SARASOTA, Fla – When the Toronto Blue Jays decided to sign free agent Melky Cabrera to complete their total team makeover this past season they offered him a two-year $16-million contract, which he was pleased to accept.
“I was very happy to come here. Good players and good people,” says Cabrera, whose first language is Spanish. “Good team. Good pitching staff, some good hitting. Maybe the playoffs.”
But in addition to his contract they also offered him a chance.
Last season he hit .346 and was nearly a shoe-in for the National League batting title until he was slapped with a 50-game suspension for testosterone use on Aug. 15. He missed the last 45 games of the regular season and the post-season when the Giants elected not to activate him for their World Series run.
His positive test may have allowed the Jays to get him a little cheaper than they otherwise might have, but it also raised the question: How much of the success Cabrera has had the past two seasons — he hit .305 with 201 hits in 2011 in Kansas City — was him and how much was the PEDs?
His new manager John Gibbons thinks he’ll settle the debate pretty quickly.
“He’s just an all-around, complete good player,” says Gibbons, who was on the coaching staff with the Kansas City Royals in 2011. “A good hitter is a good hitter. Whether you’re getting help somewhere, you still have to be a good hitter to begin with.
“He’s always been a tough out from his Yankees days. He’s always been a tough out and a clutch performer. I remember in Kansas City if you wanted one person up when you needed something done, he was that guy. He’s got that knack.”
Still, he had never hit better than .280 or accumulated more than 149 hits before his breakout 2011 season. He hit .255 for Atlanta in 2010 and was released with complaints about his conditioning.
Now the opportunity exists for Cabrera to prove to the world and maybe to himself that his outstanding performance may have been drug aided but it wasn’t because of drugs.
“2012 is the past,” Cabrera says. “The suspension is the past. The focus is 2013 and to play every day with energy and play hard and take the opportunity to make the playoffs.
“(But) in the off-season I worked hard every day. I was in the gym doing agility work and hitting six days a week. I work every day in the cage on my mechanics, on making good contact. If I make good contact I get base hits.”
The problem with baseball’s PED era — which may or may not be over — is that it creates the impression among those who may not be immersed in the sport that it’s the drugs doing the hitting.
This is not the case, which may be why Cabrera — who has been publicly repentant but has otherwise said little about his use of PEDs — has been welcomed on a club that is hoping to make a serious run at the post-season this year.
“He’s going to bring the same ability he did last year,” Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis said. “What he has is a mindset to hit a ball. So that’s what he’s going to do. The drugs and everything are one thing, but you still have to have the mind to hit. They don’t talk about the guys who got caught (using PEDs) who are stuck in the minor leagues or don’t do anything (with the bat) they don’t talk about those guys. They only talk about the guys in the spotlight.”
Cabrera is hardly the spotlight-seeking type. He’s friendly but generally quiet. He mixes mostly with the other Spanish-speaking players on the team. One of the reasons he chose the Blue Jays was his comfort level with fellow Dominicans Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes.
But his bat spoke loudly in 2011 and even louder in 2012. However he felt about being caught, his embarrassment about the subsequent clumsy attempted cover-up — a consultant for his agent was found to have set up a website for a supplement maker to make it appear that Cabrera had taken the PED’s inadvertently — and any details about when he began using PEDs have gone unanswered.
He made a brief statement at a press conference at the start of training camp apologizing for his past, but pledged to no longer talk about it and has stuck to his guns on that front.
“The suspension was 2012. I’m focused on 2013 and on the playoffs,” he said Thursday before going 1-for-4 while playing centre field for Toronto in their 12-9 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
He’s hitting .280 in 25 at-bats this spring and has won over his teammates and coaches with proof that whatever success he’s had in recent years didn’t come out of a bottle alone.
“He’s got a simple swing, but what’s more impressive is what he does behind closed doors in the cage,” Blues Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “That’s what impresses me more. He doesn’t have an ego when he’s in there. He does very simple things and has a plan.
“A guy like (Jose) Reyes can do things that amaze you. He can do things that other guys can’t do that he was just born with. But Melky works at it every day and it’s impressive. I don’t see any reason he won’t have solid year.”
Which will be the ultimate measure of Cabrera the man and the baseball player.
His name has become synonymous with those that have cheated the game. The 2013 season becomes his chance to prove that his success is more attributable to what he puts into his game, rather than whatever PEDs he decided to take.