Which Cantu will Rays see: the fallen star or team MVP?

Forget what you know about Jorge Cantu.

Published February 21, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Forget what you know about Jorge Cantu because, somewhere in his past, is a terrible lie.

It could be 2005 when he convinced us he was among baseball's rising stars. A second baseman with power, and a hitter with a flair for the dramatic.

Or maybe it was 2006 when Cantu became more burden than commodity. A second baseman with little range, and a hitter on the decline.

If you were taken in by one season or the other, do not feel duped. Even now, the Devil Rays are not sure which is the more viable truth.

Cantu went from team MVP and a candidate for a long-term contract to trade bait in the span of one long, forgettable summer.

So today, the Rays approach a new season with contingencies in mind. They think Cantu, 25, is on his way back. They trust he has the proper motivation. They hope he will again be an important part of the future.

But common sense tells them to reserve judgment until seeing whether Cantu looks more like '05 or '06.

"I'm sure there's a lot of people talking, 'Ah, Cantu hasn't done much lately. I don't know about him.' The word is around, I hear it," Cantu said. "But I'm not paying any attention. The mind is your worst enemy if you let it be.

"In my case, I'm from a ranch, I'm from Mexico, I was raised strict. When things are not going your way then you have to tough it out and get out of the hole.

"That's pretty much what I'm going through."

Once, his life was a parade. At least that must be how it feels when you dine with the president of Mexico. When awards are coming your way. When you are filming commercials. And, yes, when you're waving from the back of a convertible during a procession through the streets of Mexico City.

Cantu was a revelation in 2005 when he drove in 117 runs. He had a higher percentage of RBIs per baserunner (21.1 percent) than anybody in the game. More than Manny Ramirez. More than Albert Pujols.

If his range at second base was a little suspect, that could be overlooked. If his discipline at the plate was lacking, that, too, could be excused.

After all, a power hitter at second is a rarity. And, at Cantu's age, there was always the hope that he could grow into a more complete player in time.

Already, he was a national hero in Mexico, hitting .364 and driving in eight runs in six games in the World Baseball Classic.

By the time the Classic had ended last spring, Cantu was wondering how much higher his stock might go. And who could blame him? After six mostly nondescript minor-league seasons, he had become a star overnight.

Which, of course, is when everything began to fall apart.

Cantu fouled a pitch off his left foot in the season's fourth game and sat for much of the next week. When he returned, the pain remained. Cantu played another 10 days before further tests revealed a fractured bone.

"Man, it was a knife in my heart," Cantu said.

Cantu came back six weeks later, and the rest of the season was a struggle. His final numbers (.249, 14, 62) were not that bad considering the abbreviated season, but they no longer co-existed with the rest of his game.

If you're a second baseman who does not cover a lot of ground, you need to be an offensive force. And a .295 on-base percentage won't get it done.

The Rays pretty much told Cantu this in the offseason. That if he didn't become a better second baseman, he was likely heading to first base or DH. And, at those positions, even more would be expected offensively.

So, instead of the parades and family celebrations, Cantu spent much of the winter at the spring training complex. He would work here for a couple of weeks, go home to Texas for a break, then return for more workouts.

The emphasis was not so much on hitting and fielding, but on conditioning. Cantu worked on his agility and quickness. On stamina and strength.

"He was very good about accepting constructive criticism," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's one of the poster children for offseason work this year.

Put Cantu's two seasons together, and the numbers are still enticing. Only one second baseman has driven in more runs than Cantu's 179 in 2005-06. Only three have hit more homers than Cantu's 42.

So it is not the potential that is in doubt, but rather the direction. Did Cantu peak at 23, and everything else is downhill? Or was last season the actual aberration?

If you have your doubts, Cantu does not blame you. The foot injury slowed him last season, but he knows there was much more to the problem.

"A lot of people were telling me not to worry. That it was just a sophomore jinx," Cantu said. "But after the season, I started thinking I'm so much better than that."

And so he spent much of the winter away from home. And he arrived early to spring training. Cantu wants to prove who he really is. And that's the truth.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.