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Miami Marlins Season Preview: Third Base

Much of the fate of the 2012 Miami Marlins rests on the bat and new glove of Hanley Ramirez. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Much of the fate of the 2012 Miami Marlins rests on the bat and new glove of Hanley Ramirez. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Welcome to the Miami Marlins Season Preview! After this, you can check out the previews for catcher, first base, and second base.

We continue rolling along today in our quest to preview all of the 2012 Miami Marlins during Spring Training. In the first three positions, we looked at positions of stability heading into 2012; despite the hot stove swirlings this season, none of those three guys were in danger of losing their position. But now we will begin moving to an area that does have some instability to it. Third base has been a black hole on the team since 2009, when Emilio Bonifacio destroyed Marlins' fans hopes and dreams for 500 PA. This season, the Marlins finally filed that hole, though not with a new name so much as with a familiar face.

Depth Chart

1. Hanley Ramirez
2. Emilio Bonifacio

Minor League Depth: Matt Dominguez

Hanley Ramirez

As Marlins fans, we often wondered when Ramirez would make the transition over to another position from shortstop, where he has traditionally been considered a poor defender. Well, with the Marlins' signing of Jose Reyes, that time is now, and the Fish will begin the experiment immediately. Of course, Ramirez has more than just this defensive question mark on their hands, as he also has to deal with attempting to come back from his worst season of his career and a season marred with multiple injuries.

Can Ramirez accomplish these goals? Well, it depends on what you think "accomplish" means. If it means returning to 2007-to-2009 Ramirez form, it does seem like a daunting challenge. From 2007 to 2009, Ramirez hit .326/.398/.545 and was among the best hitter in baseball. Since that time, he has only hit .278/.368/.431, a far cry from that previous peak. At this point, his peak in his second through fourth seasons looks unattainable after two years of down performance and aging incorporated into the equation as well.

But Ramirez does not have to be an all-time hitter to be an All-Star caliber contributor to the Marlins in 2012. Looking at his previous three seasons (a benchmark often used for projection purposes), we see Ramirez at a level that would certainly be acceptable for next season.

2009-2011 1656 .303 .380 .480 .373

Note how similar that stands next to Ramirez's career .306/.380/.506 (.385 wOBA) line. Also note how similar the line looks compared to his 2010 season, even when you take a look at peripherals.

2011 17.1 11.4 .136 0.561 .275
2010 15.0 10.3 .175 0.582 .327
2009-2011 15.7 10.2 .177 0.581 .336
Career 16.2 9.8 .200 0.653 .339

Those peripherals show that the last few seasons have been representative of the overall career line of Ramirez, though of course that line was dragged down by a poor 2011. Note especially that the approach at the plate for Ramirez has not changed; he struck out and walked at very similar rates throughout his entire career, and his plate discipline numbers as shown by Pitch F/X do not indicate too much more than a blip on the radar.

No, the true measure of Ramirez's return to (his) normalcy will depend on the numbers to the right of that table, his BABIP and power measures. In terms of BABIP, it is hard to imagine Ramirez not returning to his career norms. Prior to last season, Ramirez had never hit below .327 on balls in play, so to post a number fifty points worse than his previous lowest mark represents a large amount of bad luck in a very volatile statistical category. In addition, we know now that Ramirez was actually dealing with nagging injuries, particularly his lower back pain and sciatica, for much of the season, meaning that he was not at 100 percent when he started the year. There is a very good chance that that injury further hampered his play and combined with bad luck to form an incomprehensibly poor year on balls in play. While it would be tough to project a .339 BABIP after such a bad year, a return to something close to .330 would seem appropriate for Ramirez this upcoming season.

His power, on the other hand, is a different story. It is no coincidence that, over the last two years, Ramirez has dropped to his two lowest ISO since his rookie campaign. In each of those last two seasons, he has hit ground balls of 51 percent of his balls in play, way above his previous high of 46 percent. In each of the last two years, his HR/FB rate has not been abnormally high or low compared to his career mark, indicating that he still has power when he lifts the ball; unfortunately, he just has not done it as much lately. Note, however, that while Ramirez posted a career-low ISO in 2011, he also did so with an almost identical XB/H rate as the one he had in 2010. This means that in 2011, he actually lost an equal proportion of singles, doubles, triples, and home runs to his ball in play problems, meaning that there is reason to expect a return to 2010 form if his BABIP goes back up. Still, until I see more evidence of the contrary, I would not bet strongly against this alarming ground ball rate trend.

So we have gone over the offensive production. What do the projections think? I've added the latest projection provided over at FanGraphs, the solidly accurate Steamer projections.

ZiPS 580 .283 .365 .459 .360
Steamer 587 .290 .374 .480 .375
PECOTA 619 .301 .377 .491 .310
Fans 633 .298 .375 .471 .372

Three of the four systems listed here are optimistic about a comeback for Ramirez up to his old 2010 levels. ZiPS sees a sharp decline is expected productivity, but the other three systems project Ramirez at just a bit lower than his career mark, which I believe seems appropriate given the three-year history and his most recent struggles.

All that is left to do is evaluate Ramirez's play at third base. Luckily for us, I already did that earlier this offseason when the move was first made and found that Ramirez may be four runs worse than average defensively based on scouting data and some rough estimations. Let's use that as our estimate to compile a total projection:

Projection: 605 PA, 4.8 WAR

That is a sort of median projection for Ramirez in 2012. It encompasses a .371 wOBA, the aforementioned defensive projection, and a couple bonus runs for his always smart baserunning. It also could go way up (if he returns to superstar form) or way down (if he really has fallen from grace); in some ways, Ramirez may be the most volatile projection on the entire roster, and perhaps the most important one as well, for it remains that the Marlins will only get as far as Ramirez can take them. If he returns to superstar form, the Fish may actually be able to punch a ticket into the playoffs, but if he falters again this year, all of the moves of the offseason will be for naught in 2012.

A side mention should be made of Matt Dominguez and his role on the team. Ramirez is set in stone at third base for the next three years (if he falters, the team won't be able to trade him, and if he does well, the team won't want to). Dominguez, as a result, appears to be in minor league limbo; he will not be promoted for more than a backup role, but it is not as if he is entirely ready to be a big leaguer anyway. This season will be important for him to showcase his talents, if only to get a chance to find a job somewhere else. He is still young and could still develop, but scouts are beginning to really frown upon his lack of development at the plate, and it is more and more apparent that he may one day become a Joe Crede-type all-defense third baseman.