This offseason, the Miami Marlins intended to make improving their infield a priority. The team did just that by adding three new names around incumbent Adeiny Hechavarria. Hechavarria himself is a concern for 2015, but the entire restructured infield is both improved and still with its own issues heading into this year. No other player in that infield has more issues to his name than second baseman Dee Gordon, whom the Marlins acquired in an offseason deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers along with Dan Haren (who now wants to pitch for Miami) in return for top prospect Andrew Heaney and a bevy of other names.
There is more riding on Gordon now than there is on some of the other names on the roster because of the steep cost Miami paid to acquire him. The Fish traded their best prospect to get four years of Gordon, locking themselves into him and his arbitration payments for the near future. Miami has two fringy middle infield prospects in the low minors in Avery Romero and Brian Anderson who could eventually supplant Gordon, but that likely would not occur for at least another two years. The Fish will also need help in other infield spots at that point, including third base. For better or worse, Gordon is likely the Marlins' second baseman for some time.
Is Gordon a good enough player to lean on? Based on his 2014 season, maybe. Based on the years before that, it becomes a much more difficult question. Let's take a look at the situation and what is happening for the Fish.
If it felt like the Marlins bought high on Gordon, that is because they did. Prior to 2014, Gordon had posted 669 plate appearances in parts of three seasons with sporadic playing time and ugly results.
Gordon started just 147 of his 181 games played from 2011 to 2013, meaning he was by no means a full-time player for the Dodgers. In those years, he supplanted Hanley Ramirez after his various injuries. Last year, Gordon was moved to second base to play an easier position and allowed a full season's worth of work, and many pointed to that being a mitigating factor for his improvement.
So how can you explain the second half drop-off?
Gordon maintained a high BABIP in the .340's in both halves. His walk rate plummeted in the second half, and he was swinging more often in that second half than he did in the first part of the year. After his extremely hot .344/.375/.478 (.375 wOBA) month, however, Gordon batted .279/.318/.360, which is exactly what similar hitters of his type have hit since 2012.
Given the breakdowns, it is difficult to tell who the real Gordon is. It is certainly feasible that he improved from his early bench years to last season, but given his limited skillset, how much better could he be?
The Optimist View
Luckily for us we already evaluated this in a previous article. From the comparison piece linked above:
That's encouraging for the Marlins that this appears to be the average per long season, but what's the ceiling? Jose Altuve appears to be the best player on that list in terms of offense, followed by Ben Revere. What do those guys do well to make them better at the plate? In order to hit that kind of ceiling, Gordon would have to hit strikeout rates closer to 10 percent rather than the 17.5 percent mark he currently owns since 2012. No other player on the list has a strikeout rate lower than 13 percent, and their batting lines reflect that, as none of them have hit as well as Altuve or Revere.
In order to reach that kind of upside, Gordon would have to either drop his strikeout rate or repeat his BABIP from last year. Revere has both a perennially low strikeout rate and a .332 BABIP since 2012. Altuve similarly has had an 11 percent strikeout rate and a .334 BABIP.
If we take a line from a player with a similar strikeout-to-walk ratio as Gordon's and apply the above BABIP and his piddling power, we may be able to get a sense of his upside as a low-power, high-speed hitter with strikeout issues. Donovan Solano has a 16 percent strikeout rate and a six percent walk rate with minimal power since 2012, so he is a perfect candidate. With such an example, you could imagine a .280/.330/.355 batting line for Gordon next year that comes close to matching the league-average line he put up last season. If you combine that with eight runs per year on the basepaths, you can get a season worth three runs better than league average on offense. Combined with average defense, you could definitely see a 2.5-win year from Gordon next year.
The Pessimist View
The problem is that it is just as easy to see this going south with just his offense. The downside is that Gordon returns to his baseline from before his breakout last year. In his first 669 plate appearances, Gordon hit just .307 on balls in play. He has since dropped his popup rate an extreme amount (down to eight percent last year from numbers in the teens prior to), but if he hits somewhere closer to the former BABIP rather than the latter, the rest of his skills could be in major trouble.
You can look no further than at a player like Solano. In the last three years, he hit .313 on balls in play and put up a .264/.315/.336 batting line (.290 wOBA). You will note that that is not far from what Gordon has hit for his career (.272/.314/.345, .293 wOBA). If you tack on that line with a lesser season running the bases, and you could look at a season worth five runs worse than league average. That's nearly a one-win difference.
If there are any issues on defense, things could get even worse. The lower limit likely is close to a one-win season for a guy like Gordon, and only because he appears to be an elite baserunner. The total swing appears to be close to 1.5 wins between the high end and the low end. If Gordon can keep up pace or improve on his terrible peripherals, we may see the best in him. But it is hard to project improvement over last year, and chances are we have already seen the best of him at play.