Asdrubal Cabrera accomplished a rare feat the past two years. He was one of the Indians’ best players and made consecutive All-Star Games, yet he still managed to draw criticism — most notably for fading down the stretch.
Now in what he calls the best shape of his career, and with a legitimate supporting cast, Cabrera is bent on reversing the trend that left a sour taste at the end of solid seasons.
“That’s the thing I’ve got in my mind right now. I want to keep doing what I do in the first half,” said Cabrera, the 27-year-old shortstop. “I know it’s a long season. That’s why I worked a lot this winter to start strong and finish as strong, too. I know the last two years, the second half was not really good for me. I’m working on that.”
Cabrera’s second-half slides have been alarming, to say the least. He hit .244 with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs in 2011 after batting .293 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs in the first half. Last season he hit .251 with five homers and 26 RBIs in the second half, after .286, 11 homers and 42 RBIs prior to the break.
It’s one of the reasons the Indians seemed willing in the offseason to trade Cabrera. Even though he has been a staple of Cleveland’s lineup since the end of 2007. And signed a two-year contract extension worth $16.5 million a day before the season began last year.
Along with closer Chris Perez and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Cabrera was one of Cleveland’s high-profile players rumored to be available. But Choo ultimately was the only one dealt, sent to Cincinnati in a multiplayer trade that included Arizona.
“I was feeling bad when I started to hear those comments,” said Cabrera, a career .279 hitter over five-plus seasons who hit .270 in 143 games in 2012. “I was feeling really bad, because I signed a contract with the organization, because I want to stay here. When you start hearing that, I called (general manager) Chris Antonetti and asked him what was happening. He told me, ‘Hey, Cabby, that’s all rumors.’ He said if something happens I’d be the first guy he called. He said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Don’t think about that.’
“As soon as he told me that, I forgot about all those comments that people and the media were saying. This is the team that gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues. I feel like I want to be an Indian all my career.”
Theories to why Cabrera hasn’t been the same player in the second half are prevalent. They include weight issues he has dealt with for much of his career. Some also feel he became disinterested upon the Indians falling out of contention.
“It could be part of it, for sure,” manager Terry Francona said. “I think guys just wear out. They’re trying so hard to be good and maybe the team is struggling, and things get tough. Hopefully, we won’t have to deal with that this year.”
Perhaps motivating Cabrera is the flurry of offseason moves the Indians orchestrated. Respected veterans Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds will help fill the lineup, rather than Brent Lillibridge and Shelley Duncan.
Though Cabrera might not have to carry the bulk of the load anymore, his manager doesn’t want him holding anything back.
“I don’t want to downplay his contributions to the team,” Francona said. “We brought in some really good players, but he’s really good, (too). I think it complements him. I don’t know that I want to take the burden off him. I want him to have some burden. I don’t want Asdrubal to back off. This guy’s an All-Star-caliber player. He’s that good.
“He’s as important as anybody. He’s been there. He’s been so good. It sounds like the bigger the game or the bigger the moment, the more he seems to want to be part of the action.”
Francona managed against Cabrera in the 2007 American League Championship Series — Cleveland’s last trip to the playoffs.
“He was a young kid and he got called up and was a really big part of what (the Indians) did,” said Francona, whose Red Sox eliminated Cleveland, then won the World Series. “And then being on the other side and thinking, ‘This kid’s a player.’ He’s just a baseball player. He just has a feel for the game. It just comes second nature to him.”
Playing in October once again, this time with Francona on his side, is what drives Cabrera this year.
“Hey, 200 percent,” Cabrera said with a smile. “I want to be there again. That’s one of the best moments I’ve had in Cleveland and in the big leagues.
“When you make the playoffs, it’s like you’ve done your job for the team. I’ve got that moment in my mind all the time and I want to be there again.”
Please pick up today’s Chronicle in print for more Indians preview coverage.
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