When people talk about players who showed enormous potential early in their careers, but never truly fulfilled it, Cesar Cedeno is one of the first names they usually invoke. Cedeno hit the big leagues in 1970, as a 19-year-old, and put up a 111 wRC+ in roughly half a season. He followed that up in 1971 with a bit of a sophomore slump, posting a wRC+ of 94. That age-19 season was, quietly, very good for a teenager. Of players who played at least half of a season before age 20 (I set the parameters at 81 games to eliminate the riffraff), Cedeno’s 1970 season falls between Mickey Mantle’s 1951 and Ken Griffey Jr’s 1989. Then, it was off to the races.
In 1972, Cedeno hit .320/.385/.537 for a wRC+ of 163, which was seventh-best in all of baseball. He accrued 7.8 fWAR, as a 21-year-old. Per the Baseball-Reference Play Index, that is also the seventh-best season ever by a 21-year-old, sorted by OPS+. If you wish to sort by rWAR, Cedeno lands fifth (rWAR has him at 8.0). No matter how you look at it, it’s a damn good year, and 1973 was more of the same, with a line of .320/.376/.537 for a wRC+ of 155 and 7.1 fWAR. Then came some off-field trouble. During the offseason, he was involved in an accident involving a gun, and his girlfriend was killed. Even though he continued to have good numbers after that, Astros fans say he was never the same, and there was a slight decline after the incident, although he was still very good. In 1974, he declined to a wRC+ of 126, although that could be somewhat explained by a decline in BABIP, from .338 to .282.
From 1975-77, Cedeno remained quite good, but not quite to that superstar level from 1972-73. He posted fWAR between 4.0 and 5.3 all three seasons, and wRC+ figures in the 120s and 130s. That is what we’ll call the end of his peak. From 1972 to 1977, his fWAR of 34.4 was the sixth-highest in baseball. That’s ahead of guys like Reggie Jackson, Carlton Fisk, Bobby Bonds, Willie Stargell, Tony Perez, and Carl Yazstremski.
Then came injuries. In 1978, a knee injury limited Cedeno to 50 games, and in 1979, a bout of hepatitis weakened him to the point where he was barely a league-average hitter. However, in 1980, flashes of the old Cedeno surfaced, with a line of .309/.389/.465 and a wRC+ of 146, his best since 1973. He earned 4.8 fWAR that year. It was looking like he had moved past the problems of the previous two seasons, but then he suffered a broken ankle trying to beat out a double play in Game 3 of the NLCS. That was pretty much all she wrote. After that injury, Cedeno wasn’t able to play much center field, mostly playing the corners and first base, and he never stole more than 19 bases in a season again (he’d stolen 48 bases in 1980). He never had another fWAR over 1.6, that number occurring in 1985, and there’s a story behind that, too. During that season, for Cincinnati, he looked done, posting a sub-.700 OPS for the Reds. On August 29, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, and exploded. (Well, not literally.) But hitting .434/.463/.750 down the stretch for a team in a pennant race is about as close to spontaneous combustion as one can get, given where he was before the trade. In the 28 games played for St. Louis, he had separate hitting streaks of seven and 11 games, which is kind of crazy when you think about it.
All told, he had career WARs of 49.8 (Fangraphs), 52.7 (BBref), and 55.4 (WARP). That is short of where he would need to be for Hall of Fame candidacy per JAWS, but one wonders, without the two seasons lost to illness and injury in 1978 and 1979, and without the broken ankle in 1980, if he would have been able to get there.Next post: Ernie Banks, 1931-2015
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