Editor's Note: This story appears in the July 30 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
It's not hard to argue that Miguel Cabrera is baseball's best young hitter.
With a .324 batting average and 18 homers at the All-Star break, the 24-year-old Cabrera is more than living up to the promise the Marlins saw when they paid him $1.8 million for his signature eight years ago after a fabled tryout on a dusty field in Maracay, Venezuela. Even now, in his fifth big league season, Cabrera is five days younger than the National League's hottest rookie, Houston's Hunter Pence. Life is good.
Except for one thing: Florida fans from Hialeah to Homestead are wondering if he's eating his way out of an all-time great career. When Cabrera brushed off a knockdown pitch and stunned Yankees ace Roger Clemens with a first-inning homer in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, the 20-year-old Marlin was listed at 6'2", 185 pounds. When he reported to camp this spring, according to credible sources, he weighed 260. His range and agility are clearly compromised; his 13 errors ties him for the lead among major league third basemen. Which raises the inevitable question: With a couple of big-money arbitration seasons looming before his walk year in 2009, how much is this going to cost Cabrera? "I doubt the weight will scare anybody," says an NL general manager. "The numbers speak!" So we'll let them.
Walking through the Marlins' clubhouse in late June, Cabrera is wearing a white tank top (snug) and a pair of gray sweats (tight).
He's tipping the scales at 250 these days, down a bit from March but still making it hard to imagine the lean body that once attracted so much attention in Maracay.
Baseball has a rich history of heavy hitters, from Babe Ruth to Prince Fielder. But Cabrera doesn't aspire to that. When Ozzie Guillén, his countryman, called him out recently, warning he ultimately may be perceived as "a fat boy from Venezuela," Cabrera was hurt but declined to lash back.
"If he says I have to lose weight," Miggy says, "then maybe I do."
The statistical website baseball-reference.com lists a group of players whom Cabrera most resembled at age 23: Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Joe Medwick and Mickey Mantle. All are Hall of Famers.
"I think he's one of those players who comes along only every 20 years," says Marlins utilityman Alfredo Amézaga. "He's different from the rest of us. He does things so easily. He adjusts to pitchers so quickly. To me, that's incredible, because the hardest thing to do in sports is hit. It appears that for him, it isn't." Cabrera jacked a walk-off homer in his first major league game, at age 20.
He was an All-Star at 21 and became a team leader at 22, when Florida's veteran players were traded en masse. In a game last year, he reached out and got the winning hit even though the pitcher was trying to intentionally walk him. By the end of the 2006 season, Cabrera was averaging .311 with 30 homers and 116 RBIs through his first four years. "A lot of times, people see him laughing and joking around on TV," says Marlins ace and good buddy Dontrelle Willis. "But I tell everyone he's a genius at this game."
Venezuela's signature fast food is the arepa, a cornmeal pocket stuffed with a savory filling, usually grilled in a light coating of oil. Depending on the filling, a snack of arepas can pack 550 calories or more. The arepa, rather than hard cheese, is Cabrera's weakness.
"People are worried about me," he acknowledges. "I don't have to take it negatively. You have to respectfully listen to advice. But right now I'm feeling fine. Hopefully, it doesn't affect me in the future."
When asked about Cabrera, several executives for other teams mention his reputation for enjoying South Florida's abundant night life. Cabrera says he spends most of his free time with his wife, Rosangel, and 1-year-old daughter, also Rosangel.
"Like any young guy, he's probably done some things where our organization has said, 'Hey, Miggy, take care of yourself,'" says Dan Jennings, the Marlins VP of player personnel. "I think everybody has to hear that in life. When you're a superstar, it probably gets magnified a little bit."
IN 2002, at Class-A Jupiter (Fla.), manager Luis Dorante made Cabrera step on a scale every morning when he arrived at the ballpark. Then, under the hot Florida sun, Dorante hit Cabrera hundreds of ground balls until the kid nearly collapsed. "When you work a lot in Florida, you're going to lose weight," Dorante says now. "I think he's going to beat it." Cabrera's agent, Fernando Cuza, says his client is trying to cut down on sugar and carbohydrates. Cabrera's goal: to get down to the 222 pounds that is supposed to be the ideal weight for a man his height. "When you're 18, 19 years old, you can eat all the sugar, rice and beans and everything you want," Cuza says. "But as you get older, you have to make certain adjustments."
Willis and Amézaga have taken advantage of an empty locker in the Marlins' clubhouse, opening the Martin Luther King/Julio César Chávez Grocery Store and selling goodies to teammates. Candy bars are $1, with the proceeds going to buy more sweets. Cabrera's locker is just a few feet away; he is, literally, a kid in a candy store.
Cabrera's zone rating -- the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his particular area -- has decreased from a high of .809 in 2003 to a career low of .736 this season. Last year, Marlins lefty Scott Olsen criticized him for playing lackadaisical defense. (Olsen later apologized.) "He's a large man and he's got reactionary quickness, and that's good," Jennings says. "I think he's working to maintain his body so it will allow him to stay at third. He's never going to be an Adonis. He's never going to be body beautiful. If he maintains his quickness and gets himself in the best shape he can, I think he's going to be fine."
Here is what's at stake, besides a young man's health: Cabrera's potential to sign a $200 million deal, joining A-Rod in the game's highest salary bracket. History says he'll have to go elsewhere to get it. "I'd love to stay here," Cabrera says. "Hopefully, we can keep this team together. It's a young team with a good future." He'll be worth more as a third baseman than as a first baseman or DH. But showcasing his strong arm will depend on the position he plays, which depends on how he takes care of himself.
"His weight is a major issue," says an American League GM, contradicting his NL counterpart. "Teams would also be concerned about his weight at the end of a long-term contract. He needs to make some lifestyle changes." If he does, the numbers will take care of themselves.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.