Tuesday, April 18, 2006

early returns: cedeno and murton

one of the several possible trouble spots for this cub club is the question mark presented by two inexperienced players who were deemed to be regulars in the lineup coming out of camp. matt murton and ronny cedeno have manned left field and shortstop, respectively, for only two weeks now in 2006. but, taken in conjunction with their limited performances in 2005, interested cub fans can, with some judicious evaluation, perhaps start to get a feel for the kind of players they are even at this early stage.

cedeno is charged with the key defensive position in the field, and his performance there is critical to the cubs' chances for success going forward. this writer has evinced much skepticism regarding cedeno -- here and here and here and here -- and won't bother to repeat all of it here. but some of what one might have feared about cedeno is being proven out as real problems in his game.

the easiest flaw to see has been cedeno's defense, particularly the wildness of his strong throwing arm. between spring ball and the early weeks of 2006, cedeno has been charged with five errors in just 136 chances -- a .963 fielding percentage that is well below the national league average shortstop of 2005 (.976). the truth is that the tally would be significantly higher if he were not throwing at derrek lee, one of the best fielding first basemen in the game, whose talents have been tested by cedeno repeatedly. accuracy in throwing has been a problem for cedeno for some time, accounting for his propensity for errors in iowa last year and in the venezuelan league this last offseason. public promises to fix the problem serve to feed this page's tendency toward skepticism -- it the problem was easy to fix, it would have been fixed long ago.

however, this page would further note that, in observing cedeno closely over these last several games, there is more amiss than throwing accuracy. much has been made by some cub apologists of cedeno's wide range in the field, but this writer sees little evidence of it. to be sure, one can think of shortstops who do worse simply getting to balls. but cedeno is a notably inferior shortstop to neifi perez when it comes to getting to balls in the hole and up the middle. he has shown a need to dive at or an inability to get to balls even on his side of the second base bag; neifi, whatever his shortcomings, allows very little to get past in that area while keeping his feet and has often enough speared balls in todd walker's uncovered zone. an evaluation of cedeno's range factor confirms as much in numbers -- at just 4.46 thusfar in 2005 and 4.13 over his entire 260 innings of major league time, cedeno has been treated harshly by the measure of putouts and assists. but it can be compared to neifi's 4.74 over the last year to quanitfy who the superior shortstop is. (for reference, the average of all nl shortstops in 2005 was 4.51.)

as was said in this space, if cedeno is going to hold off neifi for the starting job at short, it is going to be on the strength of his bat. this page is grimly satisfied to note that, despite an early flurry of hits, cedeno is proving himself to be very much the hitter it expected. through 45 plate appearances, cedeno is hitting a surprising .364, it is true -- but the vicissitude of small samples is already catching up to cedeno, as he has gone 6 for his last 26 (.230) and managing just one extra base hit in that time. removing the outlier of a single 4-for-4 game, cedeno has managed only a .300 obp in the other 11 games. this is in part because cedeno has yet to draw a walk -- in fact, has managed to get to a 3-ball count only twice this year, being only rarely ahead in the count. over his entire major league sample, cedeno has now drawn a meager five walks in 124 at-bats. he has averaged just 3.06 pitches per plate appearance, marking him the least patient hitter on the team.

the upshot is that, unless cedeno hits .330 or better the rest of the way -- an unlikelihood, to say the least -- his on-base percentage will render him an inferior offensive player. with cedeno's glove proving to be average at best, this page is approaching the uncomfortable position of calling for neifi perez to see more time at short, if not take the position over outright for the good of the team and in the interest of winning games. if cedeno can't be an offensive advantage, there's little point in living with his defensive disadvantage -- if it need be highlighted, his poor throw helped waste jerome williams' good start over the weekend. it is a pathetic consequence of jim hendry's failure to land rafael furcal that the team has no better options that these, but these are the options that the cubs have. while more time is needed to solidify this view, which still rests on too little data for complete comfort, it is the verdict based on what evidence is available.

murton too has shown some weaknesses -- but also some strengths that make his case quite a bit brighter than cedeno's. this page was at one point concerned that murton would have trouble holding down a starting position in front of the likes of marquis grissom. but murton has followed through on his stellar spring, which did much to quell any fears on this page, and looks set to hold down left field for the forseeable future, despite what rough patches may come.

while murton's range in the field is not good -- he is, in fact, quite slow afoot -- the nature of his position is such that this weakness is minimized to the extent that it can be. still he has done reasonably well, making a notable catch in the season opener on what would have been an austin kearns home run and exhibiting an accurate if not particularly strong throwing arm.

but it is at the plate that murton has been most promising. his reasonable patience (3.8 pitches per plate appearance) and excellent eye have consistently put him ahead in the count, which he has used to his advantage -- murton has chalked five multihit games already and five walks to balance his six strikeouts. his on-base percentage has hovered between .350-.400 in the early going (currently resting at .367), a pace that looks thoroughly sustainable on the back of his 2005 performance (.386 obp in 160 pa). though great power may be beyond his consistent ability at this point and is certainly limited by an approach that has seen him ground out 20 times while flying out just four, his two long home runs this year have shown that the capacity for development exists. murton has managed a heady .522 slugging percentage in his nascent career with a home run every 20.4 at-bats.

in summary, then, while cedeno may be in the gradual process of giving way to neifi without significant and unprecedented changes in his game, murton gives this page reason to hope that at least half of the 2006 cubs experiment in novelty in the regular lineup will come to full flower this summer.

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