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Cabrera Ready To Start Earning Salary

Miguel Cabrera crouches on the grass near the third-base dugout and begins rooting through his equipment bag.

Helmet? Check. New batting gloves? There they are. Bat? Yep.

He's ready to hit. And with a new $7.4 million contract, Cabrera will finally earn a slugger's salary this year.

Cabrera was the first player in the batting cage Wednesday during the Florida Marlins' initial full-squad workout _ perhaps the last time he leads off this season. The All-Star third baseman will make nearly 16 times his 2006 salary because he drives in runs.

"He's our Manny Ramirez," Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis said. "It's fun to watch. I set the bar very high for him. He's that smart, he's that strong and he's that talented, and he wants to be one of the great ones."

Cabrera went 0-for-3 in the cage but said all the right things on his first day at camp, trying to distance himself from a minor tempest nearly two weeks ago when he failed to show for a Marlins' promotional event.

General manager Larry Beinfest and president David Samson then criticized Cabrera, who said he missed the event and stayed in Venezuela because his father was ill. Beinfest and Samson say they've moved on, and Cabrera said he harbors no hard feelings toward them.

"Why are there going to be hard feelings? It's nothing," he said. "It's over. ... I've got a good relationship with the fans, with the general manager, with the owner and everybody."

Cabrera also expressed no bitterness toward last week's arbitration process, in part because he won. He was eligible for the first time after receiving $472,000 last year, which made him one of baseball's best bargains. The Marlins offered $6.7 million, and a panel opted for Cabrera's higher figure.

"I'm happy he's getting the money," Willis said. "He's one of the three best players in the game. I think he's worth $300 million. He's deserving of everything that comes to him."

Playing on the youngest, lowest-paid team in the majors, Cabrera found himself pitched around much of last season. Still, he finished second in the NL with a franchise-record .339 batting average, and set another team record with 50 doubles. He had 26 homers and 114 RBIs, and with his 24th birthday still two months away, he has 104 career homers and 404 RBIs.

"God gave him some kind of ability to hit like nobody else can," teammate Mike Jacobs said. "I'd rather have him on my team than anybody. Albert Pujols may be the only guy you can put him up against. It's really incredible when you get to watch him every day."

Cabrera was 20 when he made the jump from Double-A, joining the Marlins in June 2003 and helping them win the World Series. He hasn't been back to the playoffs since, and that's his No. 1 goal.

"I think if I do good, everybody is going to do good," he said. "They follow me."

He still has a baby face and playful personality, but on the rookie-laden Marlins last year, he began to assert himself as a leader. Willis started the season poorly and said he turned things around with help from Cabrera, who offered advice on how to sequence pitches.

"He's known as such a jokester, but I have the utmost respect for him and how he goes about the game mentally," Willis said. "When I was struggling he said, `Hey, this is how they're attacking you. These are the adjustments you need to make.' I started to realize it. And no one thinks he talks like that."

At the end of last season, there was some doubt as to whether Cabrera would be back this year with the Marlins, given their tight budget and the hefty pay hike he was due. His future in Florida will continue to be an issue, with Cabrera in line to surpass $10 million as early as next season.

He hopes a trade can be avoided, and others share that sentiment. Cabrera's day was frequently interrupted by hugs as he renewed acquaintances, and fans flocked to him for autographs following the workout.
br>"I love this team," he said. "They gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues and gave me the opportunity to play every day. I love to play in Miami, and I want to stay here."

Notes:@ Right-hander Josh Johnson played catch for the first time since camp began and said he was pain-free. Johnson, 12-7 as a rookie last year, had a recurrence earlier this month of the forearm soreness that ended his season prematurely in September.