The Miami Marlins have been using the last few months of the season as a team evaluation time period, because ever since the trade deadline, this Marlins club was not going anywhere. So the team has been watching its players at various positions and deciding who would have to be replaced and who could retain their spot for the 2013 season.
One of the players the Marlins have grown fond of is Donovan Solano, who as of late has been on a nice hot streak. In the month of September, Solano has hit .302/.315/.430 (.322 wOBA) as an everyday second baseman following the injury to Emilio Bonifacio. With that decent performance and Solano's overall line of .295/.342/.380 (.320 wOBA), the Marlins appear to be leaning towards having Donovan Solano as part of the team's immediate future at second base.
Now, if the Marlins are unlikely to attempt to compete next season (and this seems possible if rumors of the payroll falling to $80 million are true), this is not necessarily egregious. Solano is perhaps the definition of a "placeholder" player. But that is all the Marlins should see Solano as, a placeholder. Because the Marlins do have the occasional tendency to think of a player like Solano as a medium- to long-term solution for the team when he actually does not have the tools to produce at that kind of level.
Take a look at Solano's skillset in his minor league career versus the skills he has displayed in 2012 in the majors.
The truth is these numbers are very, very similar. Solano is walking at the same amount and showing the same lack of power that he always had back in his entire minor league career. His strikeouts have gone up in the majors, but that is an expected initial increase that you would see in a player making his first transition to the majors. His BABIP increase in the majors is the big jump over his previous career marks, and that just is not sustainable going forward.
BABIP Skill And Comparisons
Now, I know what you are thinking. "No, no, Solano is definitely the guy who can sustain it. I mean, look at Emilio Bonifacio!"
Bonifacio is actually a perfect candidate for comparison because their skillsets at the plate are pretty similar coming out of the minors.
As you can see, there were slight differences, but the premise was still the same. In fact, Bonifacio may have been considered a little worse coming out just because he was more dependent on balls in play than Solano, except that Solano's line was worse overall.
But as much of a warning sign as a high BABIP is, it does predict something because it does have some sort of skill involved. And Bonifacio's high BABIP in the minors predicted him in the majors fairly well; he dropped from a .351 minor league mark to a career .337 mark in the majors. Solano's mark went up in his move to the big leagues, and that is simply paradoxical. It is highly unlikely that Solano will continue to hit better in the bigs than he did in the minors.
You can see a little of why Solano has hit so well in the majors thus far in his 27.0 percent line drive rate thus far in 2012. But no player sticks a 27.0 percent line drive mark for an extended period of time. Of the qualified major leaguers since 2010, only one player, New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, has put up a 27 percent line drive rate or better (27.1 percent). Only seven players have a rate at 24 percent or greater. As those line drives fall, fewer balls will go for hits for Solano.
Then, what is left of his game? Even with his two homers a few nights ago, he has among the lowest ISO in baseball. Solano has displayed the skill to avoid strikeouts, and we can generally expect him to make more contact going forward (right now, his 84.1 percent contact rate puts him next to name such as Alcides Escobar and Michael Young, decent but not spectacular contact hitters), but his walk rate is still too low, leading to a smaller on-base percentage.
Players in the majors cannot survive on a small on-base percentage and absent power.
What Can Solano Do?
The problem with Solano's game is that it has no upside; since he cannot reasonably improve his BABIP, one of his other peripherals must improve. We already mentioned that Solano's minor league history could point to improved strikeout rates, but his best shot at getting better is watching what Bonifacio did for himself. After swinging at a 47.1 percent clip similar to Solano's 45.6 percent mark this season, Bonifacio began to lower his swing rate, taking more balls and called strikes. This served to raise his walk rate without much of an effect on his strikeouts, which has helped to improve his baseline and prevent complete collapse in the face of bad BABIP luck.
Solano should aim to do the same, focusing on making more consistent contact while taking fewer swings. That will be on his pitch recognition skills and the coaching staff's ability to preach patience at the plate. But even if he does that, his ceiling as an offensive player is lower than Bonfiacio's due to his lack of Bonifacio's blazing, elite speed. So even among comparable players, Solano has a lower ceiling than desired.
The only other way Solano can bring his value up is by playing a more valuable position or becoming a better defender. Players like Ruben Tejada who have very few skills outside of hitting singles get bonus value for being a shortstop. But for the Marlins, shortstop is the least of their concerns, as they are already covered with Jose Reyes for the next five seasons. With no more valuable positions available to Solano, his best bet is to impress with the glove, but so far, he has not appeared to be much better than an average defender. The few fans who have voted for the Fans Scouting Report for the Marlins tend to agree.
So Solano has a low ceiling that he is fast approaching on offense, and his defensive value is tied to being capable at multiple positions rather than strong at any one spot. This is a perfect definition of a utility player off the bench. Solano does not share Bonifacio's speed that helps him gain value. He does not have Alfredo Amezaga's defensive prowess that allowed him to be a part-time starter. His offensive game is already hitting a limit this season; he can never be much better than this league average mark. For Solano, he does not have anywhere to go but down, so the Marlins should not depend on him on an everyday basis for the next few years. If they can find a replacement, his role is best suited for the bench.