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Cabrera's potential tantalizes Tribe

Cabrera's potential tantalizes Tribe

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Indians have to keep Fernando Cabrera on their Opening Day roster, or else expose him to waivers.

It's the exact situation the club was in with Cabrera, who is out of Minor League options, a year ago.

But pardon the Indians if they hope for better results this time around. Last year, Cabrera's 5.19 ERA in 51 appearances out of the bullpen was hardly what the team was looking for.

Still, the Tribe feels too strongly about Cabrera's potential to let him slip away to another club. That's why you can reckon he'll again be in the 'pen.

"You can count on his effort, and you can count on the fact that has swing-and-miss stuff," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "He has the type of stuff that if he can get ahead in the strike zone, he can put people away. Those guys are hard to find."

In entering his second full season in the big leagues, Cabrera knows he better find a way to capitalize on his potential in a hurry.

"I've got to do my job," he said. "It's not about developing anymore. I have to make sure when I get my chance, I'm ready."

When it comes to the 25-year-old Cabrera, the Indians don't have a short memory. They have not forgotten how dominant he was at the end of the '05 season, when he put up a 2-1 record and 1.47 ERA in 15 games.

"He really stepped up and picked our bullpen up for a significant length of time," Willis said.

That, however, was the Cabrera who didn't find himself in many 2-0 and 3-1 counts. The guy who showed up last season did.

To combat the problem, the Indians sent Cabrera to the Puerto Rican Winter League to fine-tune his mechanics. The club wants to see him stay more centered on the mound and be more relaxed in his delivery.

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But where the 25-year-old Cabrera really needs to relax is his own mind. He admitted he let his contractual situation affect him last season.

"Last year, I think I thought about that too much," he said. "I wanted to be on the team from the first day. Sometimes, you want to try too much to earn that spot. This year, I know I'm in the same situation, but I don't think about it."

The Indians think Cabrera, by virtue of his mid-90s fastball and deceptive splitter, can someday emerge as a late-inning option in their 'pen, perhaps even in a closing role. For now, he has to master middle relief.

When the Tribe traded veteran closer Bob Wickman last summer and tried Fausto Carmona out in the closer's role, Cabrera knew that should have been his opportunity to seize. But his struggles early in the year didn't make that even a consideration.

Cabrera learned quite a bit from the trying season. Most notably, he learned to appreciate its length.

"No matter how bad it's going, you still have time to make a comeback," he said. "The numbers don't show it, but I feel like in the last two months of the season I did a better job."

Actually, the numbers do show Cabrera had a fine August. He pitched 11 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in that month and struck out 18 batters from Aug. 11-Sept. 2. But he flared up again in September, giving up eight runs over his last eight outings.

"I need to be more consistent," he said.

One consistency in Cabrera's corner the last couple years is the Indians' unwavering belief that he'll pan out as planned, and that this business of holding onto him in a bullpen that needed and received an overhaul will be faith rewarded.

"I truly believe he can do it," Willis said. "But he's in the process of proving to himself that he can do it on a consistent basis."

Anthony Castrovince 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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