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'I'm going to surprise some people': Tigers draftee Daniel Cabrera poised to quiet critics

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – Wearing No. 8 on the back of your jersey for the storied LSU baseball program is the equivalent of having the letter "C" on your sweater in hockey. You have been designated, in LSU’s case by your teammates, as their leader.

That tradition at LSU started with former Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook. Last year, the honor was bestowed on a new Tiger outfielder, Daniel Cabrera.

Daniel Cabrera

“Once a Tiger always a Tiger,” Cabrera beamed during a Zoom conference with Detroit media on Friday.

It didn’t take long – just a 10-minute chat – to understand clearly why LSU coach Paul Mainieri wholeheartedly sanctioned Cabrera’s captaincy. He carries himself with a quiet, almost humble confidence and a maturity beyond his 22 years.

But there is an intensity roiling just under the surface. Tattooed on his forearm in big, dark letters is the word Familia with a couple of sentences in Spanish inked underneath.

“Yeah, just family,” he said. “They are the one that don’t judge and they are the ones you can trust. I had it done in Spanish for my father.”

You sense there might be a chip on his shoulder. Possibly it’s because he was expected to be a first-round pick and he slid all the way through the second round and into the compensatory pool – happily scooped up by the Tigers with the 62nd pick.

“What’s going on with the world right now is a little bigger than baseball,” he said. “It’s tough to say you want to be selfish and you want to play. With the quarantine, you just want to be safe. I just tell myself to control the controllables. I try to take something positive out of every situation.

“The draft was only five rounds and I guess everybody had their own approach. I am more than thrilled to be picked by an organization like the Tigers.”

Maybe it's just dogged determination. He’s heard the doubters and maybe that’s providing some fuel. Limited defensively. Not that athletic. Doesn’t run great. To which he says, just wait and see.

“I’m a lot more athletic than people think,” he said. “When we start playing again, they’ll see that.”

He’s spent his time during the shutdown training, like a demon. He’s added five pounds of muscle, up to 200, on his 6-1 frame. He finished off one recent workout by doing deadlifts – six reps of 450 pounds. Mercy.

“I’m stronger than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I will be able to swing a bigger bat. My arm strength has gotten a lot better. I’ve been running a lot, throwing, hitting. I feel like whenever it’s time to play, I’m going to be ready and I am going to surprise some people.

“Until then, I am going to keep working and making myself better.”

Daniel Cabrera: “I’m a lot more athletic than people think. When we start playing again, they’ll see that.”

The only surprise for the Tigers would be if he didn’t hit, they are counting on him to hit.

“We’ve got a lot of history with his bat,” said Tigers director of amateur scouting Scott Pleis. “It’s always been good. He’s going to be an everyday left fielder. He’s got power, he uses the whole field. He’s not a runner but he runs good enough. … A left-hitter with power, he’s going to be a special player.”

Cabrera has been considered special since he opted not to sign with the Padres out of high school and stepped into a starting role at LSU as a freshman in 2018, hitting .315 with eight home runs and 54 RBIs. In the summer of 2018, he played and started on Team USA ahead of a guy named Spencer Torkelson, who the Tigers’ drafted with the first overall pick in the draft last Wednesday.

Cabrera hit fourth on that team, sandwiched between two players who went No. 3 (Andrew Vaughn, White Sox) and No. 1 (Adley Rutschman, Orioles) in the 2019 draft. And he batted .300 with team-high five multiple-hit games.

“I got a text from Tork,” Cabrera said. “He said, ‘Let’s go! I’m excited to play with you again.’”

Cabrera finished his career at LSU with a .305 average and a .392 on-base percentage. High-end projections are that he could be the kind of hitter that seems to be going extinct – a power hitter with a high average. He doesn’t have a dramatic launch angle, he doesn’t have to pull the ball to hit it far and he’s adept at and willing to hit the ball to all fields.

As former Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson said on MLB.com, Cabrera’s ability to get the barrel on high fastballs will also serve him well.

“Pitchers love spin rate and they love living up there and Daniel has already shown that he can get to it and handle that pitch," Granderson said. "He's a hitter that doesn't swing and miss very much with a low strikeout rate." 

Cabrera’s approach to hitting is more George Brett than Cody Belanger.

“I’ve always approached it like you have to be a good hitter first,” Cabrera said. “You have to make contact before you can hit the ball a long way. I feel like if you can square it up, the ball is going to go. So I’ve always wanted to be a hitter first, knowing the power is going to come.”

So the Tigers' stable of LSU-bred talent continues to grow, which is no accident since general manager Al Avila’s relationship with Mainieri goes back 40 years. Cabrera joins fellow Baton Rouge Tigers JaCoby Jones and minor-leaguer pitchers Zack Hess and Alex Lange.

“I’ve been working out with those guys, Mikie Mahtook has been there, too, at the Baton Rouge training facility, and I am just super excited to get started,” Cabrera said. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about the organization and how first-class they are.

“I am really excited to see where it goes.”

The Tigers are, too.

Twitter @cmccosky