Montgomery, Alabama —— It was easy for me to forget that Genesis Cabrera is still just 20 years old while watching him pitch in Double-A on Wednesday night for the Montgomery Biscuits. A left-handed pitching prospect of the Tampa Bay Rays, Cabrera is more than four years younger than his average Southern League competition this season, and yet he’s been holding his own in Montgomery with a 3-1 record and a 2.61 ERA over five starts here, to go along with 24 strikeouts against 11 walks in 31.0 innings pitched.
There’s quite a bit to like about the lefty, who is composed and mature beyond his years; the Rays like him so much, they’ve pushed him to Double-A already despite having just 263 career professional innings under his belt. Having seen him in person on Wednesday night now, though, I can’t help but wonder about Cabrera’s eventual ceiling and likely big league role. He was fine on Wednesday—two earned runs allowed on six hits and three walks over five innings with four strikeouts in a no-decision—and yet some subtle things point to the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays may one day be best served by having Cabrera work out of the bullpen as a situational left-handed reliever.
First, a few notes as background: Cabrera’s fastball isn’t overpowering right now, last night sitting 89-91 mph and topping out at 92 mph. There’s good life to it, though, with a lot of tail arm-side (although Cabrera struggled to stay on top of the ball and use that tail to his advantage, often flying open early and leaving pitches high and arm-side out of the strike zone). He couples it with three different off-speed pitches, including a slider-like breaking ball (scouting reports have called it a curve) at 73-74 mph, a cutter at 83-84 mph, and a changeup at 81-82 mph. The cutter may be a new wrinkle in his repertoire, and I actually liked that pitch the best last night; it has some giddyup to sneak in on a right-handed hitter’s hands, and the short, sharp break is both sudden and extremely late. Cabrera’s arm action sells the pitch, too, as it looks fastball all the way through his delivery and out of his hand.
The breaking ball, purportedly a curve ball, looks far more like a slider with a small hump and 10-to-4 break rather than a true curve you’d expect from a left-handed pitcher. The speed differential really sells the pitch, because it lacks the bigger break or wipeout movement you’d hope for in a curveball. Now that Genesis Cabrera finds himself in the upper minors, I think he’s going to struggle to consistently miss bats with it as it stands now. When it’s well-commanded down and glove-side he can get his fair share of weak contact, but that may not be enough to sustain him if his fastball command isn’t pinpoint. The changeup, his fourth pitch, showed flashes of lively arm-side run, but there’s not much tumble to it and the pitch is relatively flat out of his hand. (Though, to Cabrera’s credit, he sells the changeup as well as he does the cutter with good, consistent arm speed and action.)
Genesis Cabrera, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays — Bullpen Projection
So why my bullpen pronouncement for Genesis Cabrera? For one, while he’s not a max effort guy on the mound right now, he has the natural base upon which to become one in short stints. His arm speed is very good and his arm action clean and athletic; that coupled with some added muscle as he grows into his body (did I mention he’s just 20 years old?!) and the intent to throw max effort in short stints should be a very natural adjustment. If/when he makes that adjustment, he’ll see some more life on his fastball, and with the arm-side tail he has naturally on the pitch, even a modest velocity bump would be very effective. Couple that with Cabrera’s newfound cutter (that could also see a rise in velocity) and you’ve got a guy throwing hard stuff that runs in each direction, opening up the strike zone and getting hitters off balance. There’s no question Cabrera’s slider (Curve? Whatever) will play up, too, and if that pitch develops more tilt while sitting in the upper 70s or even low 80s, all of a sudden he’s got an offering that can legitimately miss left-handed bats down and away.
Obviously, for now, the Tampa Bay Rays would do well to keep Genesis Cabrera in Montgomery’s starting rotation, if for no other reason than to build up innings and experience for him in a low-pressure environment. He has taken to Double-A just fine in a very small sample size, and as much as I think his future is in the bullpen, I’m of the mindset that if a guy is throwing pretty well it’s wise to keep him in the rotation until he pitches himself out of it—whenever that may be.
And who knows—perhaps he’ll prove me wrong and then some by vastly improving his command of the fastball and feel for his off-speed stuff, and Cabrera will become a mid-rotation starter in the big leagues in a couple years’ time. That’d be wonderful to see for his is a good, young, athletic arm, but I think it’s probably more likely—and the Tampa Bay Rays could ultimately recoup more value–by eventually tossing Genesis Cabrera in the bullpen and let his stuff play up in short stints. If they do it right, and he takes to a max effort role like I think he’s designed to do, Genesis Cabrera could be extremely valuable to the Rays as a tough little lefty who—as you can already see—is unafraid of a challenge.
Genesis Cabrera, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays — Game Video
More than all my opinions, though, it’s instructive to watch Genesis Cabrera for yourself. Here’s our video of him throwing on Wednesday night for Montgomery at home against Pensacola:
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