Since Emilio Bonifacio left in a game last month against the Cleveland Indians, the center field position has been in turmoil for the Miami Marlins. The Fish have run three different players out to center field since Bonifacio hurt his thumb against the Indians on May 18, and none of their options have been all that impressive thus far. For the last 30 days (and that includes some time with Bonifacio), the Marlins' center fielders have hit .231/.317/.350 (.283 wOBA).
Now that the Marlins demoting Chris Coghlan and Bryan Petersen for their struggles, the club has very few options remaining while they wait for Bonifacio to return from the disabled list in another month or so. The club can always return to those two players once their required 10-day stint in the minors is complete, but for the next few games at least, the club will have to do with what they have at the big league level and the outfielder they bring up from Triple-A to replace Coghlan. Who are these options, and which one may be best for the Fish?
Justin Ruggiano is the immediate heir to the center field position based on his status the backup prior to Coghlan's demotion. Ruggiano has been on fire since being acquired by the Marlins from the Houston Astros for minor league catcher Jobduan Morales. He is currently hitting .333/.407/.750 (.444 wOBA) with two homers and four doubles in 28 PA.Ruggiano is hot at the plate right now, but 28 PA say nothing about a player's game. Prior to this season, he was your prototypical Quad-A All-Star; he has spent six seasons in Triple-A, the majority of them with the Rays affiliate Durham Bulls, and has hit .291/.365/.480 for his career at that level. However, his problem has always been the strikeout, as he whiffed in 25.9 percent of those Triple-A PA. Because his approach was considerably unrefined, especially for a player who came out of a four-year college stint, he was never more than an organizational player who could fill some holes.
However, there was something promising about Ruggiano heading into 2010. He worked with Jaime Cevallos, the swing mechanic coach best known for turning Ben Zobrist from an organizational player into a star for the Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately, that work did not seem to help Ruggiano much from 2010 to 2011, as he struck out 171 times in 697 PA, a 24.5 percent rate. But this season, at least for his first 138 PA in Houston's Triple-A system, he seemed to have cut down on those whiffs. He struck out only 24 times in 138 PA, a 17.4 percent rate, and that performance has continued into his major league work with the Fish; Ruggiano has whiffed just four times so far in the big leagues.
The rest of Ruggiano's game is fitting for a tweener. His bat is decent otherwise, with some power and patience at the plate. He is athletic enough to handle center field, though he is better suited at the corners. Because he started off so well, he is the favorite to carry the job starting on Friday.
The Old Prospect
While Ruggiano was never much of a prospect while he was stuck in the minors, at least Scott Cousins was considered one. In fact, Cousins was still the ninth-ranked prospect in the Marlins' system according to Baseball America and the 15th-best according to Marc Hulet of FanGraphs. That being said, like Ruggiano, Cousins has always had problems with his approach at the plate. He has enough power to get by at the plate, and his .281/.341/.461 line in Triple-A in parts of three seasons show good promise. Unfortunately, he too has a bad approach, having struck out 19.1 percent of the time in Triple-A and walked just 7.7 percent in 678 PA. Cousins lacks patience and some contact at the plate, and that could get him buried in the majors.
Still, he has a decent prospect track record and good tools, and it helps that he is at least now being considered a good defender in center field. Much like Petersen, he is a classic tweener who does not hit well enough to play a corner outfield position consistently but can be relied upon to play center. Cousins missed much of last season with a disc herniation a few weeks after his infamous collision with Buster Posey that knocked Posey out for the year. The fact that he is hitting well this season is a good start, and he should get a chance to at least back up the outfield spots as a true fourth outfielder if he is promoted.
Kevin Mattison was the Marlins' 26th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, but he is not much of a prospect. The 26 year-old Mattison is hitting just .246/.319/.417 in his first go-around in Triple-A. He is not even using his primary tool, as his speed game has been derailed in Triple-A (eight stolen bases in 15 attempts). Mattison is fast and can play center field, but he has minimal power and strikes out way too often (22.0 percent career minor league rate) for his skillset.
Here are the ZiPS rest-of-season projections for the players mentioned above, including Coghlan and Petersen.
As you can see, we are talking about pretty slim pickings here. As of right now, the Marlins should allow Ruggiano to stay in the lineup in more of a time share with Cousins rather than a straight platoon. I would favor Ruggiano as the starter for the time being, and while he will undoubtedly cool off from his scorching 28 PA sample, he still projects better than the other players by the tiniest of margins. Expect to see Petersen back in the majors soon as well, especially if Cousins struggles in his few PA as well.