CLEVELAND -- The symbolism was that the ball came off the bat of Omar Vizquel. But the play made by Asdrubal Cabrera was magnificent enough to survive on substance alone. Two weeks back, in Chicago, Vizquel hit a liner off Indians reliever Joe Smith that Smith deflected with his glove. Cabrera had broken to his left, toward second base, but Smith's deflection sent the ball to his right. Cabrera acted on instinct, bare-handing the ball with his right hand, then flipping it behind his back to second baseman Adam Everett to start a double play. It might have been the defensive play of the season.
Vizquel, for one, would probably vouch for it. "I saw Omar," Cabrera said, "and he started laughing. He started pointing at me." This is where the symbolism kicks in. Time was, Vizquel was the one working such shortstop wizardry for the Indians at the ballpark then known as Jacobs Field and elsewhere around the league. These days, Cabrera is the one wearing Vizquel's old No. 13 and turning heads. But whereas Vizquel held more of a supporting role in one of the game's most lethal lineups, the 25-year-old Cabrera is the unquestioned offensive MVP of this surprising Tribe team. He is the reason the Indians have spent nearly two months in first place despite playing more than half their games without Grady Sizemore, losing Travis Hafner to an oblique issue and getting less than the expected contribution from Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana. "To me, arguably," said second baseman Orlando Cabrera, "he's the best shortstop in the American League." Of course, you wouldn't know that from the first batch of All-Star vote totals. Cabrera ranks second in the AL shortstop tally, which means his outstanding output has not gone unnoticed by the masses. But the fact that he trails an aging Derek Jeter, who is more than 200 points behind Cabrera in OPS, is a joke. What Cabrera has provided for the Indians this season, on the other hand, is no laughing matter. The staggering defensive gems are old hat. Cabrera, after all, is the guy who turned an unassisted triple play in 2008 and who managed, in a particularly memorable highlight last season, to look back one runner then throw out another, all from the seat of his pants. But his offensive production has been a revelation. The switch-hitting Cabrera entered the weekend series against the Rangers ranking third in the AL in hits (67), third in average with runners in scoring position (.458), fourth in runs scored (37), seventh in RBIs (39), 10th in slugging percentage (.534), tied for 10th in home runs (10), tied for 10th in doubles (14) and 12th in OPS (.894). The early -- and it's getting to be too late to use that term -- home run production is the shocker, for Cabrera had never previously hit more than six in a season. The elder Cabrera, who is not related to Asdrubal but nonetheless likes to refer to him as his "nephew," has been credited with the assist. After watching Asdrubal routinely pelt home runs in batting practice in Spring Training, Orlando encouraged the kid to start taking "one at-bat for himself" each game. "I don't tell that to everybody," Orlando said. "A lot of guys that I've played with, they tell me, 'I can be 30-30.' And I'm like, 'You are never going to be 30-30.' That's the way it is. You need to know what you are capable of. But a guy like him and Jose Bautista, you can tell when they have that raw power. You know that more than five times out of 10, they're going to hit the ball hard. Asdrubal's a guy that just needed that inspiration, that push." That sort of push can come from many sources. It is telling that an organization notorious for exploring long-term contracts with its core players before they reach salary arbitration ignored such a path with Cabrera. Throughout his Major League career, to date, there have been questions about his ability to maintain not only his batting average but also his physical condition. This season has provided Cabrera's first prolonged period of power and production on the offensive end, combined with range and reliability at short. And he's taken care of himself off the field, too. "Asdrubal is always going to have to work hard on his body and pay attention to it if he wants to stay at shortstop," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "To his credit, he's done a good job of that." Cabrera, acquired in the 2006 trade that gave the Mariners nothing more than the last 87 at-bats of Eduardo Perez's career, was an offensive spark at a time the Indians desperately needed one in the final playoff push in 2007. He arrived that August after spending most of the previous four months at the Double-A level, usurped the second-base duties from Josh Barfield and hit .283 in 45 games. But 2008 saw him struggle with his plate approach, as well as his weight. He was dispatched back to Triple-A for a couple months to work on both. A leaner Cabrera posted a solid 2009 season (.308 average, .799 OPS) in which he was finally cast in his rightful role at short, with Jhonny Peralta shifted to third. But a collision with Peralta last May resulted in a fractured forearm that cost him two months of action. He never really got on track after his return. What's happened this year, then, has been a welcomed change of pace. Cabrera was one of the many "if he comes" that came true for the Tribe. Without him, their unexpected rise to relevance likely wouldn't be. "I don't think too much about that," he said. "I just try to do the best I can, and we'll see what happens. It's a long season." Yes, it is, but it would appear there is plenty more in store for Cabrera. "Because he's been in the Major Leagues a while, Asdrubal is perceived to be a veteran player," Antonetti said. "But he's still only 25. He's just now entering his prime. He's developing strength physically, he's maturing as a hitter, and he's maintaining a consistent approach." For the Indians, he's the new Vizquel. With a lot more pop.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.