Over the past few years, a number of ballplayers defecting from Cuba have infused baseball with energy, excitement, and talent. This most recent wave of imports probably started with Aroldis Chapman, but can be followed down the line to other impact talents on the field today: Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and the Mets’ own Yoenis Cespedes. But before Cespedes took Queens by storm in the middle of 2015, there was another Cuban import who brought excitement to Mets fans: Alay Soler.
Just kidding. Of course, I’m referring to Rey Ordonez. One of the most talented defensive players in Met history, Ordonez’s glove would carry him to a nine-year MLB career and a decent run as the team’s starting shortstop. And while not all was perfect with Rey-Rey manning the middle–I’ll get to that at length later–he became something of an early stats-versus-scouts poster boy in the pre-Moneyball era, as the debate raged over whether or not his defensive prowess outstripped his offensive inadequacies.
Let’s begin with Ordonez’s arrival in the States. After defecting from Cuba during the summer of 1993, Ordonez took up with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League while he awaited MLB’s decision on where and how he could make his way into the top baseball circuit in the world. Ordonez entered a weighted lottery, where the hapless Mets earned the most chances to snag him due to their previous failings as a franchise.
For two years, Rey surged through the Mets’ minor-league system, wowing scouts with his extreme defensive abilities. Ordonez had an absolute cannon of an arm, was rangy, and seemed smooth in his motions, earning early plaudits as the heir to Ozzie Smith as the All-Star shortstop neared the end of his career. By the time the start of the 1996 season rolled around, the Mets were ready to make the young Cuban their new starting shortstop to begin the year, despite almost zero success offensively as he rose through the minors.
Ordonez debuted for the Mets on Opening Day–April 1, 1996–to much fanfare as the fifth official defector from Cuba to play in the major leagues, and the first to not be a pitcher or first baseman. In his very first game, he made all the hype about his phenomenal defensive ability come to life thanks to one signature play relaying a throw from the outfield to nail a hustling Royce Clayton at home. It was awesome.
Almost as good was the offensive performance that game: Ordonez went one-for-two with a walk. That very well might’ve been the high point of his offensive career–see, Rey would never find a way to become anything of a hitter. His offensive performance over the life of his career was terrible–terrible enough to prevent him from being much more than a replacement-level player despite his amazing defense. As we now know, being an effective position player is a balancing act. Each guy has to balance offensive ability with what they bring to the field. If you’re an extraordinarily talented defensive shortstop, you only need a modicum of bat in order to make yourself valuable. Look at Mark Belanger’s long and productive career with the Orioles as an example: he posted a poor .231 True Average over his career, but his incredible defense made up for that and then some–he was worth 23.6 WARP over his time in the majors. That’s a roughly league-average career, with a few peaks and valleys.
Ordonez wasn’t like Belanger. To start, he had a .214 career True Average. Belanger’s True Average rates near “Poor” on BP’s descriptive scale, but Ordonez leans more to “Horrendous.” A .214 True Average is something close to Carlos Zambrano’s career True Average. Zambrano, of course, was a pitcher; Ordonez hit like a pretty good-hitting pitcher, and that’s simply not accepable. Rey could not do two things at all: walk, or hit for power. He could make a little contact, but that was about it. He had to field marvelously to make it as an everyday player–if he hit worse than Belanger, he’d probably have to field better than the legendary shortstop.
Between 1996 and 1999, Ordonez was the everyday starting shortstop for the team and snagged some hardware as a result. His showing in 1996 earned him a fifth-place Rookie of the Year finish, and he won Gold Glove awards in 1997, 1998, and 1999. 1999 was an especially interesting year. Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average has always been fairly down on Ordonez’s defense–that’s one of the reasons why he’s rated so low by WARP over his career–and gave him credit for 0.7 FRAA on the year. TotalZone, however, was another story. TZ is what goes into FanGraphs’ pre-2002 value calculations, and that gives Ordonez credit for 33 runs, an absolutely staggering amount. Because of this, Ordonez has the third-highest defensive run value for a shortstop in baseball history for a single season, behind just Belanger’s 1975 season and Terry Turner of the 1906 Cleveland Naps.
During those seasons he also was one of the worst hitters in the league. His on-base percentage was .288, his slugging percentage .291. He was approximately 50% worse than league-average as a hitter, and as a result, he “earned” -1.5 WARP despite his defensive greatness. The Mets would, perhaps, have been better off with a freely-available Triple-A shortstop instead of the magical glove of Ordonez up the middle. And that takes into account the fact that he was intentionally walked at a rate that would make Giancarlo Stanton blush.
But then we wouldn’t have web gems like this in our memories.
In 2000, the year the Mets went to the World Series for the first time in more than a decade, Ordonez didn’t have much to do with their season. He suffered a serious arm fracture, cutting his season short, and disallowing him from playing during the team’s best performance in 15 years. But even before that, he wasn’t doing anything different with the bat: he had but five extra-base hits (all doubles) in 155 plate appearances, with a .188 batting average. If the Mets were possessed of a much better option at the six, this might’ve been the time to move on. Instead, he’d hang on for two more seasons as the starter in 2001 and 2002.
In those two season, the song didn’t exactly remain the same: according to BP, these were two of his most productive years. In addition to FRAA giving Ordonez more credit than usual for his defense (a combined 15.8 runs above average), he offered up better-than-usual TAv numbers of .227 in 2001 and .224 in 2002. That’s hardly world-beating–it’s still decidedly below average, even for a shortstop–but it was good enough to make him a net positive in each season, and gave him a total of 2.3 WARP over that two-season period.
By the end of 2002, the Mets needed to make a change, and dealt their shortstop to the Devil Rays for a couple of players to be named later. Ordonez had part of a very successful offseason in ’03 with Tampa, but then was injured and bounced to the Cubs the next year, where he hardly played. He competed against Khalil Greene in Spring Training for a spot with the 2005 Padres, but ultimately fell out of the game. He almost made a comeback in 2007 with the Seattle Mariners, but never ended up playing again in the big leagues after his 2004 run with the Cubs. It’s almost funny–as his hitting improved to a level where it could finally make him a reasonable overall player, his defense started to fall off and injuries wracked him. Nothing gold can stay.
Perhaps the closest thing to a comp in the current Mets system is minor-league shortstop Luis Guillorme. Guillorme is a top-flight defender–perhaps one of the better shortstop gloves in the minor leagues–but it’ll require a minor miracle for his bat to ever become major-league ready. In that sense, he reflects Ordonez: all the defensive talent in the world must be tempered by some ability to hit, otherwise the overall value metrics like WARP and WAR will never show you as a valuable big leaguer.
In the end, Rey Ordonez was not a valuable player … but he was surely memorable. Of course, he provided value by being a functional, regular shortstop, but his lack of offense ultimately doomed him to an exit from the league in his early-30s. Defense is great, and the rise of glove-only players like Adam Everett and Kevin Kiermaier prove that there’s a role for guys who give back some value on offense. But despite all the highlight plays and the amazing throws, there has to be a bit of ability to either reach base or hit for power. Unlike the Mets’ current Cuban import, Ordonez couldn’t put one out of the park or find a way to walk until the end of his career, so he ended up being more flash than on-field value.
Photo Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports