Renteria offers a huge upside

Edgar Renteria?

Dude's been around forever, right?

Didn't he break in with Barry Larkin?

Renteria once played in a World Series when the managers were Jim Leyland and Mike Hargrove -- two jobs removed for Hargrove. His teammates on that team included Jim Eisenreich, Darren Daulton, Bobby Bonilla and Devon White.

The question isn't whether you can find any of his performances on ESPN Classic. It is whether they are in color or black and white, right?


Renteria is 29. He won't turn 30 until next August. He broke into the big leagues almost two full seasons after Alex Rodriguez.

It's easy to forget that Renteria was only 22 when he got the game-winning hit in the 11th inning of Game 7 in the 1997 World Series. He was 23 when he was traded to St. Louis after the '98 season.

Six seasons later, the Cardinals have made the mistake of allowing him to reach free agency. There are only a handful of more attractive free agents in this year's pool, which is especially deep in shortstops.

When scouts evaluate players, they look for two things -- talent and a feel for the game, which generally comes from having had the right kind of experience. Good habits are a whole lot better than bad ones.

When agents start selling their players' experience levels, it often means their clients are older than dirt. These are generally guys who move from team to team, looking for jobs in platoon roles.

Renteria is an exception. He combines a world of talent with the expectation of peak-year performance and has already seen just about everything in his career. Seldom does a free agent come along requiring so little guesswork.

Because he was 20 when he became a regular with the Florida Marlins, Renteria is positioned to play in more than 1,400 games during his 20s. Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. had played in 1,439 when he turned 30.

Renteria wasn't blessed with Ripken's powerful frame. In fact, he seemed practically malnourished at the start of his career.

Nor was Renteria lucky enough to grow up in organized baseball, as the Ripken brothers did because of their father, Cal Sr., a long-time Baltimore Orioles coach and minor-league manager. So there has been more of a learning curve to Renteria's career.

As his 30th birthday approaches, he is becoming Ripkenesque in his play.

Renteria's defensive trademark is his range. He gobbles up ground balls to either side. He sometimes forced the action in the field during the early years of his career, piling up 24-27 errors a year in one three-year stretch. But with experience, he makes fewer ill-advised throws.

Renteria has cut his error totals four years in a row, making only 11 last season. The only major league shortstop who was better than Renteria in both fielding percentage and range factor in 2004 was Colorado's Royce Clayton.

While Renteria isn't known as the Ironman, he has been healthier than every regular shortstop except Omar Vizquel during this era. He has been on the disabled list only twice in his career, most recently in 1998.

As Renteria has aged, he has improved as a hitter. That's largely because of a workout routine that has increased his strength. He fights off pitches that once overpowered him and he crushes pitches he once was happy just to put in play.

After hitting only .260 in 2001, Renteria has hit a combined .308 over the last three seasons. He's moved up and down in the Cardinals' order for Tony La Russa, sometimes hitting at the top -- justified by on-base percentages of .364 and .394 in 2002 and '03 -- and sometimes sixth or seventh in the Cardinals' deep order.

Working with since-fired hitting coach Mitchell Paige, Renteria shortened his swing noticeably. The result was that the kid from Colombia, who struck out 108 times in Florida's World Series season, had 11 more walks than strikeouts (65-54) in 2003.

It's likely that questions about his contract contributed to a falloff in Renteria's hitting last season. His average dropped 43 points and the dips in on-base percentage and slugging percentage were worse. But Renteria remained a clutch hitter.

He was more productive at the plate during the playoffs than the regular season, and was one of the few Cardinals who was a tough out for Boston pitchers in the World Series.

Another thing about Renteria - his teams often win. Five of the nine he's been on have had 90-plus wins.

And because he's not as old as it seems, his best years are probably ahead of him. Whoever signs Renteria will have had a good winter, even if they do nothing else.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.