Exactly what the Tigers have in Daniel Cabrera is far from any clarity, and just as far from safe speculation.
Is this a fourth outfielder who can become a roster-plus as he and his left-handed bat settle into a long, upward arc, which is what Cabrera and the Tigers hope, minimally, can be the case?
Is this an everyday left fielder with the knack for shooting doubles up the gap and an occasional pitch into the seats?
Or, is this a hitter who won’t much surpass the lamentable, unofficial Quadruple A ranks — neither a big-league nor a minor-leaguer, but someone who dabbles in both realms?
The Tigers can’t be sure as Cabrera sweats at Single-A West Michigan a year after they drafted him from Louisiana State.
Through the Whitecaps’ first 50 games, Cabrera is batting .273, with .327 on-base and .414 slugging percentages (.741 OPS).
That’s … well, OK. But it isn’t the style of offense big-league teams expect from a left-handed hitting outfielder, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, who was taken in the supplemental end (between second and third rounds) of 2020’s draft.
Neither would those four home runs, 10 doubles, and three triples be viewed by a MLB team as anything delectable — not after a couple hundred at-bats.
The Tigers figure they can, and must, wait. Cabrera is like all of 2020’s COVID collegiate talents. He had his junior season at LSU all but wiped out, then watched as the 2020 minor-league calendar was KO’d.
“The bat is going to be the key,” said Dave Littlefield, who directs player development for the Tigers. “He does everything fairly well. He’s just getting his feet on the ground in his first full season. We forget West Michigan is an advanced league (high Single A) now.
“Really, the ball’s in his court. But I think his bat will be fine.”
It’s probably a matter of power more than anything, and that isn’t as simple of a subject as adding extra-base hits and home runs.
Cabrera has averaged a speck under one strikeout per game in 2021. That’s a whiff percentage you can live with if a hitter’s slugging average is healthy. But minus power, and minus better secondary numbers across the board, Cabrera isn’t inclined to greatly help a big-league offense. Not as an outfielder, which is his exclusive position all the way.
As they say, it’s early, and for Cabrera it’s very early. The Tigers will practice patience.
“He’s just getting used to pro ball,” said Jeff Branson, the Tigers’ roving minor-league batting coach. “The strikeout thing, obviously, he’s got to get better at. How much power is he going to have? I’m not sure. Time will tell.
“I do think he’s a really good hitter who uses the whole field. There are some things we need to iron out to get more consistency, like getting the barrel out front.
“That not necessarily a matter of thinking about getting the ball more in the air, but he does have a high ground-ball average to the pull side.”
His manager, Brayan Pena, insists Cabrera’s qualities are broad and deep and a prelude to his bat catching fire.
“In my humble opinion, it’s just a matter of time,” Pena said during a Saturday conversation. “He’s a gap-to-gap hitter who takes advantage of what a pitcher gives him.
“If you’re playing a drastic shift, he’ll try and shoot the ball the opposite way. He’s a very smart hitter who obviously understands the game, which is what I think makes him special.
“He understands the count, he knows what he needs to do, and he’s always trying to use the whole field and hit that ball into the gap.”
It is why the Tigers won’t measure Cabrera through two months of high-A ball. But they do, reasonably, expect the strikeouts to lessen as a hitter’s power rises, or even surges.
And if that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be tough for Cabrera to ascend — and tougher for the Tigers to have justified spending a 62nd-overall pick on a modest outfield hitter.
Then again, what has been seen, thus far, isn’t greatly in conflict with last year’s Baseball America scouting report on Cabrera:
“Scouts have been infatuated with Cabrera’s swing since his prep days at Parkview Baptist High in Baton Rouge (Louisiana),” Baseball America wrote. “Known for his standout barrel control, bat path, and all-fields line drives in high school, Cabrera started to tap into more power over three years at LSU, highlighted by a 12-home campaign in 2019.
“Cabrera’s swing is simple and easy. Like his prep days, he’s still capable of hitting the ball to all fields, which has helped him stay consistent. While his raw power is more above-average than plus, and mostly to the pull side, he’s the sort of hitter scouts believe will tap into everything he has during games.
“His power numbers were more suppressed last summer (2019) in the wood-bat Cape Cod League, so how his power transfers to a wood bat in pro ball is the question.”
For that matter, it remains the question.
As the Tigers say, for Cabrera, the ball’s in his court.
Lynn Henning is a freelancer writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.