Monday, January 23, 2012

One Season Wonders: Roger Cedeño

When the Mets acquired Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins in 1998, the writing was on the wall for Todd Hundley.  Hundley was one of only two Mets left on the team who had played for Davey Johnson (John Franco was the other), but had spent the first three months of the 1998 season on the disabled list while recovering from major reconstructive surgery on his right elbow.  Needless to say, Hundley was not happy that the Mets were giving up on him, especially after he had given the team his best two seasons in 1996 and 1997.

Surprisingly, Hundley was not traded immediately upon his return from the DL in July.  Instead, the Mets moved him to left field, displacing Bernard Gilkey, whose poor performance (.237, 3 HR, 24 RBI in 64 games at the time of Hundley's return) moved him to the bench and eventually to the Arizona Diamondbacks three weeks later.  Despite the Mets' willingness to play Hundley, an outfield neophyte, on a regular basis, his performance at the plate suffered.  Hundley finished the injury-shortened 1998 campaign with his poorest line (.161, 3 HR, 12 RBI in 53 games) since his first full season in the majors in 1992.

Finally, after months of speculation, the Mets traded Hundley to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two players.  One of the players was All-Star catcher Charles Johnson, who was immediately shipped off to Baltimore for reliever Armando Benitez.  The other was a 24-year-old utility outfielder who had played parts of four seasons in Los Angeles, never establishing himself as a full-time player.  But once he came over to the Mets, his game took off (literally) and he became a key contributor on a team that was trying to make its first postseason appearance in 11 years.  That player was Roger Cedeño.

Before Jose Reyes wowed Mets fans with his speed, there was Roger Cedeño.

Roger Leandro Cedeño had never accumulated more than 240 at-bats in any of his four seasons as a Dodger.  He also had never shown the ability to be a prolific base stealer in the major leagues.  In 311 games with the Dodgers, Cedeño stole 23 bases, with a career-high of nine of 1997.  However, he was a base-stealing threat in the minors, as evidenced by his 121 stolen bases from 1992-1995.

At the time of the trade, it was assumed that Cedeño would not be the answer to the team's leadoff hitter conundrum.  His career on-base percentage was .317 and he was not a good contact hitter, striking out 158 times in 687 at-bats with the Dodgers.  Therefore, it was not a surprise when the Mets used him primarily as a pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement over the first month of the season.  But that all started to change once May rolled around.

From Opening Day to May 2, Roger Cedeño played in 24 games.  However, he only started nine of those games, as he appeared in eight games as a pinch-hitter, two games as a pinch-runner and five games as a defensive replacement.  As a result, he didn't get much of an opportunity to establish himself as an offensive threat.  Through May 2, Cedeño was hitting .289 with five stolen bases, but had only picked up 45 at-bats.  Then came a rare start on May 3 against the Houston Astros.  It was a night that turned Cedeño's season around.

Given the opportunity to start a game, Roger Cedeño took full advantage.  Against the Astros, Cedeño went 2-for-4 with a walk, two runs scored and two stolen bases.  He got things started with a leadoff single to center in the first inning, then promptly stole second base.  He took third base on a weak groundout to third, then scored on an RBI single by Mike Piazza.  The Mets batted around in that first inning, scoring four times.

By the sixth inning, the Astros had cut the lead to one, as Richard Hidalgo's two-run homer had turned an early 4-0 lead into a tight 4-3 game.  Once again, a rally started by Roger Cedeño gave the Mets some breathing room.  With one out in the sixth, Cedeño doubled to left, then stole third base, giving Edgardo Alfonzo the opportunity to drive in a run without getting a hit, which he promptly did by lifting a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Cedeño and giving the Mets an insurance run.  The bullpen did the rest, and the Mets held on for a 5-3 victory.

The game against the Astros began a stretch in which Cedeño started 10 times in 12 games.  Given his first chance as an everyday player, Cedeño went on a blistering tear, batting .400 and reaching base 27 times (18 hits, nine walks) in those 12 games.  On May 12, Cedeño went 4-for-4 with a walk, three runs scored and a stolen base against the Phillies.  He followed that up two days later by picking up two more hits, scoring three runs and tying a franchise record with four stolen bases against the Rockies.  Naturally, both efforts led the Mets to victories in each game.

Despite a brilliant first half in which hit .332, had a .432 on-base percentage, scored 53 runs and led the league with 46 steals, Cedeño was left off the National League All-Star roster.  Perhaps feeding off his snub, Cedeño continued to excel after the break.  In his first two games following the Midsummer Classic, Cedeño went 4-for-9 with two doubles, three runs scored, three RBIs and four stolen bases.  The four steals gave him 50 thefts on the year, making him the third Met to reach that mark after Mookie Wilson (1982, 1983) and Lance Johnson (1996).

Mets fans saw this quite often in 1999, as Roger Cedeño was the master of his stolen base domain.

Cedeño tied Mookie Wilson's club record for steals when he stole his 58th base on August 10 against Padres' reliever Donne Wall.   He then waited nearly three weeks to break Mookie's mark, but when he did it, he made sure it occurred in a game Mets fans would never forget.

On August 30, the Mets were leading the Astros, 2-0 in the second inning when Cedeño stepped up to the plate after a home run by Darryl Hamilton.  Cedeño followed Hamilton's homer with a single up the middle.  After a strikeout by Rey Ordoñez and a sacrifice bunt by Masato Yoshii, Cedeño stole third base, breaking Mookie Wilson's club record.  The stolen base rattled Astros' starter Shane Reynolds, as he proceeded to give up an RBI single to Rickey Henderson, a single to Edgardo Alfonzo, a two-run double to Robin Ventura and a two-run homer to Mike Piazza.  By the time the inning was over, the Mets had taken a 7-0 lead and the onslaught was on.  The Mets went on to defeat the Astros, 17-1, but the lead story was no longer Cedeño breaking Mookie Wilson's single-season stolen base record, but Edgardo Alfonzo's one-for-the-ages performance, as Fonzie went 6-for-6 with three home runs, a double, two singles, six runs scored and five RBIs.

A week after breaking the stolen base record, Cedeño's batting average had fallen to .306, threatening to dip below the .300 mark for the first time since the day after he became an everyday player in early May.  But then Cedeño turned it up a notch for the stretch run, hitting .359 over the team's final 22 games.  He also reached base at a .431 clip, scored 13 runs and stole six bases as the Mets clinched the wild card berth in a one-game playoff against the Cincinnati Reds.  It was on to the playoffs for the Mets and Cedeño's first postseason experience was one both he and the Mets would always remember.

After starting 106 of the team's final 138 games, Roger Cedeño only started one game in the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  But in Game 4, Cedeño kept the Mets' hopes alive with a crucial at-bat.  After the Mets had fallen behind on a two-out, two-run double by Arizona shortstop Jay Bell in the top of the eighth inning, the Mets were six outs away from having to go back to the desert to face eventual Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson in a fifth and deciding game.  But an error by rightfielder Tony Womack gave the Mets hope and put two runners in scoring position for Cedeño, who had entered the game one inning earlier as a defensive replacement for Benny Agbayani.  Cedeño came through in the clutch, driving in the tying run with a sacrifice fly.  With the new life afforded to them via the bat of Roger Cedeño, the Mets were able to win the game and the series when Todd Pratt hit a walk-off homer to straightaway center over the not-completely outstretched glove of Steve Finley in the bottom of the tenth inning.

Cedeño and the Mets were now off to the National League Championship Series to face their division rivals in Atlanta.  This time, manager Bobby Valentine made sure to get him more playing time.  Cedeño made sure to save the best for last.

The Mets lost the first three games of the NLCS to the Braves, even with Cedeño hitting .429 over the first two games (he did not play in Game 3).  Just like they did in Game 4 of the NLDS, the Mets let a one-run eighth inning lead slip away in Game 4 of the NLCS, as Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko hit back-to-back home runs off Mets' starter Rick Reed after Reed had faced the minimum 21 batters through the first seven innings.

With the Mets six outs away from elimination, Roger Cedeño led off the bottom of the eighth with a single off Braves' starter John Smoltz.  After Rey Ordoñez popped out on a failed bunt attempt and Benny Agbayani struck out against reliever Mike Remlinger, the Mets were only four outs away from ending their season prematurely.  But Cedeño wasn't about to let the season end without a fight, as he stole second base to put the tying run in scoring position.  Needing to pitch more carefully, Remlinger walked Melvin Mora, putting the go-ahead run on base and setting the stage for volatile closer John Rocker to come into the game to face John Olerud.  In an instant, Cedeño and Mora pulled off a daring double steal, putting two runners in scoring position for the Mets' first baseman.  Olerud then stroked a single to center, giving the Mets a lead they would not relinquish, a lead made possible by the bat and legs of Roger Cedeño.

As Roger Cedeño and Melvin Mora celebrated scoring the tying and go-ahead runs behind him, John Rocker was left to ponder what time he could catch the 7 train out of Shea.

The Mets and Braves battled for 15 innings in Game 5.  Although Cedeño didn't play in the first 14 innings, he did find himself in the right spot at the right time, coming into the game as a pinch-runner for Matt Franco in the 15th.  Cedeño ended up scoring the winning run on Robin Ventura's Grand Slam Single, the only run the Mets needed to take a 4-3 victory over the Braves.

Unfortunately, Cedeño's season ended earlier than it did for his teammates, as he was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning of Game 6, as the Mets were rallying from an early five-run deficit.  The Mets had already scored three runs in the sixth and had the tying run at the plate in Cedeño when Bobby Valentine decided to go with a power threat in Benny Agbayani.  The Mets failed to tie the game in the sixth inning and Cedeño was out of the game, five innings before the Mets' season ended when Kenny Rogers gambled and threw ball four to Andruw Jones in the 11th inning.  Who knows if Cedeño would have provided the Mets with a key hit or stolen base in extra innings had he remained in the game?

Despite the disappointing end to the 1999 season, Cedeño had sparkled in the postseason.  Although he started only five games against the Diamondbacks and Braves, the speedster batted .421, scored three runs, drove in three more and stole three bases.  Cedeño had just completed a memorable season, one in which he finally established himself as an everyday player in the major leagues.  His fabulous postseason followed a regular season in which he hit .313, scored 90 runs and stole a franchise-record 66 bases.  So what did the Mets do to reward him for his efforts?  They traded him.

After one season in New York, the Mets dealt Roger Cedeño, Octavio Dotel (who was the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the NLCS) and minor leaguer Kyle Kessel to Houston in exchange for 22-game winner Mike Hampton and rightfielder Derek Bell.  Both Hampton and Bell were one-and-done in New York, as Hampton signed an eight-year free agent contract with the Colorado Rockies following the 2000 season and Bell inked a one-year deal with Pittsburgh.

Cedeño played one injury-plagued season in Houston, batting .282 with 54 runs scored and 25 stolen bases in 74 games before signing a one-year contract to play in Detroit in 2001.  He returned to his past glory in the Motor City, hitting .293 with a career-high 11 triples and 55 stolen bases in 131 games.  Once again, Cedeño was a free agent following the 2001 campaign and the Mets were looking for a speedster.  This time, however, it was a match that should never have been made.

On December 17, 2001, the Mets signed Roger Cedeño to a four-year, $18 million contract.  However, Cedeño showed up at training camp overweight and out of baseball shape, and it showed during the regular season.  In his first year back with the Mets, Cedeño batted .260, had a .318 on-base percentage and only stole 25 bases.  Going into the 2003 season, the Mets were hoping that Cedeño could return to his 1999 self.  Instead, they got more of the 2002 version, as Cedeño batted .267 and reached base at a .320 clip.  However, his stolen bases dropped to 14 despite playing in 148 games and his 60.9% success rate was also the worst of his nine-year career.

Those orange batting practice jerseys weren't very slimming, nor did they help Roger Cedeño recapture the form he once showed for the Mets in 1999.

Finally, after two years of high expectations and an endless stream of boos from the Shea faithful, Cedeño was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004 for Wilson Delgado.  The Mets did agree to pay all but $1 million of the remaining $10 million left on Cedeño's contract, but they were finally rid of him.

Roger Cedeño came to New York in 1999 after never establishing himself in Los Angeles.  He then put together one of the most unexpected seasons in club annals, helping the Mets reach the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.  Almost as quickly as he got here, Cedeño was gone, traded to Houston for a pitcher who helped the team make it back to the postseason in 2000.  However, despite his comeback season in Detroit in 2001, Cedeño was never as good as he was for that one wonderful season in 1999.  The Mets made the mistake to re-sign him following the 2001 season and the team suffered in the standings, finishing in last place in both years of Cedeño's second stint in New York.

Sometimes it's best to quit when one is ahead.  The Mets and Roger Cedeño were ahead of everyone but the Braves in 1999.  Three years later, both parties were behind everyone in the NL East.  It just goes to show that sometimes a one-season wonder should stop after that one wonderful season.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, as usual!