At that moment, fans of the San Diego Padres took a collective gasp as they were faced with the potential of losing one of the team’s brightest young players to injury. Fortunately, X-Rays were negative and Cordoba did not have to miss an extended amount of time due to the injury.
Cordoba, a Rule-5 pick coming from the St. Louis Cardinals organization, was one of three Rule-5 draft picks that the Padres elected to carry on the 25-man roster on opening day. All three have remained on the 25-man roster and it seems at this point that they could all stick around for the duration of the season.
Miguel Diaz, who is a Rule-5 pick along with Cordoba, is currently on the 10-day disabled list with an oblique strain. In order for the Padres to avoid returning him to his original team, the Milwaukee Brewers, he will need to spend at least 90 days on the active roster (not on the DL). Diaz has not yet accrued the minimum amount of 90 days, and while it is unlikely that he will remain on the DL for the rest of the season, stranger things have happened. If Cordoba had sustained a more severe injury he could have been exposed to a similar risk.
The threat of losing Cordoba immediately inspired me to do an assessment of his value according to his production so far this season, as well as a projection of how he might factor into the team’s future.
Prior to this season, Cordoba never played a game above rookie ball. In 2016 he won the Appalachian League batting title with a .362 batting average, 71 hits, 21 extra-base hits and 22 steals. Defensively, he showed enough range and ability at shortstop to warrant an opportunity at the major league level. As it is well known, shortstops are usually the most athletic players on any team making it easy to slot them into other positions of need around the diamond. This has been true for Cordoba in the 2017 season; his versatility has afforded him a healthy amount of playing time all around the field.
The Padres opened the season with Erick Aybar slated as their starting shortstop with Luis Sardinas as his backup. Cordoba was seen as more of a bonus player, stashed deep on the roster, good for a pinch hit here and there. In just a few at-bats, Cordoba began to demonstrate that his maturity level at the plate was beyond expectation. In the months of March and April combined he slashed .258/.324/.452 with two home runs and a wRC+ of 107 in 31 at-bats. At the end of April Travis Jankowski went down with a foot injury, allowing Cordoba to fill the void and secure regular starts in left field. His success carried into the month of May as he slashed .308/.338/.400 with a wRC+ of 98 in 65 at-bats.
On top of his value at the plate, Cordoba’s defense began to garner some attention. Multiple standout plays in the outfield accentuated his premium athleticism, even in an unfamiliar position. To date, Cordoba owns a DRS of 2.0 in the outfield, which by that metric means that he is two runs better than the average MLB outfielder. He is at a -1 DRS in his limited time at shortstop so far this season, but that makes sense when reminded that this is his first season above rookie ball.
June has seen a downtick in production from Cordoba at the plate. On the month he is slashing .157/.214/.216 with a wRC+ of 16 in 51 at-bats. Competition for playing time with recent call-ups Jose Pirela and Franchy Cordero in left field is going to require Cordoba to pick up the pace if he wants to continue to see regular at-bats. With Manuel Margot back from his DL stint and Jankowski likely to return soon, it seems that someone is going to see significantly reduced playing time if not a demotion. Cordoba has his Rule-5 status going for him, so his spot on the roster is mostly safe. Maybe now is the time for Cordoba to get a better look at shortstop for a greater evaluation?
The Padres are still using Aybar as their starting shortstop for the most part. Sardinas was designated for assignment in late May and Chase d’Arnaud was claimed off of waivers shortly after to share time with Aybar. Both have been underwhelming thus far; certainly not the solution to the Padres’ longstanding hole at the position. d’Arnaud has a DRS of -1 at shortstop with the Padres this season and a wRC+ of 35 on the season. Aybar also has a DRS of -1 at the position and a wRC+ of 74 on the season. Neither of the two are part of the future. It seems prudent to give Cordoba a chance to learn on the job and prove himself. His output won’t be much worse than what the team already has going, in fact, it will probably be better. He’ll definitely take his lumps in the field due to inexperience but he’ll grow from it.
If Cordoba sticks with the team through the season, he will almost certainly be sent down to either Double or Triple-A for further conditioning to begin the 2018 season. Unless the Padres acquire another MLB ready option at shortstop, it’s likely that Jose Rondon will be given a shot to prove himself at the position. Currently he is enjoying a recent promotion to Triple-A where he is slashing .296/.367/.481 with a wRC+ of 120 in 27 at-bats. Before his promotion he was slashing .293/.343/.433 with a wRC+ of 116 in 215 at-bats in Double-A on the season. The Padres had him up for a cup of coffee at the end of 2016 but he didn’t do much, hitting for an average of .216 in 25 at-bats.
After a season of time in the minors to polish his game, Rondon may be ready to assume the starting role in 2018. If he is able to translate his Double and Triple-A production at the plate to the major leagues, he could finally give the Padres the fix they that need at their gaping hole at shortstop. This would be excellent because the team would get production at the position and they could keep Cordoba down for as long as he needs in order to fully develop into an MLB ready ballplayer.
Rondon’s not a sure thing though. He’s never been amazing and doesn’t project to have a high ceiling. The Padres can realistically hope for an average player who can hold down the position and prove serviceable at the plate. That will be good enough to get the team through the next few years until their strongest young shortstop prospects are ready to join the Padres. If Rondon fails, or his production simply isn’t good enough, maybe Cordoba could step in as early as mid-to-late 2018 and become that bridge at the position until guys like Fernando Tatis Jr. or Luis Almanzar are ready. Objectively, Cordoba has a higher ceiling than Rondon, and depending on how quickly he polishes his game in the minors, he should supplant him eventually.
Speaking of prospects, Tatis and Almanzar provide a lot to dream on, as they both have gigantic ceilings. Tatis is especially showing solid progression in Fort Wayne. If all goes smoothly, he could be with the Padres as soon as 2020. These guys are a ways away though, and not to be overly pessimistic but a lot could happen in a span of three to five years. The least concerning possibility could simply be that some of these guys end up switching positions. If that happens, which often does with shortstop prospects, it’s good to have a multitude of options. If Cordoba comes on strong and takes possession of the shortstop position, who’s to say he’ll have to give it up when other prospects are ready to move up. On the other hand, maybe Cordoba will be flexible enough to move positions if the team needs him to.
Let’s also not forget Ruddy Giron and Javier Guerra, who are also working their way through the farm system and both have a lot of potential. With many athletic young players there are a lot of possibilities. It seems if all of these players remain with the organization, at least some of them are going to have to find alternative spots around the diamond. This is why it’s difficult to anoint any of the best prospects at the position in the system, “the shortstop of the future.” There are too many good choices. Only time will tell.
Cordoba has been impressive this season. That’s without question. The team needed just the kind of exciting young player that he has proven to be. Whether or not he sees more major league time soon after the season or several years down the road, the Padres got a good one. The fact that he is a shortstop, a position that San Diego has been missing for years, makes him all the more exciting. My hope for the near future is to see Cordoba at shortstop often for the rest of the season, to get a good look at if he has the right stuff to play there in the future. He by no means has to be perfect, just good enough to make us think. Thank God he didn’t break his wrist.