Cabrera maturing nicely for Yanks
Youngster thriving as everyday center fielder for New York
Up and down the Yankees' bench, the most common gesture for Melky Cabrera is a sharp finger pointed toward the temple, reminding the precocious outfielder to throw to a correct base or be aware of certain game situations.
More and more, the index fingers have been dropping. Taking hold of the Yankees' starting center-field job with aplomb, the 22-year-old Cabrera is the one making others think -- pondering if he has staked his claim not just for this season, but the future as well.
"He's so good," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "It's like a breath of fresh air. He's so honest."
Make no mistake: despite his .302 batting average through play Wednesday, Cabrera is still far from a finished product. With a chuckle, Torre recalls the Yankees' July series at Baltimore when Cabrera watched a fat 3-1 pitch with a runner aboard, thinking that working a walk might be the correct course of action.
Cabrera grounded out in that at-bat, and after a brief bench admonition, he found himself in a similar situation innings later. This time, Cabrera ripped a hit up the middle; rounding first base, he peered into the visitors' dugout, and smiling, tapped a finger toward his helmet.
"He pretty much picked up where he left off last year," said shortstop Derek Jeter. "When he's in the outfield, it seems he's throwing a guy out every day, playing good defense. And he's swinging the bat now, the more he's been playing on an everyday defense. He adds speed; he's pretty much been doing everything good for us."
A spark to the offense down the stretch last season, Cabrera entered this year in an uncertain role. Somehow, Torre promised repeatedly on the sun-splashed diamonds of Spring Training, the Yankees would find at-bats for Cabrera -- even if no options appeared readily available.
Moderate action came early when Johnny Damon suffered painful calf cramps and Hideki Matsui pulled a hamstring on the first homestand, but it wasn't until Jason Giambi's crippling foot injury in late May that center field opened wide for Cabrera, with Damon's role adjusted to designated hitter for an extended period.
The Yankees knew Cabrera had energy -- frankly, almost too much, given his limited opportunities to explode. Finally, the 2007 Yankees would find out what Cabrera would lend to their lineup on a daily basis.
"When you get a young kid, it's like telling your 10-year-old son he has to sit down for two hours before he goes out and plays," Torre said. "The enthusiasm, when you finally get out there, it's like all over the joint. Now that he's played every day, he seems able to corral that a little more."
Starting 25 of 27 games in June, Cabrera batted .298 with a home run and nine RBIs, also legging out three triples. Along with the rest of the Yankees, he caught fire in July, starting 26 of 28 games and batting .368 with three home runs and 17 RBIs, playing a key complementary role in bringing the Bombers back into the American League Wild Card race.
"The difference is the playing every day and the good swings and working every day in the cage with [hitting coach] Kevin Long," Cabrera explained. "Good hitting comes."
Cabrera, who has worked hard to improve his English and now has confidence to engage reporters, said he will often be the thorn in Robinson Cano's side, urging the Yankees' other notable Baby Bomber to walk the concrete corridor and join Long in the Yankee Stadium batting cages.
Perhaps Cabrera should be credited with an assist for Cano securing AL Player of the Week honors twice in the last three award cycles.
"I talk to him every day, 'Vamos, let's go to the cage and hit,'" Cabrera said.
Long says Cabrera, following part of Alex Rodriguez's workout regimen, has shed about 10 pounds from his frame, helping his swing be tighter to the ball.
"He's been diligent in his work," Long said. "He works every day and has a good game plan of what he's going to do to each pitcher. For the most part, he's been swinging at strikes and getting good pitches to hit. For the most part, that correlates to success."
Cano said that during a road series -- he believes it was during the Yankees' trip to Chicago in June -- he shared a close moment with his close friend. If the languishing Yankees were to avoid a baseball-free October, both Cabrera and Cano would have to step up their production.
"I told [Cabrera] one day when we were struggling, 'We need to get on base. If you want to win, we have to get on base,'" Cano said. 'If those other guys don't find anybody on base, that's a different game. When you've got men on base, you do your job, no matter what.'"
Long says he has seen Cabrera come a long way in this year alone. Cabrera's 2005 outfield mishaps after a rushed promotion from Double-A have become but a mere footnote, even more distant in the Yankees' memories than the fact that Carl Pavano actually started on Opening Day in some alternate galaxy.
"It seems like, now, he impacts the ball a lot better," Long said. "It's more solid contact. He used to get more infield hits and maybe some more bloopers. It seems like nowadays, he's earning every hit he gets."
The ensuing results have made it difficult for the Yankees to envision taking the field without Cabrera in the lineup, even spurring Damon -- signed through 2009 -- to grapple for DH at-bats with Giambi and openly wonder where he fits into the club's plans.
General manager Brian Cashman balked at a trade proposal that would have delivered reliever Eric Gagne to the Bronx instead of Boston because the Texas Rangers insisted on netting Cabrera -- just one more indication of the outfielder's perceived value to the organization.
As Torre says fondly and succinctly, the kid has ability.
"We don't know how many home runs he's going to hit -- maybe 15 on a regular basis," Torre said. "But his ability to hit is just calm during key at-bats. I think that's pretty impressive. He showed us that last year, and I think he's doing a lot of that again."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.