Yesterday, we pointed out that Rafael Furcal, who signed with the Miami Marlins to be the team's starting second baseman, is beginning his minor league rehab stint and should be ready to assume full-time duties once he is brought up to the big leagues. This is good for Miami in part because it relieves Jeff Baker from having to play second base, where he is not great, and frees him to play first base against left-handed pitching while the team benches Garrett Jones.
It also brings up an interesting question for the other second baseman on the roster, prospect Derek Dietrich. Dietrich has had an up-and-down first two weeks after not expecting to make the roster during Spring Training. Thanks to injuries to Furcal and Ed Lucas, he and Donovan Solano were on the main roster on Opening Day, and Dietrich received the chance to start at second base against right-handed pitching. On the one hand, his performance has been stellar at the plate; he has thus far hit .292/.452/.583 (.449 wOBA), secretly the best batting line on the team among guys who have at least 30 plate appearances. He has hit two home runs, walked in a mammoth 15.6 percent of his plate appearances thus far, and struck out in ust 18.6 percent of them. His .313 BABIP is not absurd, though those strikeout and walk numbers will probably trend back the wrong way as part of regression. In short though, Dietrich has hit too well to find himself on the bench, at least early in the year.
Then again, Dietrich has cost the Marlins quite a few hits at second base thus far this season. The early defensive numbers reflect what the eyes have shown: Dietrich has been awful at the keystone thus far this season. UZR has him at two runs worse than average already this early in the season. We have watched him botch his way to two errors and at least four other bobbles that ended up costing Miami outs. Dietrich is a converted shortstop, so his transition to second base should not be a difficult one, but he did not play well last season at the position and has started really poorly this year.
So what should Miami do with him? There are a few options the team could explore, so let's discuss each of them.
Keep Dietrich At Second
The first choice is the one that favors Miami playing its young talent over the veteran stopgaps they picked up this offseason. Furcal's play in 2014 is not going to be important to Miami. It will not gain Miami any more (or less, most likely) wins than playing someone like Dietrich or Donovan Solano. So why not just eschew returning Furcal to his promised spot and instead turning to Dietrich full-time?
The word "promise" probably has something to do with it. Furcal was given a $3.5 million deal, and he was signed with the distinct purpose to fill the second base spot. Miami would look bad to other potential free agents, small or large, if they picked up a veteran who did not "deserve" a demotion and received one anyway after a little less than a month of play.
More importantly, Miami just isn't going to choose this option. Furcal has been given back the starting job already barring further injury problems.
Dietrich, Bench Super-Sub
The next choice is to keep Dietrich in the majors as the team's primary bench option. He has played shortstop regularly and worked at third base, so it is possible he is a better backup than Jeff Baker at those positions. In this situation, Solano would be demoted, which makes the most sense because he was the one who failed to make the team out of Spring Training. This would keep Dietrich in the big leagues, as he deserves, without upending Furcal's position.
The problem with this is that Dietrich has earned playing time more than a Major League roster spot, and this option does not give him much playing time. He would be stuck in Ed Lucas's initial role as super-sub backup, but he would barely get off the bench, and that would likely be detrimental to his development. Despite his hot start, Dietrich is by no means a finished product.
Dietrich, Platoon Partner
The halfway compromise in the above situation is to bench Dietrich, but let him platoon with someone. Miami has at least one player who needs a platoon partner in Garrett Jones, and Miami could opt to use Dietrich off the bench against lefties. As suggested by a reader on the site, Dietrich could be moved to third base and allow Casey McGehee to spell Jones, for example.
The problem there is that Miami would be using Dietrich against same-handed pitching almost exclusively. So far in his career, he has been even versus lefties and righties, but you have to suspect that Dietrich has a similar inherent disadvantage against lefties given that platoon effects are very real. If that's the case, why accentuate his mistakes this early in his Major League career and potentially ruin his confidence? Plus, while this keeps him in the bigs, it still gives less than full playing time.
Dietrich, Triple-A Starter
The only way to give Dietrich a full-time job is to play him in Triple-A. This ensures that he gets the most reps and the most practice facing regular pitching and playing second base, where he apparently needs some defensive work. It also has a minor side benefit for the Marlins in that it preserves his service time and delays his arbitration clock for the supposedly money-poor Fish.
The problem with this is that it sends a bad signal to the prospects of the organization. Dietrich is having problems in the majors, which does allow the Marlins some leeway to justify a demotion, but he is otherwise tearing it up at the plate. Dietrich has earned a Major League spot, and demoting him only makes the franchise look questionable about giving deserving youngsters a chance to play.
So which choice should Miami go with? Provided Dietrich continues to be on this hot streak, I maintain that the Marlins should demote Dietrich to Triple-A and let him get more reps, both offensively and defensively. The demotion is not a matter of merit in this case, but one that is in the best interests of the player and team. The Marlins do not upset Furcal or future free agents with what is seemingly unfair treatment and allow Furcal time to either play well or play himself out of the lineup (a la Juan Pierre in 2013). The team also gives Dietrich his best chance for the most work possible.
Chances are, if and when Furcal gets injured again and lands on the DL once more, DIetrich will be first in line to replace him in the lineup. This is reasonable given the hot start, but while Furcal is here and still a relative unknown for this season, he will be in the lineup, and this is the fairest move the team can give Dietrich.