Braves prospect Cabrera brought 102-mph heat to Arizona

Hard-throwing — make that extremely hard-throwing — Braves prospect Mauricio Cabrera created some buzz in his first few outings in the Arizona Fall League. But it was during an Oct. 28 home game in Peoria when scouts really started scribbling notes and sending texts about what they were seeing.

Pitching for the Peoria Javelinas, Cabrera didn’t just hit triple-digits with his fastball. He threw 102 mph multiple times during a perfect inning with two strikeouts against the Salt River Rafters. At least one scout clocked a 103-mph pitch from Cabrera that day and others have reported 103-mph readings from him on a few other occasions.

“Oh, yeah, he got guys’ attention,” said Gabe Luckert, the Braves’ Single-A Rome pitching coach, who has served in that capacity for Peoria this fall. “He struck out the first batter on four pitches and three of them were fastballs — all 100 miles an hour. You could look back and see all the scouts looking at each other and checking the radar guns. It was great. It was amazing to see.”

Former Phillies scout Therron Brookish, who has filed weekly scouting reports from the AFL for Baseball America, was at Peoria that day.

“Scouts at the Arizona Fall League get used to seeing pitchers throw in the mid-90s, especially right-handers,” Brookish wrote. “When Mauricio Cabrera unleashes his first pitch at 99 mph, that gets some attention from scouts in attendance. Cabrera sat at 100-102 mph in his outing Wednesday against the Rafters. Built similar to Joba Chamberlain, Cabrera is a strong, thick-bodied righthander with a power arm. Throwing effortlessly from a three-quarters slot, he dialed up 102 on four to five pitches, routinely reaching triple digits.”

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.”