- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Randy St. Claire recalls a conversation he once had with Leo Mazzone, the longtime pitching guru who coached in both Atlanta and Baltimore, about Daniel Cabrera.

“Every time he takes the mound, he has the possibility of throwing a no-hitter,” Mazzone told St. Claire. “Every single time. His stuff is that good.”

Of course, Mazzone never could coax the ultimate pitching performance out of Cabrera during his two years with the Orioles. Neither could Ray Miller, another famed pitching coach who worked with the lanky right-hander.

So now it’s up to St. Claire to try to get the most out of Cabrera. Cast away by Baltimore after five inconsistent seasons, he’s now perhaps the key to Washington’s remade starting rotation.

“I think he’s going to be a valuable part of our team,” St. Claire said. “He’s got the capability of being a very, very good pitcher.”

For the $2.6 million they invested in him, the Nationals hope Cabrera proves valuable. For that to happen, he’ll have to overcome a career defined by inconsistency. Cabrera owns a 2.00 ERA in his 48 career major league wins and a 7.77 ERA in 59 losses.

The Nationals believe they can get the good Cabrera to emerge on a regular basis.

“First of all, Cabrera is a humble kid who is very coachable,” said manager Manny Acta, who managed him on the Dominican Republic team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. “I’ve seen his commitment. He wants to get better so bad.”

Second, members of Washington’s coaching staff believe a few tweaks to Cabrera’s mechanics will produce more-consistent results. St. Claire and assistant general manager Jose Rijo, a former All-Star pitcher, have studied video of Cabrera and said he struggles to take full advantage of his 6-foot-9 frame.

“Every time I see Cabrera throwing, he’s too tall,” Rijo said. “He doesn’t bend at all. It’s hard for a guy to throw a strike from that [position].”

Strike-throwing is Cabrera’s biggest bugaboo. He walks 5.11 batters per nine innings.

Mechanics aside, most believe there’s also a mental side to Cabrera’s lack of control. He has been known to get upset over a close call that doesn’t go his way, letting that fester in his head and keeping him from moving on to the next pitch or the next batter.

Cabrera said he doesn’t know if his control issues are more mental or physical.

“Believe me, if I knew, I wouldn’t walk all those people,” he said. “But that’s one of the things I’m trying not to worry about. If they walk, they walk. Fine. Try to get a double play.”

Cabrera is decidedly relaxed and confident for a pitcher whom the Orioles nontendered in December. Not willing to go to arbitration with the right-hander while enduring another up-and-down season, Baltimore decided to cut ties with the pitcher it once considered its future ace.

The Nationals pounced on Cabrera as soon as he became available, and Acta quickly named him one of three guaranteed members of his Opening Day rotation (joining left-handers John Lannan and Scott Olsen).

That show of confidence influenced Cabrera’s decision to sign with Washington.

“This is a good young team, and I know a lot of people here,” he said. “I think this is best place for me to be right now.”

The guaranteed job and salary, though, come with pressure. Cabrera was one of only two major league free agents the Nationals signed this offseason, along with slugger Adam Dunn, and the team expects a return for its investment.

This much the Nationals know: At some point this season, Cabrera will pitch a masterpiece. They can only hope he doesn’t bomb the next time out.

“I’m happy he’s here,” Acta said. “I think he’s going to turn the corner with us.”

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