DUNEDIN, Fla. – For six months Melky Cabrera wondered about the mysterious cause of the pain in his legs. It hurt to sit on the couch, let alone play baseball, so as he sat in the Clearwater office of Dr. Christopher Mickler last August, wife Joanna at his side, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder was desperate for an answer.
When it came, a fear he had never previously known struck. There was a tumour on his spine, surgery to remove it was imminent.
“I thought I was going to die,” Cabrera recalls in an interview. “I thought about my family, my daughter (19-month-old Meliannie), everybody. The doctor told me it was going to be a small procedure, in and out.”
Relief didn’t come until the Aug. 30 surgery took place, and the walnut-sized tumour was found to be benign. Though there was a four-inch gash in the centre of his back – scarred over it looks like a suitcase zipper – Cabrera needed only a couple of days to start feeling loose and mobile.
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“Everything just relaxed,” he explains, “and my body felt normal again.”
Back at spring training for his second season with the Blue Jays, Cabrera feels better than normal. The 29-year-old says his body is strong and his mind is free, leaving him primed for a big season.
For sure there is no certainty about what kind of player he will be, the tumour making last year’s 88-game sample size no indicator of the performance level to expect from him after his suspension for performance-enhancing substances in 2012.
But there’s no arguing how much a recovery from Cabrera is needed. The Blue Jays’ cumulative OPS of .667 from their left-fielders in 2013 was 28th in baseball, better only than the Marlins and the Giants. A significant step toward the .790 posted by Boston or .745 by Tampa Bay will help close the gap in the AL East standings.
“It’s different because now I feel 100 per cent, I have no pain in my body, I can go out and play my game,” Cabrera says of the difference in his mindset, in comments interpreted by third base coach Luis Rivera. “I want to produce, I want to be a good teammate, I want to have a good year, help the club win and go to the playoffs.”
The Blue Jays would certainly love for that scenario to play out, but there are also pivotal big picture issues at play.
Cabrera, like centre fielder Colby Rasmus, is eligible for free agency in the fall when his $16-million, two-year contract comes to an end, leaving Jose Bautista as the club’s only experienced outfielder under contractual control for 2015 and beyond.
Those will be two difficult spots to fill via trade or free agency, and it’s uncertain whether prospects Anthony Gose, Moises Sierra and Kevin Pillar will be ready to step up in their place.
So if Cabrera becomes the impact two-hole hitter GM Alex Anthopoulos envisioned, he’ll give the Blue Jays an interesting decision to make.
First things first, however, and it’s on Cabrera to silence the people who tied his decline last season to his drug suspension, and until he performs well those doubts will linger. But it’s worth noting that hitting essentially with his upper-body only, he posted a .279/.322/.360 slash line in 372 plate appearances.
“I always felt pain in my legs, and the pain didn’t allow me to make any rotations, I wasn’t myself,” Cabrera says. “I was in pain wherever I was, at home, at work. But I came here to play and I didn’t want to get out of the lineup.”
Beyond gains in his offence, the Blue Jays are expecting more from his defence, too.
Often times last year he looked a sack of cement with legs roaming the outfield, and catchable balls that dropped in hurt the pitching staff. If he shows enough improvement in his mobility this spring, he may end up with the occasional start in centre field on days Rasmus needs a break.
“Ideally, he could be the guy to do it,” said manager John Gibbons. “Whether physically he can do it or not we don’t know yet. … When we start the games we’ll have a little better idea. He was a pretty good centre-fielder a couple of years ago when I had him in Kansas City.”
The Blue Jays first became concerned about Cabrera toward the end of spring training, when his range began to erode. That’s also when the pain in his legs started, although at first he attributed it solely to a buildup of soreness from spring training.
An MRI in May didn’t reveal anything and neither did any of the tests conducted during his two stints on the disabled list. Turns out they were looking in the wrong place, and Cabrera was reluctant to complain.
“I always like to play,” he says. “I was born to play and I hate sitting on the bench. Pain or no pain I’m going to play, it doesn’t matter, it’s not going to stop me from being in the lineup.”
After the surgery, Cabrera was shown the tumour and felt “surprise” at how big it was. Also surprising was how quickly he recovered – he started working out with five-pound weights just 10 days after the surgery.
By December he returned to Tampa from the Dominican Republic and started working out with Bautista, lifting weights, flipping tires, pushing cars and doing resistance sprints with parachutes.
“He’s way stronger than I am, physically,” praises Bautista. “Hopefully the removal of the tumour from his back is going to allow him to gain that lower extremities strength that he was lacking last year, and the ability to move, be relaxed and mobile instead of being all tight and sore in the legs.
“That’s going to help him tremendously, and he can focus on playing.”
Cabrera’s workouts were monitored by Dr. Mickler, and just a week and a half ago he was given clearance to go all out during spring training. At this point, the tumour appears to be completely behind him.
“Last year was a tough year,” says Cabrera. “Thank God that everything was OK, I feel great right now, my body feels great, no pain, nothing.”
The riddle of his physical pain resolved, it’s time for Cabrera to show the Blue Jays who he really is on the field.