Get to know Juan ‘Pipi’ Cabreja, the unsung hero on the Cubs coaching staff
As a minor leaguer, Juan “Pipi” Cabreja would pray daily with a simple request.
“I would ask God to help me reach the big leagues,” the Cubs staff assistant said.
He realizes now, he should have been a little more specific.
“I never asked him to do it as a player,” Cabreja said with a smile. “But as a coach, I reached it.”
Cabreja has reached the pinnacle of baseball and is a crucial piece on David Ross’ coaching staff, acting as a liaison for many young Latino ballplayers. He’s been a factor for all the young players who reach the major leagues and help them adjust to life in “The Show.”
“’Pipi’ for me is a father inside of baseball,” young, charismatic rookie Christopher Morel said. “He’s never left me alone.”
As a young child, Cabreja was always bouncing off walls. Growing up in Moca, Dominican Republic, he would watch cartoons and he always made sure to catch “Pippi Longstocking.”
The young child had many of the characteristics of the protagonist in the cartoon, especially the bundle of energy they both possessed — so little Juan Cabreja had a nickname: “Pipi”.
Like most children in the baseball-crazed nation, Cabreja dreamed of being a professional baseball player. In 2000, he was a step closer to reaching that goal when he began playing for the Cubs’ affiliate in the Dominican Republic.
“I was a kid that gave his 100%,” Cabreja said.
But Cabreja’s playing days would end in the Dominican. He was released but the organization brought him on to coach in his home country. It was a bittersweet moment.
“It’s like they give you a cookie to your face, but it knocks you out because you don’t expect that,” Cabreja said. “When that happened, I thought, ‘I can’t go on as a ballplayer, but I’ll be a coach, because I think I can do that and maybe if it’s not that way, it’s the other way.’”
After three seasons as a coach, Cabreja was named the manager of the Dominican affiliate, which he took the reins of for two years. In 2009, he was named the Cubs’ Arizona Summer League affiliate manager where he oversaw many players in their first taste of professional baseball in the United States.
Cabreja was a coach for 13 seasons in the minor leagues. In 2017, he was named as a staff assistant for Joe Maddon. He was reunited at the big-league level with one of the players he managed in Arizona: Javier Báez.
Báez was coming off being a starter on a World Series title team, but Cabreja knew there was room for growth.
“When he got to the major leagues, he didn’t have a routine — he just went up to bat,” Cabreja said.
That’s why Cabreja had been brought up to the major league level — to serve as that bridge for Latino players as they adjusted to life in the major leagues. So, Cabreja worked with Maddon and the rest of the Cubs’ staff at the time to formulate a plan for Báez and other Latino players.
Cabreja consulted with Báez and presented a plan for acclimation to him in a manner that was easily digestible to him. That’s something that Cabreja prides himself on — and something that the players appreciate just as much.
“Having someone that speaks the same language as you that is helping you orient yourself or helping you in what you can do or can’t do, it’s an important help,” rookie Esteban Quiroz said. “Sometimes as Latinos, we’re a little shy or we don’t ask when we have some doubts and then we’re in the game doubting ourselves and things can go wrong.”
Before each series, the Cubs have hitters’ meetings, where they discuss the opposing team’s pitching staffs and tendencies. During each meeting, Cabreja will give the hitters his tips on what to do.
“Then you kind of have a routine and plan to take to the game,” Quiroz said.
In games, Cabreja will stroll around the dugout, telling hitters who aren’t in that day’s lineup when they should start getting ready in case they need to pinch hit. He’ll provide scouting reports of what the pitcher has been doing that game or the tendencies of relief pitchers that hitters might see out of the bullpen.
“I think a real strength of his is translating some of the approach information, the information about the opposing pitching and simplifying those things,” Ross said. “Our staff as a whole does a good job of that, but I definitely think the Latin guys are drawn to him. He takes them under his wing that way cause he knows the information and the knowledge that it’s gonna be new for some of those guys when they get here, so he does a really good job of that.”
Just as important to players, though, is his upbeat and positive personality.
Take one look at his Instagram account and you’ll be ready to attack your problems. He shares uplifting quotes daily — usually with a picture of the ballpark and his coffee in it — and lives by the motto “Enjoy the journey”.
He understands the mental of the side of the game saying that baseball “is 80% mental.” That’s why he maintains that bubbly personality.
“He’s a person that, even if you’ve never met him before, he’ll show you care and love because he has a clean, noble, caring heart,” Morel said. “He’s a person that is always giving. If you need help, or don’t need it, he’ll always be there to help you.”
Morel has seen that compassion firsthand. Cabreja has followed his career and has been in his corner through the ups and downs. In 2015, Cabreja was managing the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League team — the same year Morel signed. They crossed paths at the Cubs complex and build a relationship.
“He began to teach me the little details,” Morel said. “Those little details that help you achieve big things that I have achieved today.”
So, it was a full circle moment when he was called up to the big leagues — Cabreja was there to welcome him and help him set a routine and adjust to life as a big leaguer.
“Thanks to God, I have had the opportunity to have him here with me,” Morel said. “Honestly, ‘Pipi’ is a great person that in any moment you can count on him because he’s there in the good times and the bad times, no matter what. He’ll always tell you what you need to hear.”
When players have success, Cabreja revels in those moments, too.
“It’s priceless,” he said. “If they have success, you’re even happier. That’s something I believe and what motivates me — having that impact and change people and help them grow professionally because this is their livelihood. They’re here battling for their lives.
“When they have their big moments or sign a contract like Javy did, you think, ‘Wow, I was a small grain in helping them reach their dreams.’ That makes you feel good.”
And the players appreciate him, too.
“He has a good heart,” Morel said. “Even though you don’t always see it on the field or in the dugout, he’s a person that is crucial. When you need someone, he’s one of the people that is super important here. When you’re in there, he focuses on you and shows you what you need to do.”