The Padres and their fans have endured a difficult 2009. For a variety of reasons—most of which fall under the categories “not enough hitting” and “not enough pitching”—the Friars are headed toward their second straight 90-loss season. That and the trading away of Jake Peavy, the best starting pitcher in franchise history, have kept fans away from Petco Park this summer. (Attendance is down about 6,000 per game from 2008.)
But amidst the ashes, several young players have had the opportunity to show what they can do at the highest level. Outfielder Kyle Blanks and right-hander Mat Latos may be the brightest stars, but one youngster who has impressed (and surprised) is shortstop Everth Cabrera.
Selected from the Colorado Rockies organization in the Rule 5 draft this past winter, Cabrera has made the jump from Low-A ball look easy. After starting the year on the bench and then missing a couple of months due to a broken left hand, Cabrera returned from the disabled list on June 19 and has played every inning at shortstop since.
Cabrera runs well, has a strong arm, and shows surprising pop for a guy his size. This profile led to the inevitable preseason comparisons to another shortstop who once made the jump from Class-A ball, Rafael Furcal. Many people, myself included, were skeptical that Cabrera could contribute anything close to what Furcal did for the Braves in 2000. Yet as his rookie campaign draws to a close, Cabrera is proving to be a unique talent.
How unique? Well, I looked back as far as 1961 (delving even further yields a larger sample, but I wonder how much we can learn about a current player’s possible development path from those additional names (what does Charlie Hollocher‘s 134 OPS+ in 1918 really mean to us?) and found 17 players who met the following criteria:
- Played first big-league season at age 22, with no previous big-league experience
- Played at least 50 percent of games at second base or shortstop
- Logged at least 300 plate appearances
Here are the players, listed by OPS+ in descending order (all stats are through games of August 30, 2009):
- Ron Hunt, 1963, 110 OPS+
- Everth Cabrera, 2009, 109
- Robinson Cano, 2005, 106
- Pete Rose, 1963, 101
- Rafael Furcal, 2000, 97
- Chuck Knoblauch, 1991, 91
- J.J. Hardy, 2005, 86
- Jerry Remy, 1975, 83
- Mariano Duncan, 1985, 79
- Rob Andrews, 1975, 72
- Jack Brohamer, 1972, 66
- Luis Alicea, 1988, 61
- Enzo Hernandez, 1971, 61
- Rey Quinones, 1986, 56
- Hector Torres, 1968, 56
- Omar Vizquel, 1989, 50
- Spike Owen, 1983, 44
(Incidentally, I limited the search to players with no previous experience, because otherwise we’d end up with a bunch of unfair comps for Cabrera. Guys like Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, and Joe Morgan were light years ahead in their development. It’s fun to look at Roberto Alomar‘s 98 OPS+ in 1990, but his 1300 big-league plate appearances before age 22 are very different from Cabrera’s 1000 minor-league plate appearances.)
Acknowledging that Cabrera’s rookie season isn’t complete yet and that his performance may slip before all is said and done, a couple points are worth noting about 22-year-old rookie middle infielders:
- Most of them don’t hit much
- Most of them go on to have careers
Here are the career totals for each of these players (not including Cabrera):
Rose skews the curve, and some of these guys are still active, but if you add all their numbers together and average them, you end up with a career that looks like this: 1271 G, 5147 PA, .274/.342/.373. That’s basically Delino DeShields, which isn’t too shabby.
A few players (Andrews, Brohamer, Hernandez, Quinones, and Torres) didn’t make a substantial impact, but none of them showed anything with the bat as rookies. And even initial lack of offensive production is no guarantee of future failure. Vizquel is mentioned these days as a possible Hall of Famer, while Owen spent 13 years in the big leagues. On the flip side, none of the youngsters who hit right away at the big-league level ever slipped much.
Here I must add the obligatory reminder that we are observing history (and a small subset of it at that), not predicting the future. The fact that Cabrera is hitting like Hunt at the same age tells us that this has happened before, and that is all.
Is this a good sign? Sure. It was good for Hunt that he proved himself capable of handling big-league pitching at such an early age, and the same holds true in Cabrera’s case.
That disclaimer out of the way, let’s take a closer look at some of these guys.
Hunt hit .272/.334/.396 as a rookie with the Mets in 1963. He displayed good range but led National League second basemen with 26 errors. Hunt finished second (to Rose) in Rookie of the Year voting. Throughout his 12-year career, Hunt displayed excellent on-base skills (mainly due to a legendary ability to get hit by pitches—he once led the league for seven straight seasons, including an almost unfathomable 50 in 1971).
Hunt made the jump directly from Double-A Austin of the Texas League, where he hit .309/.376/.396 in 1962. Despite skipping a level, Hunt saw little decline in performance on arriving in the big leagues. His batting average slipped a tad, and his BB/SO went from freakish (51/42) to good (40/50), but essentially his skills held.
Cano hit .297/.320/.458 for the Yankees in 2005, showing nice pop. Among players in our group, he led in doubles, homers, RBIs, and ISO. He also finished last in walks, with 16. Cano still doesn’t draw walks, but that is a problem only when his batting average dips below .300, as it did in 2008. Right now, his career looks a lot like that of Carlos Baerga, which is great as long as Cano doesn’t suddenly stop hitting at age 27.
Prior to his arrival in New York, Cano split 2004 between Double-A Trenton (.301/.356/.497) and Triple-A Columbus (.259/.316/.403). His combined line of .283/.339/.457 looks suspiciously like what he did as a rookie in the big leagues. Again, Cano’s career is still happening, but the early returns are positive.
Rose hit .273/.334/.371 as a rookie with the Reds in 1963. He committed nearly as many errors (22) as Hunt that year, while showing inferior range. The rest of Rose’s career has been well documented, so we’ll just say here that he did pretty well for himself on the field.
When Rose arrived in Cincinnati, it was straight from Class-A Macon of the South Atlantic League, where he had hit .330/.430/.500 a year earlier. As was the case with Hunt, Rose saw his BB/SO slide (from 95/61 at Macon in ’62 to 55/72 in Cincy the next year). Rose’s numbers fell across the board, which shouldn’t be too surprising given that he skipped Double- and Triple-A.
The first shortstop on our list, Furcal hit .295/.394/.382 for Atlanta in 2000. He also swiped 40 bases and showed above-average range while committing a slew of errors. All of this made him National League Rookie of the Year.
The comparison of Cabrera to Furcal works on many levels. Both are switch-hitters who run well, get on base, and drive the ball into the gaps. Both are flashy shortstops with strong arms. Both jumped from Class-A to the majors.
The year before he made his big-league debut, Furcal hit .337/.417/.397 at Macon and then got into 43 games at High-A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League, where he hit .293/.343/.375. Between the two stops, he stole 96 bases.
As long as we’re talking about Furcal, here’s a straight comparison of his and Cabrera’s age 21 season in Class-A ball:
Those are two pretty similar lines. Furcal hit for a better average and stole more bases; Cabrera hit for more power and was a better percentage base stealer.
We could continue examining players on our original list, but that’s only one way of looking at things. At this point, it might be instructive to shift perspective.
Our original question was, “How have middle infielders who made their big-league debut at age 22 as full-time starters fared?” Here’s another: “How have players who hit like Cabrera has at age 22 fared, regardless of position?”
To answer this, I searched for players since 1961 who met the following criteria:
- Were age 22
- Logged at least 300 plate appearances
- Posted OBP within 10 points of Cabrera’s
- Posted SLG within 10 points of Cabrera’s
It’s a short list (and one that will cause Padres fans to cringe):
- Carlos Baerga, 1991, .288/.346/.398
- Sean Burroughs, 2003, .286/.352/.402
- Dan Driessen, 1974, .281/.347/.400
- Chris Speier, 1972, .269/.361/.400
- Everth Cabrera, 2009, .267/.356/.399
- Dick McAuliffe, 1962, .263/.349/.403
The average career of the five guys above not named Cabrera looks like this: 1565 G, 5849 PA, .262/.339/.391. That’s roughly Tony Bernazard, who was a pretty good ballplayer before he, uh, je ne sais quoi.
The one youngster who flamed out was Burroughs, who didn’t become the John Olerud some of us thought he would become (or even Bill Mueller, not that I’m bitter or anything), but instead played what appears to have been his final big-league game at age 25. The others all enjoyed fine careers.
Speier is probably the best comp here. He never broke double digits in stolen bases, but he was a natural shortstop and a solid defender who occasionally contributed with the bat. In the post-Ripken era, a player like Speier isn’t necessarily given the recognition he deserves, but the man played more than 2200 big-league games and made three All-Star teams (all before age 25, but still).
If history is any indicator—and that is a big and unknowable “if”—Cabrera looks to be in pretty good shape at this stage of his career. Bearing in mind that we are dealing with a small sample, in terms of both Cabrera’s performance (300 plate appearances isn’t a lot to go on) and the list of potential comps (a total of 21 players between the two groups we examined), there are reasons to be encouraged by the early returns:
- Not many middle infielders make their big-league debut at age 22 and hold a starting job; including Cabrera this year, there have been just 17 such players since 1961
- Most of those that do meet the above criteria don’t hit much; of those 17, only four (assuming Cabrera doesn’t go into a horrible slump over the final month) notched an OPS+ of 100 or higher
- Regardless of whether they hit, middle infielders who reach the big leagues at that age and hold a starting job tend to stick around a while; of the 17 we’ve examined, 9 have played 1000 or more games (and three more—Cano, Hardy, and Cabrera—all have a chance to do the same)
- Most 22-year-olds who hit like Cabrera enjoy successful careers, although this is a dangerously small sample
Cabrera is a better hitter at the same age than a lot of these players were. I don’t see his career going in the direction of, say, Andrews, Brohamer, or Hernandez. Those guys simply didn’t hit, not when they were 22, not when they were 32.
Out of all the names on these lists, the two that give me pause are Hardy and Burroughs. Neither of them had the speed tool that Cabrera posseses, and Burroughs didn’t play shortstop, but both came up at an early age and enjoyed a certain degree of success. Hardy’s career took a serious step backward this year, at age 26, and we’ve already touched on Burroughs’ premature decline. Sometimes, for whatever reason, players simply don’t develop.
That said, barring complete collapse (it’s not just Burroughs; see also Quinones and Baerga), Cabrera should be a useful player going forward. Furcal seems about right in terms of upside, with worst-case scenario (non-collapse division) being something in the Duncan/Speier range.
Next steps? Watch and wait. Meet back here in 10 years and laugh.
References & Resources