Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vidro, Vidi, Vici

It's a shame that we never saw the real Jose Vidro. The broken-down singles hitter we saw bore no resemblance to the actual player. I'm too young to remember it, but the stories you hear about an ancient Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield of Shea Stadium seems an apt parallel. That's not to say that Vidro was anything close to Mays. He wasn't. But he was a pretty damn good player. We just didn't see it.

Vidro wasn't a very highly regarded prospect. The Expos drafted him in the sixth round, way back in 1992. In his first crack at pro ball, he smacked around the Gulf Coast League, batting .330 and (you won't believe this) stealing 10 of 11 bases.

1993, he got the call-up to Burlington and fared poorly. He suffered two separate stints on the DL with the same wrist injury, killing any chances he had of success. Despite that, the Expos pushed him forward. While the big club was doing amazing things in 1994, Vidro flat-lined. He was smacking doubles, and he showed a decent eye, but his overall numbers were less than impressive. To an observer from afar, it looked like he was bumping up against the ceiling of prospecthood. He either had to improve, or he wasn't going to make it.

In 1995, he took that big step forward. Repeating High-A, he smacked the crap out of the ball for 44 games, batting .325 and ripping 15 doubles, before the Expos sent him to Harrisburg. He couldn't hold the solid average at the higher level, but as a 21-year old second baseman, he was holding his own against advanced competition. He had turned himself back into a prospect.

In 1996, he split time at second and third as the Expos, who had Mike Lansing capably filling second, were trying to figure out a place for him in the lineup. He and Vlad Guerrero led Harrisburg to the Eastern League title -- Would you believe that Vidro had more RBI than Guerrero? And in 1997, he got the bump up to Triple-A. He still mostly played 3B and showed the same kind of line-drive power swing that had carried him throughout the minors, hitting .323 with an impressive 40 extra-base hits in just 70 games.

He would get his chance in June. With Vlad Guerrero on the DL, the Expos sent for the hot-hitting kid in the minors. In the 7th inning of a game against the Cubs, he was sent up as a pinch-hitter with the Expos down 2, promptly doubling in his first at bat (off the immortal Steve Trachsel). He later came around to score, and the Expos would rally to win in the bottom of the 9th. Unfortunately, that would be only one of three hits he'd have in his first go-around. He got sent back to the minors before being recalled in July. He became one of the primary PH options off the bench, and saw a fair amount of time at third. It wasn't his natural position, and he didn't really handle the adjustment, despite the attempted switch in the minors, too well. His rookie stats don't look that impressive, but then you realize that he was just 22.

The Expos wisely penciled him in as their starting 2B and 6th batter in the next season. It didn't go well. He was batting just .171 with a meager .214 slugging average when the Expos sent him back to AAA, filling his spot with Orlando Cabrera. Vidro would bounce up and down throughout the year, never really gaining traction in the NL or at Triple-A. Still just 23, he was at another crisis point. Orlando Cabrera, Shane Andrews and Wilton Guerrero were all young and floating around the system. With other options available, how much patience would the Expos show?

Jose Vidro started the year with the Expos, but he was on the bench watching Wilton Guerrero play second. He had intermittent starts, playing at second and first, showing that he had made those adjustments and he was for real. Two hits and 5 RBI on April 14, then three more on the 24th. By early May he was batting almost .300 and slugging over .500. The second base job was his, and he played like he was never going to give it back. When his first full year in the majors was over, he had his .300 average and 45 doubles. He was on his way to being a star.

Jose Vidro would do even better in 2000, crushing 24 homers and hitting 51 doubles while batting .330. All are career highs. He would be rewarded by making the All-Star Game in Atlanta. Although it's hard to imagine it now, Vidro was a decent fielder, roughly league average on Montreal's tough concrete grass.

The next three seasons were like clockwork. Vidro showed up, hit his liners, and, in the process, got named to two more All-Star Games. In 2002 he was actually voted in by the fans as a starter -- a deserving, if surprising, choice.

But the crappy field conditions and his inattention to conditioning started taking their toll (I'm sure the team's brutal travel schedule, which featured a stretch of games that went from Montreal to Puerto Rico to Seattle to Miami played a part). A sore right shoulder and a gimpy knee in 2003 limited his games and cut back on his effectiveness. The knee injury would come back in 2004, limiting him to just 110 games and a career-low slugging percentage.

With talk of contraction swirling, and the uncertainty of the future, Vidro, who was the team's only real star, did the unthinkable: he signed a four-year contract extension tying him to the only franchise he'd ever known and without knowing their ultimate fate. From afar, it seemed admirable, and a stroke of genius by GM Omar Minaya and an amazing act of loyalty by a player. But up close, the cynic could certainly point to Vidro's declining performance, his now-nagging injuries and wonder how risky the move really was for the player.

Vidro had knee surgery in the offseason, and when 2005 began, he found himself in a new city, playing for thousands, not hundreds, of fans each night. April 7 was our first glimpse of the player that was: Jose Vidro's 10th-inning homer won the game for the Nats and gave us the first sign that there might be something special brewing. On April 20, his two-run homer was the only scoring of an improbable shutout win over the hated Braves. But in May, he hurt his ankle and returned to the DL. It's hard to remember it because of what came later, but he was batting .290/ .365/ .510, and living up to past expectations.

With the team steamrolling through the first half, Vidro returned on July 5th, and it was certainly a coincidence that that's when things went to hell for the Nats. Two days before, they had won their 50th game out of just 81 played. They would go on to win just 31 more. Vidro played second almost every day, and just couldn't do it. First the ankle, then the knee. They each acted up, robbing him of any range, and any drive with his bat. By the time the season was over, that amazing slugging percentage was down to just .424. Vidro was starting to look done.

2006 saw much of the same. He started out hot, hitting .377 in April. Impressively, he was showing decent range at second, getting to balls that were rolling past him the previous year. He had a huge 5-RBI game against the Astros in April, ripping a three-run bomb that put a close game out of reach. But it was all a wasted effort. Lousy pitching kept the team from winning, and a hamstring injury to his other leg robbed him of any remaining range, eventually taking his bat with it. Although Vidro wouldn't admit it, Frank Robinson believed that his knee was acting up, too. Add it up, and it was a lost season for him and the Nats.

Second basemen simply don't last as long as other positions. With his injury history, declining performance and body shape, there's not much reason to believe that he'll rebound to what he was. Fat Bottoms might make the rockin' world go 'round, but they don't get to many grounders.

It's a shame that we never saw what he was, a line-drive machine who was a legitimate All-Star second baseman. We saw a few glimpses here and there, but the overall feeling most Nats fans are going to have towards the guy is one of mediocrity. We'll remember the knee. We'll remember the gut. We'll remember all those grounders slowly rolling towards Jose Guillen in right. It's probably not fair to Jose; he is a better player than that. But it's the only memory we'll really have.

I wish him luck in Seattle, even as I don't expect him to do much there. Perhaps DHing will take pressure off that knee and give him a measure of what he was doing before, but he's going from one extreme pitcher's park to one that might actually be worse. It's going to be a challenge for him, but his career has been filled with challenges that he's overcome. He's at another one of those forks in the road in his career. Either he performs, or he's out of baseball. Hopefully he can show Mariners fans what all the hype used to be about.

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