads by example."

Still only 23, the native of Venezuela recently won an arbitration hearing that awarded him a $7.4 million salary for 2007. Teammate Dontrelle Willis is second on the team's payroll hierarchy after signing a $6.45 million deal.

The two young superstars are the faces of the franchise. And Cabrera, who is eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, is hopeful to remain a Marlin for a long time.

"I want to be here. I want to play with this team. I don't know what they're going to do. But I love this team," Cabrera said. "This is a franchise that gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues. They gave me the opportunity to sign in pro ball. They gave me a lot of chances to play at this level. That's why I want to stay here. I want to help this team make the playoffs. I want to live here."

The team's ability to sign stars like Cabrera and Willis long-term hinges largely on the efforts to secure funding for a new stadium. Progress is being made on the stadium front, but the rising costs for star players makes signing them more difficult.

Asked about the importance of a new stadium in terms of keeping the team together, Cabrera said: "It's very important. If we get a stadium, it will be better for the team. I think we're going to have a lot of fans, and everything would be better."

Called up from Double-A at age 20 in 2003, Cabrera played half a season as a rookie and was instrumental in the Marlins winning the World Series.

In each of his first three full big-league seasons, he's been voted into the All-Star Game by his peers.

Posting huge numbers is commonplace for the slugger who turns 24 on April 18. He batted .339 with 26 home runs, 50 doubles and 114 RBIs in 2006.

In 2006, Cabrera finished second in the National League batting-title race to Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez.

"He can do as much as he wants to," Willis said. "He's that good. He's our Manny Ramirez -- top five every year in the MVP voting. It's fun to watch. I set the bar very high for him because he's that smart, he's that strong and he wants to be one of the great ones."

His productivity is astounding when you consider he plays in a park that is pitcher friendly, coupled with the fact he was surrounded by rookies in 2006. Frequently either pitched around or dealt with carefully, Cabrera stayed focus on taking what the situation offered.

Rarely did he overextend his swing in hopes of delivering the big hit last year. If he was pitched away, he took the single to right field rather than attempting to pull the ball for a homer.

One of Cabrera's objectives in 2007 is to cut down on his 108 strikeouts from a year ago. That number already has decreased over the years. In 2004, he fanned 148 times, and in 2005 the number was trimmed to 125.

"I have to make more adjustments at home plate, be more patient and not swing at a lot of bad pitches that I used to," he said. "I want to drive in more runs to the plate. I want more RBIs, that's what I want."

Cabrera enters camp under a bit of controversy. Recently, the slugger missed some fan-related functions in South Florida.

After playing Winter League ball in Venezuela, he remained home and didn't attend an awards dinner and FanFest at Dolphin Stadium.

The team expressed that it was disappointed that he three-time All-Star was not on hand. Apparently, there was a breakdown in communication, because Cabrera said he had some personal matters, including the health of his father, to tend to in Venezuela.

That message wasn't delivered to the team.

With the FanFest flap and arbitration behind him, Cabrera and the team insist there are no hard feelings.

"We've talked, and they know I missed it because of my dad," Cabrera said. "I know they understand that. That's over. My job is to play baseball.

"I love this team because they gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. I love this team, and that's why there are no hard feelings. I love it in Miami, and I want to stay here."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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