The Miami Marlins have long had a problem at third base. Ever since the team traded Miguel Cabrera in 2008, the club has gone year to year with various options, to mostly poor results. Jorge Cantu filled in well in 2008, but Emilio Bonifacio flopped in 2009, the Marlins returned Cantu to third base again in 2010, and the club wanted to enter 2011 with essentially no real players at the position.
The 2012 season was supposed to change all of that, as Hanley Ramirez was supposed to take over and stay there until 2014, but the Marlins' immediate fire sale took that idea out. Now for 2013, the Marlins have another stopgap option in former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco. Polanco may still very well be a viable major leaguer thanks to his good defense, but his injury history over the past few seasons make the chances of him sticking for the entire year murky.
Polanco and the Marlins got together for a one-year deal worth $2.75 million in 2013. For each side, this was a beneficial move. For Polanco, this is a chance for him to reestablish some value after an injury-plagued 2012 season that led to his player option surprisingly not being picked up. For the Marlins, this was their excuse for not manning an empty plot of dirt or a terrible minor leaguer at the position, playing instead an actual major league player.
And make no mistake, there is a solid chance Polanco is still a major leaguer, despite his struggles last season at the plate. Last year, Polanco hit just .274 on balls in play, leading to an admittedly ugly .257/.302/.327 (.279 wOBA) batting line. If he repeated this batting line next season, it would not be a good thing for the Marlins, as it would mean that he, like Donovan Solano, would have one of the more empty bats in the league. But just two seasons ago, he hit a far more respectable .277/.335/.339 (.303 wOBA) thanks to a .295 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) that was still below his career numbers. That year, Polanco was 11 percent worse than the league average offensively, and that did not prevent him from having an above average season when you account for his glove.
In other words, Polanco only needs to return to 2011 form, not the form that he displayed as a member of the Detroit Tigers five or six years ago, to become a quality major leaguer. Polanco had already declined due to age by the time he arrived in Philadelphia, but the Marlins would only need him to be as good as he was two years ago, when he was almost a three-win player according to FanGraphs. Given that he performed at below his career level that year, some bounce back may be reasonably predicted in his BABIP, with all other parameters remaining more or less similar.
The problem with that assumption, and the reason the Marlins were able to sign him for just $2.75 million, is that aging is a serious concern for Polanco. Next season, he will be 37 years old, and it is not uncommon for 37-year-olds to fall off the map. Even for a player like Polanco whose game does not depend on much other than putting the bat on the ball, his abilities to "hit them where they ain't" have already seen a two-year decline. Would it surprise anyone to see Polanco just collapse rather than return to any previous level of play?
The other problem hindering Polanco is his injury issue. He missed 66 games last season due to injuries to his back, and recently he has missed time during spring training for similar issues. In the past three seasons, he has missed 126 games total, making him a significant health liability as well. As we saw last season with Justin Ruggiano, back injuries can be very frustrating and at the same time tempting to return from early, so Polanco runs the risk of both significantly injuring himself and risking further injury by thinking he is ready to come back.
How does all of that add up in 2013?
As you can see, most projection systems are not giving Polanco much of a chance to return to his 2011 form, with most of the systems projecting a BABIP between .280 and .290 and the subsequent lower batting average. Sure, some luck might yield an excellent first half from Polanco, like it did for Omar Infante last year, but the odds are not in his favor. A .289 wOBA seems like his most likely future.
As for defense, it was only two years ago that Polanco also won a Gold Glove at third base, and even through injuries, he worked an excellent defensive season for the Phillies last year; he was valued between two and five runs above average by various defensive metrics in only 90 games played. By UZR, Polanco was the second-best third baseman over the last three years, bested only by Adrian Beltre. Even if Polanco has regressed enough to be worth only, say. seven runs above average over the course of a full year, that would still help to buoy some of his negative value at the plate.
Projection: 450 PA, 1.1 WAR
That seems like a perfectly reasonable projection for an aging but still Gold Glove-worthy defender. Sure, Polanco has lost his step at the plate, and it would not surprise me at all to see a Chone Figgins-level collapse this season. But if he remains mostly stable from last year to this year, he still has excellent defensive worth that will help keep him a viable third baseman for the Fish or any other prospective trade partners.
The Rest of the Team
Greg Dobbs is the Marlins' designated veteran gritty bench guy for the third year in a row, and inexplicably he is also one of the highest-paid players on the team. But because the Marlins are so lacking in depth at third base, the team may very well have to run him out there consistently this year if (and when) Polanco goes down to injury. Last season, Dobbs picked up 342 plate appearances and. according to most Wins Above Replacement (WAR) systems, was one of the worst players in baseball last year. That was primarily due to him playing the corner outfield and being awful at it, but do not underestimate his poor play at third as well.
Chone Figgins may be able to help Dobbs back up Polanco at third this year, but Figgins was likely the worst position player in baseball over the last three years to get the amount of playing time he did. So the Marlins really have no legitimate backup choices for the position.
Nick Green was re-signed to provide minor league depth at multiple positions, but the Marlins would be scraping the bottom of the barrel if they turned to him. Both Dietrich and Cox are close enough to the majors to be worth bringing up as tryouts if Polanco is indisposed or traded, and this goes double for Cox, who is already on the 40-man roster. But neither player is promising enough right now to outright supplant Polanco. The Marlins are very likely to bring up either or both players in September at the latest.