That all changed when he was dealt to Boston last season and homered in his first at-bat. From that debut, Cabrera helped to solidify a defense for a second-half run that was capped when the Red Sox grabbed their first World Series crown in 86 years.
Until he landed in Boston last summer, though, Cabrera hadn't felt fully appreciated. But he made a quick name for himself at Fenway Park and he's carved a critical niche with the Angels, possibly finding his biggest fans within the pitching staff.
"He has been a huge asset to the team," Jarrod Washburn said. "To have a guy like that, playing shortstop every day, is very reassuring to a pitcher."
Reassuring, too, for those whose long impact on the game is from the dugout.
"Orlando's arm strength and his range make him a special package," manager Mike Scioscia said. "He is in an elite class of shortstops."
That level of play allows the organization to feel vindicated every time Cabrera turns a hit into an out or starts a double play. That's because the 30-year-old was the Angels' major acquisition last offseason and ended the tenure of one of the more popular Angels, and a link to their own World Series run of 2002.
David Eckstein gets more out of his 5-foot-7, 165-pound frame than possibly any player in the Major Leagues. For the Angels, Eckstein was the embodiment of a club that willed its way to a title and upset clubs in their October march that most considered superior.
If one were to believe in overachievers, Eckstein would be a prime example, but the Angels felt that to get back to the Fall Classic they would need to improve their defense and Cabrera was seen as their best investment.
Cabrera leads all American League shortstops who have played at least 40 games with a .992 fielding percentage.
"He makes players around him better. You look at [Chone] Figgins and Adam Kennedy," Scioscia said of Cabrera's double-play partners. "That is an important part of your pitching production, the support of your defense, and he has been terrific."
A tremendous amount of attention is currently being directed at the Angels' seeming offensive woes. Tops in batting average last season along with the Red Sox, the Angels have been near the bottom over the first two months of 2005 while a number of players are trying to find their rhythm at the plate.
Currently, they miss Eckstein's bat at the top of the lineup and Scioscia will be the first to admit it.
"On the offensive end, Eck is a special player," Scioscia said. "He is one of the few leadoff men in the league and [manager] Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals are happy to have him."
The Angels feel, however, their club's strength lies in its pitching and Washburn, for one, is a firm believer that Cabrera makes his job easier.
"There have been balls hit off the bat where you thought it was a hit for sure and he makes the play," Washburn said.
Cabrera is just happy that his hard work has found an appreciative audience.
"It feels good, guys showing respect like that," Cabrera said. "It makes me feel more confident to know they feel that way when they're pitching and I'm behind them."
And because he is aware of his role on the club and the responsibility that carries, he strives to play every day. It was in Montreal where that work ethic was burned into him. His teammate then and now, Vladimir Guerrero, espoused the virtues of being on the field and not on the bench. Cabrera is second only to Guerrero for consecutive games played streaks by an Expo, 276-271.
"That is why I want to be in the lineup every day, so [the pitchers] know I'm there when they're on the mound," Cabrera said. "It is stupid not to play every day. If you're OK, you should be out there."
Cabrera returns to the scene of his greatest achievement to date when the Angels open a three-game series against Red Sox on Friday. He said it would be exciting and good for a quick visit with his former teammates, forever linked by their successful quest for the prize.
Then he'll trot out to short and do what he's paid to do. Gaining the respect of his peers sweetens the deal, but he'll bring the same level of his game whether he's in Montreal, Boston or Anaheim. To him, there is only one way to play.
"I don't feel I'm doing anything special on the field. I play that way every day," Cabrera said. "I'm just doing my job."