The Miami Marlins had a known hole at third base heading into 2013 and opted to fix it externally by signing Placido Polanco to a one-year deal. The stopgap solution did not work out and Polanco was a major flop. But with Colin Moran likely arriving in Miami in the next year or two, Miami knew a long-term solution was not needed, and they went the stopgap route again. This time, the Fish turned to a younger option, but one who is just as risky.
Casey McGehee returned from Japan and earned a one-year contract from the Marlins to hold the position for the 2014 season. The Fish are not expecting much, as he only signed for $1.1 million and incentives, but the team would like to see production that is better than last year's replacement-level performance from Polanco. Can McGehee deliver it?
Depth Chart: Third Base
Minor League Depth: Colin Moran
McGehee has a successful season in Japan, having batted .292/.376/.515 and hit 29 homers for the championship-winning Rakuten Golden Eagles for the Japanese league. But the Marlins clearly know that they are not getting back that production from across the Pacific. For one, Japan is an easier league than Major League Baseball, with the general opinion that it is at or around the Triple-A level. Part of the reasoning for that for hitters may be the shorter fences, which could contribute to the home run total McGehee put up last season.
But part of the reason you will not see a repeat of the 2013 Japanese McGehee is that he left for Japan after two terrible seasons at the plate. After proving to be at least a decent hitter for third base in 2009 and 2010 (.291/.346/.477 in 1064 plate appearances), he suffered a fast decline in 2011 and 2012 (.221/.282/.351 in 952 plate appearances). How can he be expected to come back an improved player after such an awful decline?
There is a thought that McGehee suffered a sharp fall even between 2011 and 2012, when his contact rate dropped by three percent with similar swing rates as his career numbers. It is possible that, at 29 years old at the time, McGehee began seeing his decline phase abruptly. This is especially feasible given the fact that, despite his solid early career numbers in the big leagues, he had never been really seen as much more than a Quad-A slugger for much of his time in the high minors. Consider that McGehee hit just .282/.335/.410 in two full seasons in Triple-A before earning a shot with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009. His poor minor league track record speaks to him potentially seeing an earlier decline than the average long-term big leaguer.
But his resurgence in a Triple-A equivalent level like Japan does give some hope. The return of power and respectable .329 BABIP both point to problems that seemed to resolve a little since his departure, as those were two areas of major concern. McGehee walked more in Japan than he did in the majors, so his OBP would be more inflated than he would likely have in Miami, and his strikeout rate was higher, indicating that contact may still be a concern. But as long as he can make better contact than the ground ball machinery he was providing in 2011 and 2012 (above 50 percent ground ball rate both years), Miami should be able to provide some gaps for the doubles that fueled him in 2010.
All of this is to say that it is extremely tough to predict where McGehee will be after a year removed from Major League pitching. The projection systems each have their thoughts.
The Marlins know that McGehee is unlikely to return to his old form from 2009 and 2010, but the team does not need that from him to be a benefit over Polanco. The team was particularly looking for power from McGehee and its other signees, and he may be able to deliver just that; the three projection systems expect him to hit almost 16 homers per 600 plate appearances. Only one Marlin last season hit more than that number, so the team would like to infuse some of that added power to the lineup.
Of course, power is not the only thing on offense, and McGehee is not expected to provide much other than that. When combined with mediocre defense, the entire package may not be worth much to Miami. With few other replacements on the roster, and with McGehee playing an important right-handed bat role, it is expected that he will receive a lion's share of playing time at third base. At 600 plate appearances, you might expect to see a batting line of around .250/.310/.390 and about 1.6 WAR.
Given that the Marlins invested $3.5 million and got less out of Rafael Furcal, the McGehee signing could pay some nice dividends. If Miami can get close to a win and a half out of him, it would be almost pure bonus over fodder like Greg Dobbs or Jeff Baker, and McGehee could attract trade interest if he proves a playable Major Leaguer next year, even in only a platoon role for a contender. It was a low-risk signing, but the Marlins could get some marginal upside out of a player no team expected much of this offseason.