I don't know who said it first, or where I heard it, but I'm not sure there's a better way of describing the hugeness of Major League Baseball—the sheer unlikelihood of getting there yourself—than that line about every fill-in and AAAA veteran being his high school team's all-world shortstop. The big leagues are just a few hundred players at the top of a pyramid of little worlds, and there's a super-superstar trying desperately to climb out of each one. Ronny Cedeno, the St. Louis Cardinals' new fill-in, was the Chicago Cubs' all-world shortstop. [Joke here.] Since the Cardinals signed him on a day that they earned still more accolades for their farm system, he felt a little like a bad omen, in addition to an inexplicable pick-up.
Cedeno wasn't quite a super-prospect, after all, but he was a big deal; he slipped onto the edges of Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list in 2006, as a going-on-23-year-old. Luckily—if there's a luckily to be had, here—looking at his tenure as a top prospect in hindsight leaves us with more than just a nervous appreciation for random chance.
It leaves us with a list of all the ways in which top prospects can be misleading—and the particular ways in which Ronny Cedeno went from the shortstop-of-the-future he probably never was to the useable reserve infielder he is now.
He was young for his league
I've said this before, but here's why young-for-his-league, as an indicator of future brilliance or even future adequacy, scares me: Team assignments are a decision somebody else makes, and those decision-makers now know what "young for his league" means.
I don't know why, exactly, Ronny Cedeno was promoted like he was, but he found his way to the high minors as a 21-year-old with a career line that looked like this:
|A (2 seasons)||A||115||476||432||53||91||21||5||3||33||14||12||24||92||.211||.265||.303||.568|
|A+ (2 seasons)||A+||108||424||384||43||80||18||1||4||36||19||6||21||82||.208||.255||.292||.547|
|Rk (1 season)||Rk||52||229||206||36||72||13||4||1||17||17||10||13||32||.350||.398||.466||.864|
|A- (1 season)||A-||29||122||110||17||24||5||2||0||6||8||2||9||25||.218||.275||.300||.575|
It's basically the Pete Kozma experience, only in fast-forward: a strong half-season in rookie ball led to an unsuccessful taste of full-season ball at 18, and he found himself promoted to the Florida State League in 2003 after a season in which he'd hit .211/.265/.303 in the Midwest League.
The difference: After another extremely aggressive promotion to AA, Ronny Cedeno started to hit, kind of—a .279/.328/.401 line, roughly average for the Southern League. So he was promoted again, and in 65 AAA games the next year our still-young-for-his-league 22-year-old hit .355/.403/.518.
His big seasons were really big half-seasons
Ronny Cedeno was always promoted at the right moment; his brilliant half-season was even a little shorter than it normally would have been, thanks to an April promotion in which the Cubs decided the best thing for their 22-year-old shortstop-of-the-future was to spend two weeks on the big league bench as a pinch hitter. By the time he stuck for good he had 275 plate appearances to show for his breakout season.
That year—the inarguable peak of his prospect-dom—he even broke his hand at the right moment; his season ended when he was hit by a pitch on September 10, his batting average hung precisely at .300 after a 3-5 game the night before.
His skills were more stereotype than substance
When a prospect hasn't hit very much and you haven't seen him it's really easy to let your generic picture of the kind of player he is fill in a lot of the details you can't actually know. I think it's related to that broadcaster phenomenon whereby every catcher who hits under .225 is a defensive whiz—that's how defensive whizzes usually hit, and they're playing him, after all, so—
I'll admit to doing this with Ryan Jackson. I have, thanks to Pete Kozma's big September, almost no idea what it actually looks like when Ryan Jackson plays his above-average defense. But people have said he does, and he doesn't hit all that well, so, okay.
Ronny Cedeno was supposed to be a defensive whiz. I haven't dug up a lot of first-hand scouting reports to that effect, but you see it all over the secondary talk about him. Why was he supposed to be a defensive whiz? Well, he was an international free agent, and the Cubs were promoting him aggressively despite some really terrible hitting numbers, and everyone believed regardless that he was an excellent prospect. When he suddenly hit for average, the vague outlines of the prospect changed: Oh, he's one of those good defensive shortstops who also hits for average.
As it turns out, Cedeno's been just a little below average at the position from the moment he arrived. It's easy enough to not dream on teenagers with .600 OPSes, or players who put together two outstanding months, but this is the hard one for me to keep track of. We spend so much time thinking about prospects we never see that it's important to keep track of the the difference between what you've come to believe from watching them play or looking at their stats and what you've come to believe from laying their stats over a fuller picture you've already imagined.