One unofficial count had Cabrera with 32 pitches of 100 mph or higher through eight AFL appearances entering the weekend and the final week of games. That was about three-quarters of the total number of triple-digit pitches thrown by all pitchers in the prospect-laden league.
Cabrera has, in the baseball vernacular, “easy gas,” He throws very hard and does it without maximum effort.
“He can be unreal,” said Lucas Sims, one of the Braves’ highest-rated pitching prospects and a Peoria teammate this fall. “Just like all the guys here, if we had it figured out, we’d be in the big leagues. But we don’t, so … he’s been working hard. It’s been fun to watch.”
Cabrera, who turned 22 in September, has pitched five minor league seasons since signing with the Braves as a Dominican teen, including four seasons in the U.S. He reached Double-A for the first time last summer, his progression slowed by command issues. The Braves moved him from starting to relieving in his third season.
He has a 4.35 ERA in 113 career games (50 starts) in the minors, with 275 strikeouts and 174 walks in 322 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate has climbed as he’s grown and last season he had 53 strikeouts and 35 walks in 48 1/3 innings in 36 appearances, including 13 at Double-A Mississippi.
“He’s a special arm,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “He’s 98-102 (mph), but there’s not a lot of effort. He’s easy. It’s like he’s playing catch and, boom, 102.”
He’s still a work-in-progress, as his 6.97 ERA and .298 opponents’ average through Saturday against tougher competition in the AFL could attest. But when Cabrera is locked in and throwing strikes, his potential seems limitless.
After allowing six hits, five earned runs and one walk with only two strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings over his first two AFL appearances, Cabrera in his next six gave up six hits and three earned runs with four walks and 10 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings. He said he’s gained a lot from side work with Luckert.
“I’m working here on my fastball command, pitching down (in the zone),” Cabrera said, “and working on my breaking ball.”
Luckert said: “We’ve been working on minor stuff — staying closed in his delivery, direction to the plate and his fastball command, which is obviously something that he needs to improve. But he’s way better now than when he was during the season. He’s developing a breaking ball. He hasn’t been able to accomplish that in the past two years. He’s trying to develop a consistent breaking ball that can go along with the changeup.”
Cabrera’s changeup is a good one and the separation between his fastball and changeup is about 10 mph — a good range for most pitchers. But when you throw as hard as he does, it means his changeup is fastball velocity for many pitchers.
The Braves believe an improved curveball can be a difference-maker for Cabrera.
“Mostly, it’s to give him something a little softer, to take hitters off-balance a little more,” Luckert said. “The fastball runs 100 miles an hour and the changeup is 90-93, which is great, but we want something a little slower. Not that it’s going to be way slow, but in the games that he’s thrown it, he’s been around 83, 84 miles an hour. So that will give him a little bit more differential and a different view of the changeup, too.”