The Miami Marlins made three call-ups on September 1, but by far the most interesting one is the return of Chris Coghlan to the Major League roster. Coghlan is no stranger to the majors, having won the 2009 Rookie of the Year with the then-Florida Marlins and spent parts of five years and a total of 1510 plate appearances with the Fish. He has also had a tumultuous career, going from Rookie of the Year to a near-cut and perennial Quad-A player thanks to injuries and struggles on the field.
However, this latest return to the majors may be the most important yet for Coghlan. That is because, for the first time, Coghlan will be returning to the position he once played a long time ago. Before being moved to the outfield on a permanent basis in 2009, Coghlan spent most of his minor league time in the infield, playing third and second base. The Fish are now in need of a third baseman, as they have been for the majority of the post-Miguel Cabrera era, and they finally decided this season to try and return Coghlan to the position and help the team. But just as he was working out at the position, Coghlan got hurt and was placed on the disabled list, and he has been away since June 8.
Now that Coghlan has returned, you can expect him to take away a few starts from the likes of Ed Lucas and Placido Polanco. What can the Fish expect from him in this last critical month of the season?
We all know what Coghlan's deal is offensively. He is a career .272/.332/.398 (.325 wOBA) hitter, and he is projected to hit .275/.323/.378 (.310 wOBA) going forward, and neither line is a significant stretch. Since that magical 2009 stretch, Coghlan has hit .243/.307/.361, so hitting a whole lot better than that seems out of the question, especially as he is recovering from his injury.
Coghlan's strikeout rate this year skyrocketed after he whiffed a lot less last year. Of course, 147 plate appearances means nothing in terms of those numbers, but he has been making less contact this year despite putting up typical discipline numbers as compared to his career marks. He is too young at age 28 to have declining bat speed, but it is also possible that his hitting has declined in effectiveness after years of struggling.
Being forced to play the outfield after being an infielder for so long may have also hurt his ability at the plate. Coghlan was moved to center field in 2011 and failed miserably, both offensively and defensively. He struggled the year before at the plate and also suffered a knee injury, and playing the outfield could not have helped in that regard. It is difficult to tell if he has more of a comfort level in the infield after spending five years away from it, but if it does, it could help him recover somewhat at the plate.
Overall, however, the package Coghlan provides seems clear. He is a low-power singles hitter who draws some walks but does not have tremendous plate discipline. He will depend on those walks and BABIP to derive offensive value, but he has displayed the ability to use those tools to be a league average or close to it hitter.
This is more of the question mark heading into this final month. If Coghlan can handle himself defensively at third base, he may have a spot on the roster next season and should get a chance to compete for the position in a transitional role in 2014 before the arrival of Colin Moran. He has familiarity and history on his side; Coghlan was a third baseman in college for the University of Mississippi and played there in the minors from 2006 to 2008, when he was moved to second base.
The downside is the likelihood that the reason why he was moved to the outfield was because of poor play in the infield. The Marlins seemed very hesitant for a long time to move Coghlan back to the infield despite instances of need. The Fish had Emilio Bonifacio playing third base for almost all of 2009 and the team instead replaced Cameron Maybin with a then-infielder Coghlan. The Marlins traded Dan Uggla away in 2011 and acquired utility man Omar Infante, who took up second base. The Fish could have moved Coghlan to second base then and had Infante man the outfield for a year, as he sporadically did for the Atlanta Braves. The team also started journeyman Donnie Murphy at third base on Opening Day that season, so they clearly did not have great choices at the position that year either.
The Marlins have resisted moving Coghlan, insisting on him being an outfielder despite evidence against him playing well there. But it is possible that the Fish knew what they were talking about and played Coghlan in the outfield because he was struggling at third and second. He rated as a decent second baseman and below average third baseman in the minor league statistics, but those are even more of a crapshoot than Major League advanced defensive stats. If the team did it for this reason, it is difficult to expect anything good to come of Coghlan as he plays the position now, with five-plus years of professional wear-and-tear on his body from past his college days.
How good would he have to be to be a league average player? Coghlan is likely somewhere in between league average and four runs below it on offense per 600 plate appearances. Given the positional adjustment of being a third baseman is the same as that of a center fielder (that is, the scarcity of center fielders and third basemen is about equal), Coghlan would only have to be worth between two runs below average and two runs above average to be an average player.
Expect Coghlan to take plenty of starts away from players like Ed Lucas and Placido Polanco, as neither player has shown any promise for future value. Polanco is a shell of his former self, while Lucas has regressed hardafter a hot start. Coghlan easily has the best offensive potential of the team's current third base candidates, but he remains a huge question mark defensively. Should he pull off a passable third base, he may become a prime candidate to start next year. If he is as bad there as he is in the outfield, it will be much harder for the Fish to justify the move.