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Prospect Retrospective: Cesar Cedeno

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The cautionary tale: it takes more than tools, youth, and early success

Cesar Cedeno, 1977
Cesar Cedeno, 1977
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Prospect Retrospective: Cesar Cedeno

When an extremely young player comes to the major leagues and performs well, there is a natural (and generally accurate) assumption the player will continue to improve over time. In an extreme case like Mike Trout in 2012, who became the best player in the league at age 20, the future seems unlimited, his ceiling historic. But it doesn't always turn out that way. Young players don't always improve.

A good case in point is Cesar Cedeno, an outstanding player at age 21/22 (WAR 7.8 and 7.1) who never lived up to his early performances for a variety of reasons.

Cesar Cedeno was signed by the Houston Astros from the Dominican Republic in 1967. He made his pro debut in 1968, split between Cocoa in the Florida State League (where he hit .256 with a .322 SLG in 69 games) and Covington in the Appalachian League. The Appy League was more appropriate for a 17-year-old and he dominated the circuit, hitting .374/.410/.504 in 131 at-bats. He already stood out as an outstanding athlete with excellent speed and power potential, though he was understandably raw.

Cedeno moved up to Peninsula in the Carolina League in 1969. He hit .274/.339/.380 with five homers and 32 doubles, while also stealing 24 bases in 31 attempts. His power wasn't developed but his potential was clear, as he continued to draw praise for his across-the-board tools. He drew just 36 walks, but his strikeout rate wasn't bad with 79 whiffs in 551 plate appearances.

Cedeno and a Philadelphia Phillies prospect named Greg Luzinski were the youngest regulars in the league at age 18. Luzinski went on to become one of the leading power hitters of the 1970s. But Cedeno could have been even more than that.

The Astros skipped Cedeno past Double-A in 1970, opening him up at Triple-A Oklahoma City. He took a giant step forward, hitting .373/.402/.691 with 14 homers in just 54 games, 247 plate appearances. Those devastating numbers earned him a promotion to the major leagues, where he hit .310/.340/.451 in 90 games, with 17 stolen bases and a 114 OPS+; pretty damn good for a 19-year old.

Stepping into the lineup everyday as a 20-year-old in 1971, Cedeno hit .264/.293/.398 with 10 homers, 25 walks, and 102 strikeouts in 649 plate appearances. This was a bit disappointing and he needed to improve his plate discipline, but on the other hand he led the National League with 40 doubles, he stole 20 bases, and the Astrodome was not an easy place to hit. The future looked bright.

The big step came in 1972 at age 21. He hit .320/.385/.537, with dramatically improved plate discipline, his walk rate going from 3.9% in '71 up to 9.0%, his strikeouts declining from 15.7% to a mere 9.9%. He led the league in doubles again with 39, also hit 22 home runs, stole 55 bases, and posted a stunning 162 OPS+. He made the All-Star team for the first time, improved his defense enough to win a Gold Glove, and rang up 7.8 WAR.

1973 was similar: .320/.376/.537, 152 OPS+, 25 homers, 56 stolen bases, 7.1 WAR, All-Star nod, another Gold Glove. Astros manager Leo Durocher had this to say: "At 22, Cedeno is as good or better than Willie Mays at the same age. I don't know whether he can keep this up for 20 years, and I'm not saying he will be better than Mays. No way anybody can be better than Mays. But I will say this kid has a chance to be as good. And that's saying a lot."

No one knew it at the time, but Cedeno had already reached his peak.

On December 11th, 1973, Cedeno and his girlfriend (his wife was elsewhere) checked into a cheap motel in Santo Domingo. The details are hazy, but they were drinking and Cedeno had his gun in the room. That's a bad combination. Somehow, his girlfriend ended up dead on the floor with a bullet in her brain. Cedeno fled the scene, then turned himself in to the police the next day.

He insisted that his girlfriend had accidently shot herself while playing with the gun. Charged with voluntary manslaughter, he spent three weeks in jail. Forensic tests eventually backed up Cedeno's story: her fingerprints were on the trigger, but his weren't. The charges were reduced to involuntary manslaughter; he was fined 100 pesos and released in time to get to spring training.

As you can imagine, Cedeno faced intense heckling for the rest of his career.

He remained a very productive player, hitting .269/.338/.461 with 26 homers and 57 steals in '74, with a 5.6 WAR. He continued to swipe bases with aplomb (50 in '75, 58 in '76, 61 in '77), and he kept his OPS and WAR values safely above league averages, not easy in the Astrodome. He won three more Gold Gloves.

But Cedeno never quite got back to where he was before that deadly night in a seedy motel room.

Injuries began to grind him down, limiting him to 141 games in 1977, just 50 in 1978, and 132 in 1979. His speed declined, and the Astrodome robbed him of even more power after the fences were moved back. He had a strong rebound season at age 29 in 1980 (.309/.389/.465, 147 OPS+, 48 steals, 4.9 WAR) but after that he began to age rapidly, dragged down by more injuries, particularly a broken ankle in the 1980 playoffs.

The Astros eventually shipped him to the Cincinnati Reds, where he had a couple of decent seasons as a role player. Traded to St. Louis for the stretch run in 1985, he helped push the Cardinals to the post-season with a .434/.463/.750 run over 28 games. That month was the emotional coda to his career, which ended after some time on the Dodgers bench in '86.

Overall, Cedeno played 17 years in the major leagues. In his best seasons, he played like a Hall of Famer, but he did not turn into Willie Mays or get close to duplicating his early success. However, despite the disappointments, he was a very productive and effective player, hitting .285/.347/.443 with 550 stolen bases over 2006 games, OPS+123. He finished with a 49.9 WAR.

Cedeno's Sim Score comp list is pretty impressive, at least if you remember the 1970s and 80s: Amos Otis, Felipe Alou, Gary Matthews, Chet Lemon, Devon White, Ken Griffey Sr, Hal McRae, Jeff Conine, Marquis Grissom, and Minnie Minoso. Among career center fielders, Cedeno's WAR ranks quite impressively at 25th all-time, in the neighborhood with the underrated Chet Lemon (52.2) Larry Doby (51.3), Mike Cameron (49.7), Fred Lynn (49.2), and Sam Rice (49.2).

Even with all the issues, Cedeno was really quite good, but he could have been so much more. So what happened here?

The injuries were an obvious factor, as they helped rob him of quickness and athleticism. The Astrodome didn't help his counting stats. Those things played in.

It is, of course, most tempting to draw a direct line of causality between December 1973 and the rest of Cedeno's career. Many theorized that he never got over the trauma of his girlfriend's death and the subsequent stigma, although Cedeno always insisted that it didn't impact his play on the field. However, there were other serious off-field problems, including a violent confrontation with police in 1985, an assault in a nightclub in 1987, and a further arrest for domestic violence against a woman in 1988.

It is fair to say that Cedeno had a makeup problem, and some combination of personality factors with injuries and environment kept him from fully living up to his potential.

He was still a very good, very valuable player, but he could have been one of the greatest players in history.