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Chris Coghlan Still Riding Rookie of the Year Coattails


Two offseasons ago, the Marlins had to make a personnel decision about the future of the center field position. Longtime Marlins prospect Cameron Maybin, the prize of the Miguel Cabrera trade, was likely one season away from arbitration and had yet to produce a lot for the Marlins, depending on who you ask. Meanwhile, the Marlins had a dilemma regarding what to do with incumbent left fielder Chris Coghlan, who had once upon a time won the Rookie of the Year award with an amazing second half in 2009. Logan Morrison was ready to supplant Coghlan in left field with his stellar rookie year hitting, but Coghlan would then have no room in the outfield. Many Marlins fans thought he would move back to his usual infield position, likely second base to supplant the soon-to-be-traded Dan Uggla.

The Marlins had a different idea. They traded Maybin for two relievers and shifted Coghlan, a player who had only spent about a season and a half manning left field, to the more difficult center field position. The team favored Coghlan over Maybin despite numbers that, at the time, were not stellar.

Player, through 2010 PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Avg WAR
Chris Coghlan 965 .299 .367 .428 .351 3.2
Cameron Maybin 557 .257 .323 .391 .317 2.4

Many made a big deal about how poorly Maybin hit with the team, but he was only 10 percent worse than the league average in his time with the Marlins, and the defensive metrics of today say that Maybin covered plenty of ground in the outfield and saved the team many runs. If you scale up Maybin's contributions to Coghlan's playing time, Maybin outperforms Coghlan. In fact, if you just give Maybin replacement-level credit for the 408 extra PA Coghlan got through 2010, that would give him 3.8 WAR as a Marlin.

But it was understandable that the Marlins chose Coghlan over Maybin after 2010, even if it mean switching Coghlan to a harder position against the better judgment of almost all fans. After all, Coghlan hit .321/.390/.460 in 2009, he may have only been a stone's throw away from doing that again, right? The Marlins trusted a player who had done more offensively, even if they were not sure how well he had done defensively (all major defensive statistics had him below average in left field).

Flash forward to 2012, and here is what Coghlan has done since that magical 2009.

2009 565 .321 .390 .460 .372 2.2
2010-2012 792 .241 .306 .356 .291 -0.5

It has been two-plus seasons, two season-ending injuries, and 792 long PA since Coghlan's Rookie of the Year win. Yet when it came to demoting a player, the Marlins chose to demote Bryan Petersen, a true outfielder who can play center field, over Coghlan despite the numbers clearly stating otherwise. With this backwards Marlins front office, he still holds a hope whose shine has worn off with everyone but the team.

This is not a major injustice, of course. Neither player is all that impressive nor do they project all that well going forward. Here is what Coghlan and Petersen are projected at by ZiPS for the rest of 2012.

Coghlan .250 .323 .365 .302
Petersen .256 .333 .360 .305

The difference is essentially insignificant. But while there may be no difference in terms of offense, there is certainly a difference defensively. I have not met a Marlin fan who thinks Chris Coghlan is a good defender in center field, and the defensive metrics agree with that sentiment that he is over his head in center field. Meanwhile, Petersen has played 178 games in center field in the minors, has been an outfielder since he was drafted, and has performed well as recently as last season in center field. There is not a Marlins fan out there who thinks that Petersen is worse than Coghlan in center field or the outfield in general. Here are how they stacked up last season in the Fans Scouting Report (Coghlan and Petersen had 10 and nine ballots respectively, so the samples were small).

Player Instincts First Step Speed Hands Release Arm Strength Arm Accuracy Overall
Coghlan 45 48 54 52 43 36 42 46
Petersen 63 69 66 53 53 56 61 60

A smattering of Marlins fans saw that Petersen was clearly better than Coghlan. He has more experience in the outfield, and that sort of skill and experience can come extra handy when you are patrolling what appears to be one of the most expansive outfields in baseball in Marlins Park. With all of that going for Petersen, why did Coghlan receive the call to be the team's starting center fielder instead? He has neither produced better with the bat, lately or overall in 2012, nor is he the better defender in the fourth outfield-type role.

The answer is merely one of favoritism. The Marlins front office still sees a player who is a couple of good breaks away from hitting like he did in his rookie year in 2009. The majority of the world sees a player two seasons and change removed from that performance and a lot worse for the wear. While the Marlins may have thought those two hot months at the end of 2009 were skill, many Marlins fans saw through the facade and saw that, to produce Coghlan's amazing 2009 batting line, he needed a .365 batting average on balls in play. Not many players can pull that off consistently, and sure enough the rest of his career he has hit just .284 on balls in play. And while the team daydreamed that Coghlan could become a center fielder despite having no experience at the position and coming off of a knee injury, the rest of us saw thought otherwise. Sure enough, Coghlan missed most of the remainder of 2011 with inflammation on his left knee, the same knee that he had injured the year before.

At this point, Coghlan's Rookie of the Year season might as well have happened decades ago. It is a pipe dream held by an organization that does not value analysis and trusts its eyes perhaps a bit too much. Their eyes are seeing an outfielder who has a chance to return to former glory. Most fans now see a 27-year old former infielder whose conversion was rushed and whose one good season had a lot of good fortune in it as well. Coghlan once buried Cameron Maybin in the eyes of the Marlins, and now his distant 2009 Rookie of the Year season is also burying Bryan Petersen. How many more outfielders will the Marlins pass over for him?