My old friend Don O'Fleer and I have spent this winter observing parallels between the events of this offseason and the events of offseasons past. This is the first of three posts we've put together from those observations. As it's "A Christmas Carol" season, we thought we'd share -- perhaps you have thoughts about offseasons past, present, or future? -afh
I. Jose Ramirez : Asdrubal Cabrera :: Asdrubal Cabrera : Jhonny Peralta
It’s hard for me to overstate how excited I was by the debut of Jhonny Peralta and then, four years later, Asdrubal Cabrera. Each player had posted a spotty minor league batting line, and was thus relatively unheralded. But a certain kind of Clevleand fan had noted a dissonance between age and level -- Jhonny was the third youngest batter in the 2002 Eastern League, Asdrubal was the youngest player in the 2006 International League. There had to be some adjustment for this, no?
Each player debuted in the majors at 21 and then returned to AAA for more seasoning. When they did, this explanation for their minor league offense was strengthened — a 22-year-old Cabrera spent 34 games in Buffalo in 2008, hitting 326/375/475 with 12 extra base hits; a 22-year-old Peralta spent 138 games in Buffalo in 2004, hitting 326/384/493 with 61 extra base hits. Now we were cooking with gas.
And so, as each became a full-timer, the hope and excitement seemed justified. At 23, Peralta OPS’d 885 and was the second best hitting shortstop in baseball, surrounded on the leaderboard by veteran MVP candidates. Four years later, Asdrubal finished his age 23 season with an OPS of 799 -- the sixth best hitting shortstop in baseball.
Cleveland had debuted two young shortstops who looked like multiple time all-stars within four years of each other -- the future must have been bright, right?
But, a funny thing had happened between Peralta’s 2005 breakout and Asdrubal’s in 2009. The older shortstop's offense had never improved. In fact, it had mostly declined. Simultaneously, Peralta's defense had come under intense scrutiny -- he was maligned by fans as "Fat Shortstop" until he was moved to third base to accommodate the younger and more defensively-minded Cabrera. Once there, he was maligned as "Fat 3B." In 2009, while Cabrera raked, JP was playing a mediocre third and OPS'ing 690.
It was as if Asdrubal had taken Jhonny’s talents for himself, leaving Peralta as a fringe regular at a position he was learning on the fly. By the middle of 2010, Peralta was gone from Cleveland. A should’ve-been MVP candidate in 2005 at 23 years old, Peralta was shipped out of town in his 28th year, traded for a low-A pitching lottery ticket. Cleveland never appeared to seriously consider extending Peralta beyond 2010. When he was traded, many of his at-bats went to Jayson Nix and there was not a significant drop-off. Our mighty had fallen.
Asdrubal soldiered on, continuing to play short for Cleveland until he was traded midway through last season. Like Peralta, Cabrera's trajectory stalled. By the time he was traded on July 31 (four years and three days after Peralta), Cabrera was barely a league average hitter and considered a growing liability with the glove. He, like his forerunner, had gained weight as he aged. A repeat of four years earlier, Cleveland never seemed to seriously consider extending their homegrown shortstop into his 30's, and the player who had once seemed foundational to the franchise’s future left with little fanfare.
From Peralta's installation as the starter in 2005 until Cabrera packed his bags in mid-2014, Cleveland shortstops took the field in approximately 13,923 innings. Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera played 12,443 of those -- 89%.
I have distinct memories of Cabrera taking over from Peralta. Peralta looked large and slow next to a young Asdrubal Cabrera, a remarkably talented, live wire of a middle infielder. When Cabrera left the team last season, the feeling returned: I didn’t realize how much heavier and stronger Cabrera had grown until I saw a much younger, smaller man at the position. The feeling was heightened, amusingly, by the fact that Cleveland’s shortstops had gone the way of Matryoshka — Peralta is 6’2", 215 lbs; Cabrera is 6", 205 lbs; Ramirez is 5’9", 165 lbs.
So where are we left? Jose Ramirez is the favorite to start the season at shortstop and, frankly, it’s hard not to experience déjà vu. Ramirez debuted remarkably young, and his minor league hitting record was inconsistent, perhaps because he was always young for the league. There is hope to be found in the dissonance between age and level.
And -- a funny thing happened last year. The 21-year-old Ramirez returned to AAA for more seasoning and he dominated with the bat. In 60 games with Columbus, he hit 302/360/441 with 22 extra base hits.
The old Dominican gave way to the younger Venezuelan. The young Venezuelan grew old and gave way to a younger Dominican. Time is a flat circle and everything that rises must converge.