To be perfectly honest, I had no particular intention of paying much mind to Gustavo Cabrera in the Giants minor league camp. I suppose I've always been something of a Gustavo skeptic. When the July 2nd class of 2012 was shaping up it was Franklin Barreto who drew my fondest dreams of a big signing, not Cabrera. Though Gustavo was once memorably described as the most athletic 16 year old in the world, I liked the idea of Barreto's oft-described "advanced feel for hitting."
Now remember, I'm no scout. I'm not an amateur scout; I'm not even an amateur internet scout. I'm an enthusiast. With certain biases. So when the Giants signed Cabrera for $1.3 million, I deftly shifted my enthusiasm his way, but I still harbored doubts. That age 17 season in the DSL (.247/.379/.360 with 54 Ks in 229 PA) wasn't exactly announcing his presence with authority ("future major leaguers don't have such contact problems vs DSL level pitching!" I harumphed) but it wasn't without its charms. And he left it on a high note, getting half of his 13 XBH for the season in the final week of play, including his only 2 HRs. There were things to build on, things to dream on.
That winter, of course, came the awful incident, which Andy Baggarly covered so well in his recent article. "Gruesome" was the word Ben Badler used when the news broke. Gruesome. Horrible. Awful. And in my heart of hearts I thought "career ending." Even if he could recover his normal life, which itself seemed in question, how in the world would this prodigiously athletic, but raw young ball player ever make up for the lost development time?
And so I put Gustavo aside in my "prospect" mind. Godspeed, certainly. Best wishes, absolutely! But I put the thought of him as a baseball player aside.
It was Steven Duggar's BP I walked over to see. Duggar was on my list (more on Steven later). Gustavo was just in the same group. I was excitedly tweeting out a few things on Duggar's BP when I heard a loud report from the cage. Gustavo was swinging and he'd just hit a soaring drive out the opposite way to RF. I put my phone away. I watched. There were mishits, foul backs, but then there were the ones he laid into, with an easy, almost nonchalant-looking swing that nonetheless produced enormous speed and power. I wasn't sold. The solid hits were too few and far between, but still the one's he connected with...
Gustavo has some good raw. Not showing a great deal of barrel control in his BP right now. But ones he's barreling up do jump— Roger Munter (@rog61) March 24, 2016
That afternoon Cabrera had a PH appearance in the A+ game, and with a lightning quick stroke he lined a double to opposite field, cruising easily into second without ever bursting into the once famous speed. I casually wondered if it was still there.
I made a mental note to seek out Gustavo's BP the next day and got there bright and early. On the second day the A+ group, which Cabrera was working in, were on Field #1 where I could watch from the raised walkway coming out of the clubhouse. I took position. I watched. It was still uneven, as BP sessions often are, but then he'd catch one and it would soar.
Lots of power hitters in the cage, when they get ahold of one the ball first explodes out towards the fences in a rush, like the first second of a firework going off, gobbling up the distance as fast as they can before gravity begins inevitably to reassert itself on the ball's flight. Chris Shaw's balls are like this, for instance.
Gustavo's flies weren't like this. Not from where I was standing on my platform. They went up. Jack Clark used to hit balls like this. First up, as if to survey potential landing spots. I have a strong memory from about 1982 or 3, sitting in the Upper Box seats adjacent to 3b, and Clark hitting a ball seemingly straight up. It rushed past me, beyond the upper rim of the 'Stick. Geez, that's a major league pop up! I thought. But it didn't come down. At least not to any waiting infielders. The parabola expanded, and it went on beyond the OF, beyond the fence, beyond the left field bleachers, smashing up against the old Marlboro sign.
Gustavo's HRs in the cage were like this. He'd swing and the ball went up and I thought: "ah, got under it. Fly out." But no. They went up, and up and then... they'd simply lift off, seemingly liberating themselves from the constraints of this world. And fly away. Some of these balls, they were literally incredible: as in, I found it difficult to credit what I was seeing. A pop up, a flyout, but then the shaggers would turn their backs to me, they'd stop running, they'd tilt their heads toward the sky. It was ebullient to watch. I felt myself lifted. And suddenly, I became that guy from The Right Stuff:
Go, I whispered. Go, go, GO! I was incredulous. Watch Thomas Neal's double take here:
I know that double take. You thought you knew what you were seeing off the bat, but then you were seeing something else entirely. Tremendous soaring power. His final swing of the day landed out in the trees by Hayden Ave in a location that nearly defied description. I tried to explain over twitter what I'd just seen (though I needed a little photoshop help).
Coaches called the next group and it was over. But I'd be back. I wanted to watch this again. I came back. I stationed myself ahead of time. I watched. The next day he'd come within a couple of feet of hitting the lights on that same stanchion. I was hooked. Gustavo was not pushed aside. He was, unexpectedly, a joy to watch.
This isn't to make any sort of predictions (although I do believe that Gustavo will get a full season assignment next week). He has lost two years of development, he has missed two years of live hitting in games vs pitchers seeking to disrupt his timing and his balance. The one time I got footage of him in a game, after all, he was dispatched in three pitches:
No, I'm an enthusiast and I'm here to enthuse. In the final inning of the final game of my spring training vacation, Gustavo came up with 2 outs in a 3-2 game and rocketed a line drive up the middle tying the game at 3 apiece, and then on an overthrow at home plate, came the sudden burst of speed as he raced all the way to third. And as he flew around second I saw a shy smile begin to steal across his face. It was joy. He was having fun.
I had read Baggarly's article the previous night. I couldn't comprehend the work that went into getting him to this moment, the anguish. The unending, grueling efforts both physical and emotional required to bring him to this dazzling canter around the bases. And I thought: he deserves this. Gustavo deserves to stand in the field, and to run and swing in joy and happiness. I can't say at all that I deserved to be there to watch him. I had done nothing but put him out of my mind. But good god! I wanted to watch him, to appreciate him, to enthuse over him. I wanted to see that again!
Gustavo stood on third, a full smile on his face now. Unknowable, unseeable horizons stretched out ahead.
(Editor's note: did I know I had fancy slo-mo on my iPhone? Now I do!)