Miami Marlins Season Preview: Center Field

Mar 6, 2012; Jupiter, FL. USA; Miami Marlins center fielder Emilio Bonifacio (1) and Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes (7) almost collide while going for a fly ball hit by Detroit Tigers second baseman Eric Patterson (not pictured) at Roger Dean Stadium. For the Marlins' sake, this better not be a scene seen often in 2012. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Welcome to the Miami Marlins Season Preview! After this, check out the other previews:

02/24: Catcher
02/27: First base
02/28:
Second base
03/01:
Third base
03/05: Shortstop
03/06: Left Field

The Marlins continue playing, and here at Fish Stripes we continue previewing. After going over a series of positions of relative stability heading in 2012, the Marlins will have some question marks about center field. Yes, we know who will primarily be playing, there is not a whole lot of doubt about that. The question is whether that set of players can be good enough to contribute successfully to the Marlins in 2012.

Depth Chart

1. Emilio Bonifacio
2. Bryan Petersen
3. Chris Coghlan
4. Scott Cousins

Minor League Depth: Aaron Rowand

There is almost no chance the Marlins carry four outfielders on the roster, meaning at least one of these guys will have to start for the team's Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans, but the point remains that the Fish will be depending on a slew of players who either are unproven or have much to prove about their abilities in 2012. Of the four outfielders listed above (not counting Rowand, who is clearly minor league depth), none come into this season without question marks about their future.

The slated starter as of right now is Emilio Bonifacio, who had a breakout campaign in 2011 on his way to a three-win season. Along the way, he showed real improvement, something to which i alluded earlier this offseason. So it is not as if we are dealing with the same player we saw in 2009, when Bonifacio was a black hole of offensive ineptitude. The Marlins are getting a player who has drastically improved in terms of plate discipline, and this is significant given that Bonifacio's primary concern when arriving in the majors was his patience at the plate. Last season, his walk rate climbed to 9.2 percent, and he did this via legitimate mechanisms in terms of plate discipline; Bonifacio simply swung at fewer pitches and ran into more walks. Those numbers are not likely to regress much.

However, that BABIP from last season remains a complete mirage. Even with Bonifacio's ample speed, it is highly doubtful that he will be able to hit that well on balls in play. Even if there were legitimate improvements in his swing and other contact parameters (and at least in terms of rate of contact, Bonifacio remained around his career level and the league average), it would be difficult for him to maintain his otherworldly performance. Take a look at this comparison point I made in the previous article:

From 2008-2010, among players with at least 1000 PA, the following are the top 5 BABIP:
1. Shin-Soo Choo: .360
2. Ichiro Suzuki: .356
3. Carlos Gonzalez: .355
4. Joe Mauer: .354
5. Manny Ramirez: .353

These were the very best for three seasons and over 1000 PA, and none maintained the .370 mark that Bonifacio did. And Bonifacio only hit that well on balls in play in one season (640 PA). The money is on him dropping down closer to his career .340 mark (a mark only 15 players in 2008-2010 reached) than staying up there.

It is hard to immediately claim, after one successful season, that Bonifacio will play as well as any of these players in terms of balls in play, as all of them had previous track record of success. Bonifacio is much more likely to hit around his career .339 mark on balls in play than he is to hit close to .372 like he did last season.

This is particularly relevant because, aside from Bonifacio's newfound walk rate, not much has changed about him, and his skillset is still very dependent on a high batting average. Bonifacio has no power to speak of, and traditionally, weak hitters of his ilk struggle to be offensive options. Since 2009, there are 23 other players besides Bonifacio with at least 1000 PA and an ISO lower than .100. Among these players, the highest wOBA in that time span belongs to Michael Bourn at .333, and Bourn pretty much typifies the best a slap-hitting speedster can be on offense. As a group, these players collectively hit for a .310 wOBA, and that selects for only the sorts of slap-hitters who are good enough in other areas to qualify for 1000 PA. Furthermore, the majority of these players attempted to compensate to a degree by avoiding strikeouts, which is something Bonifacio does not do well; among the same group of players, Bonifacio has struck out the most among them at 19.7 percent, while the group as a whole struck out at a 13 percent clip.

This does not mean that Bonifacio will not be better on offense than he has in years past, but rather that Marlins fans should once again tone down expectations. Let's take a look at what the projections have to say.

Proj System PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA/TAv
ZiPS 588 .263 .326 .347 .305
Steamer 608 .263 .325 .351 .306
PECOTA 661 .262 .314 .335 .239
Fans 630 .276 .336 .354 .316

The projection systems still clearly remember the ghosts of 2009, and as I mentioned above, the ghosts are not fully eradicated either. Both ZiPS and Steamer seem to think Bonifacio will look like his 2010 self, and that does not sound too far-fetched. I'd even be willing to go so far as to project a slightly better wOBA of .310 for Bonifacio next year. Add on three runs of offense for being an elite baserunner and you get a player who is essentially league average on offense.

But what about defense? I'd be willing to admit that Bonifacio is likely going to improve defensively by moving to one position more consistently and playing in the outfield, where I think his skills are better suited. Nevertheless, his poor reputation on defense precedes him, and I will probably look at using the FanGraphs Fans projection of two runs below average as a good barometer.

Projection: 620 PA, 2.0 WAR

This is a fairly sunny projection honestly, as I expected him to be worth less than the league average two wins. Nevertheless, this is yet another solid contribution from another position on the Fish, once again showing that the team has balance, if not depth. Keep in mind that this projection likely accounts for Bonifacio spending time backing up other positions as well, as he is the primary backup middle infielder for both Omar Infante and Jose Reyes.

The rest of the lineup is decent but unspectacular. Bryan Petersen garnered over 200 PA last season and made a decent first impression in the majors.

Proj System PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA/TAv
ZiPS 551 .259 .334 .379 .313
Steamer 196 .259 .340 .381 .318
PECOTA 289 .257 .326 .372 .254

All of these numbers look about right in terms of projection, and I would safely make this projection

Projection: 200 PA, 0.9 WAR

If Petersen becomes the primary backup at all three outfield positions, he has a decent chance at some playing time and would be able to contribute. He is a solid, slightly above average defender at each position, and his contributions should be significant and positive off the bench.

The other players face a solid uphill climb to make the team. Cousins and Coghlan will be battling for what may be one final slot on the roster, and Coghlan's history and left-handedness may win out. Neither player is projected to be much more than what Petersen may provide, however, so discussing their impact may not be relevant. This is particularly sad for Coghlan, who is only two seasons removed from a Rookie of the Year win. As for Rowand, he should be minor league depth, but there is a chance the Marlins will run with him in the majors as they did with DeWayne Wise last season. Rowand is a solid defender, but at this point he has lost a lot offensive skill, even though he was still somewhat relevant in 2010.

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