"I've been telling him since Day 1 -- him, [Hector] Rondon, all of them, I told them, 'Look, if you want to ask somebody about not knowing where you're going, just ask me,'" Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva said Sunday. "I've been the 25th guy a lot of years."
Cabrera has pitched in the big leagues before, getting a promotion in August 2012 and again last September. But he's never made an Opening Day roster. The Cubs had a lot of pitchers in camp early, and Cabrera wasn't getting in games. He was worried.
"He was a little frustrated at the beginning, because he wasn't pitching as much as he wanted," Villanueva said. "I said, 'Look, there's nothing you can do to control that. You need to know the facts -- the facts are you know what you have and you know you have no options. Your option is whenever you get the chance to pitch, you go one-two-three, and every time you go out there, you do a good job.'"
If Cabrera felt the Cubs weren't paying attention, they are now.
"[I told him], 'If you go out there and throw eight, 10, 12 innings and give up one run and punch out 12, somebody's looking at that,'" Villanueva said. "There are scouts everywhere. If there's no room on this team, there will be room somewhere else. That's the mentality you need to have. You can't be, 'Oh, what's going to happen?' You can't worry it away. That's not going to help."
Cabrera has the right mindset. In eight games, he's given up one run on three hits, three walks and struck out six over nine innings for a 1.00 ERA. He's also finished four games.
"I just have to keep working," Cabrera said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but for me, I work hard and I keep working, pitching. I feel good. I know I have to keep working. If I don't do my job, I don't think anything good will happen, but if I do my job, something good will happen."
The Cubs have 17 pitchers still in spring camp, although Kyuji Fujikawa and Jake Arrieta will likely open the season on the disabled list, and James McDonald (shoulder) won't be ready for the start of the season. Four of the starters are set -- Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood -- and Villanueva or Chris Rusin could take over the fifth spot.
Jose Veras is the closer, and the pitchers who will set up the right-hander include James Russell, Wesley Wright and Pedro Strop. Villanueva will either be in the rotation as the fifth man or be in the bullpen, and that leaves Cabrera competing for one of the final spots with Rondon and Justin Grimm.
If Villanueva is in the rotation, that could create three openings, and Cabrera, Rondon and Grimm all make it. Wright and Strop also are out of options.
"I don't know if being out of options is the defining factor of somebody's thinking," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said of the roster. "I think their performances dictate that."
Cabrera has been used as both a starter and reliever in the Minor Leagues, and last season, at Double-A Tennessee, he was named to the Southern League All-Star team. He was 9-3 with a 3.20 ERA in 18 games with the Smokies, then promoted to Triple-A Iowa, where he was used strictly in relief.
"From what I gather, he looks very similar to how he looked a couple years ago," Renteria said of Cabrera, who has looked sharp some seasons, and struggled in others. In 2012, pitching strictly in relief, he compiled a 3.11 ERA in 36 games at Tennessee and Iowa.
This offseason, Cabrera was a regular at the Cubs' new academy in the Dominican Republic, working out three or four days a week there. His younger brother, Mauricio, 20, is in the Braves' organization and also is a pitcher.
Villanueva has seen improvement.
"What can you do with him? He's a kid who can help you," Villanueva said. "He is going to make it hard for the front office to make a decision, and that's all you can do. After that, you can't control what comes after that.
"You have to trust that whatever happens was supposed to happen," Villanueva said. "He made it difficult for them and he's done a great job. If I'm him, I can go to bed at night happy, because there's nothing more you can do. I'm proud of him. Hopefully, he can carry it through the season."
Cabrera appreciates the support from Villanueva and others.
"He's good people, a good teammate," Cabrera said of the veteran. "If they have people like that, 'Villa,' Rusin, they help the young guys -- Samardzija, too."
"Keep working," Cabrera said. "If you keep working, something good will happen."