League switch could be boon to Melky

League switch could be boon to Melky

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the Braves traded Javier Vazquez to the Yankees in December, they quickly learned that many of their fans were not too excited about the fact that Melky Cabrera was the only Major Leaguer included in the return package.

Initial displeasure surrounding the deal was slightly diminished when some of those same fans came to understand the potential of 19-year-old right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who could prove to be the most influential portion of the return provided by the Yankees.

But while Cabrera certainly isn't the power-hitting slugger that fans were hoping to receive in exchange for Vazquez, Atlanta is excited about the value he could bring while serving as a versatile outfielder whose offensive potential may yet to have been realized.

"His power is going to come," said Braves utility man Eric Hinske, who played with Cabrera last year with the Yankees. "I think he hit 13 homers last year, but he's got 20-plus capabilities."

While playing with the World Series champion Yankees last year, Cabrera hit .274 with the 13 homers, racking up 10 stolen bases and sporting a .752 OPS. With a quick evaluation of the numbers, Braves manager Bobby Cox believes it's easy to understand why the versatile 25-year-old outfielder found himself overshadowed by the likes of of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

"When you hit .270 with 13 [homers] there, nobody talks about you," Cox said. "I like Melky. He's a solid outfielder, has a good arm, knows how to play the game and he's a great kid. He's a good leader, from what I've seen."

At first glance, it would be easy to look at the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Cabrera and mistake him for a catcher. But those who saw him patrol the Yankees' outfield the past four years certainly realize that he doesn't look anything like any of the Molina brothers once he starts racing toward fly balls.

"He was by far the best defensive outfielder we had," said Braves reliever Scott Proctor, who shared the Yankees clubhouse with Cabrera during the 2006 and '07 seasons. "When you're toeing the rubber, he's definitely a guy that you want to have behind you."

With Jason Heyward seemingly improving the odds that he'll begin the season as Atlanta's starting right fielder, it appears the switch-hitting Cabrera will likely begin the season sharing the left-field duties with Matt Diaz.

But with his versatility, the Braves envision Cabrera spending time at each of the outfield positions.

During the first two games of the Grapefruit League season, Cabrera has not had the opportunity to show whether he has the kind of power arm that Jeff Francoeur showed over the past couple of seasons in Atlanta.

But while batting leadoff and playing center field in Wednesday afternoon's 9-5 win over the Mets, Cabrera did display his speed while nearly beating out a first-inning grounder that was directed to the third-base side of the mound. Five innings later, he drew a walk to spark a four-run uprising.

"He's a guy that's going to put some good at-bats together," Proctor said. "He's going to hit to the situation and [be] a gap guy. He's just a good all-around hitter. It's going to be interesting to see how he fits in the National League. I think his talents are going to be better exposed in the National League than they were in the American League."

As a switch-hitter with strong defensive skills, Cabrera could certainly prove more valuable while being part of late-inning substitutions which are much more frequent in the NL. But at the same time, the Braves recognize that his background with the Yankees has given him a chance to be recognized as much more than simply a role player in Atlanta.

"He's just a gamer," Proctor said. "He just knows how to play the game the right way. He comes from a winning background, too, with the Yankees. So he knows how to play the game down the stretch. The pressure isn't going to get to him."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.