PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Veteran reliever Fernando Cabrera, a non-roster invitee obtained on a Minor League contract in the offseason, is among those competing for a bullpen spot with the Angels and needs every opportunity to show he deserves to start the season in the big leagues.
Instead, he'll depart for the World Baseball Classic on Sunday, which may not impact his chances all that much, but certainly can't help.
The 31-year-old right-hander feels he owes it to his native Puerto Rico, an island where baseball's importance has dropped considerably over the last few years.
"We've lost a big part of our baseball fan base in Puerto Rico," Cabrera said in Spanish. "One of the few events that people really get excited about in Puerto Rico and get behind is the World Baseball Classic. They like it. And representing your country is something that always makes you feel good."
Cabrera notched a 5.24 ERA while compiling 132 appearances in the big leagues from 2004-10. Last year, he pitched for the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, posting a 4.10 ERA and 22 saves in 68 innings. And in '06 and '09, he represented Puerto Rico in the Classic, throwing 5 2/3 shutout innings in a combined eight appearances as his country made it no further than the second round.
This year, he'll join a squad that includes Major Leaguers such as Mike Aviles, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Angel Pagan and Alex Rios -- but also one that has to play in a pool with powerhouses Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
Since being included in the First-Year Player Draft in 1990, teams have found few benefits in heavily scouting the area because they can't sign players at a bargain rate, and Puerto Rico has thusly seen its baseball talent plummet.
Academies recently opened by Beltran and Major League Baseball have helped -- the Astros' first overall pick, shortstop Carlos Correa, came from MLB's Academy -- but there's still a long way to go.
In 2012, 17 Puerto Rican-born players appeared in the Majors. From the Dominican Republic, there were 128. And from Venezuela, there were 88.
For Cabrera, the telling sign comes from the Puerto Rican winter league, where he pitches every offseason.
Fans have simply lost interest.
"It has to improve, but no matter how good the baseball is, the fans just don't go to the games," Cabrera said. "I believe there's still good talent in Puerto Rico, and it's getting better. Hopefully the country can just get behind them."