Tuesday, December 13, 2005

why it can't be ronny cedeno

with the prospect of shortstop salvation how fading into the gloaming for a second time this offseason, cubs fans are examining the prospect of inserting 23-year-old ronny cedeno into the starting lineup to play shortstop for the cubs in 2006.

cedeno did very well last year at iowa, it's said, and acquitted himself reasonably in a too-short stint in chicago. moreover, he continues to hit in winter ball. so why not?

well, for some very good reasons, not.

the myth of the minors

first of all, there's the mythologizing of cedeno's minor league output. it's true that, in 2005, he hit quite well at iowa -- but a player is more than his last 245 at-bats. such a small sample size is particularly vulnerable to abnormalities -- a hot streak. after all, neifi perez can hit .350 for a month. there's no telling whether or not cedeno's 2005 output is just an abnormality.

and in the context of his previous career, the chances of 2005 being a strange outlier look quite high. cedeno's career batting average coming into last year was .238 over almost 1500 at-bats -- which is why he was never mentioned among even the dimmest of cub prospects prior to the last few months. moreover, cedeno's career strikeout-to-walk ratio remains nearly 3:1 -- a devastatingly high level, especially for a player devoid of any real power production (career slugging percentage of a miniscule .366). cedeno's continuing inability to take a walk in the venezuelan league -- just five against 109 at-bats and 15 strikeouts -- demonstrates that this is a continuing problem. consider this all in combination with the fact that cedeno has no major-league speed -- his meager minor league stolen base totals and low success rate (69%) indicate that he won't be able to run in the bigs.

the wishful paradigm shift

many suggest that cedeno turned a corner somehow last year and revolutionized his game -- effectively voiding his entire prior history -- going from "zero to hero" in a very short span. this is usually accompanied by a citation of cedeno's age (just 22 at triple-a last year) with the implication that, at such a tender age, such revolutions are most likely. some even point to his 2004 season at west tenn, described as "pretty good", as a precursor, effectively lengthening the time this revolution fomented.

the idea that players suddenly "turn a corner" -- that they radically change character and go from awful to brilliant with a flash of inspiration and insight -- is difficult to evidence in my experience, and certainly isn't common. there's very little way around the fact that cedeno's record, taken in total, is unpromising. look at every shortstop in the majors that has any meaningful offensive output and try to find one whose minor league career resembles cedeno's -- i can't find one. (UPDATE: see followup study.) if such miraculous transformations are not common enough to be easily found, why should anyone believe cedeno is the exception to the rule?

virtually all players that become good major leaguers were consistently good or great minor leaguers, even if they experienced a bad season here or there. cedeno certainly doesn't qualify to aspire to greatness on those grounds -- he's had one good year surrounded by many bad ones.

and as to his 2004, the southern league is a pitchers' league, of course -- but cedeno's line (279/328/401), while better for him, is quite sorry even in that league. he was outhit by geovany soto on the same club, and no one thinks of soto as an budding offensive star even as a catcher. there were eight players on the 2004 djaxx that tallied over 300 at-bats -- cedeno's on-base percentage was 8th out of 8, his slugging 6th, his k:bb ratio 8th.

how is that good? it isn't -- an mere extension of cub fan mythology based on need rather than reality, i'm afraid.

cub fans (and maybe sports fans or just people generally) have a way of reinventing -- even deifying -- players to fit wishes based on needs rather than seeing them as they are, irrespective of what the team needs to have. is it really a coincidence that the two most touted positional prospects in the cub system right now -- cedeno and felix pie -- just happen to fill the 2005 cubs most dire needs? clearly not -- fans (and maybe management) have reinvented these questionable prospects into blue-chip major leaguers not based on their record or talent, but upon a need which they desperately want to fill. i've come to consider the concept of "turning a corner" to be a typical crutch by which wishfully-inclined thinkers justify a faith where none is merited but a need exists -- it allows such folks to shamelessly ignore a player's inconvenient factual history in favor of a more pleasant fictional paradigm shift.

while i think people can change as a matter of free will -- and ballplayers just as much as anyone -- we are all limited by the laws of our nature as well. how does a guy go from hitting .215 every year to hitting .330 sustainably in just a year? does one grow a better set of eyes? a new brain stem with improved hand-eye coordination?

in short, i don't think a mere change in approach at the plate can cover that kind of permanent change -- a lot of his 2005 output in all probability constitutes a statistical outlier. he got hot for a while. when that passes, it's back to .250 or worse and languishing in the minors. it's only the very smallest fraction of players that ever do otherwise. and one can't hinge the cubs 2006 at shortstop on that fraction, imo, while expecting to win.

lurking in the wings

and this because, if one accepts that cedeno is far from a mortal lock to play well for the cubs -- even just early on in 2006 -- one is effectively saying that he cannot be the cubs opening day shortstop. for if he starts slowly, cedeno will shortly be in iowa and neifi will be playing every day at short. neifi's glove is good -- better than cedeno's -- he's here for two years and the wizard likes him.

one can cite the cubs' plight of the klown as evidence of the team's willingness to stick it out with a young player through a lot of downs peppered with sporadic, even nonexistent ups, but patterson's situation was aggravated by his draft position (cedeno was an undrafted signee), his intoxicating power potential and speed (cedeno has neither) and the lack of a viable in-house substitute centerfielder (the cubs have neifi already on the 25-man roster).

we should not deceive ourselves -- if he plays for this team, he HAS to hit from the get-go and consistently. if he can't hit, they'll play neifi. cedeno isn't ozzie smith; he isn't going to hold down the position by the force of his glove. and the cubs desperately need a middle infield that safely relegates neifi, perhaps the least productive offensive player on the roster except the klown, to the bench and less than 150, mostly harmless mop-up-duty at-bats in 2006.

having examined above the likelihood of that occurrence, i am compelled to suggest that starting ronny cedeno at shortstop is effectively starting neifi perez at shortstop for the 2006 season. even with the cubs upgrade in centerfield this season, with the hope remaining of a left-handed power bat (not jacque jones, for gods sake and ours!) in right -- changes which would purportedly make several hundred neifi plate appearances survivable -- i see no reason for the cubs to accept such a glaring hole going into this year. this team will not be of such quality that it can afford to plan for weakness. shortstop remains a need that jim hendry must address -- ronny cedeno simply isn't a solution.

UPDATE: thanks to mlbtraderumors.com for the kind words.

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