The Miami Marlins worked this offseason to improve their roster heading into what they hope will be a competitive 2015 season. Part of that remodeling was acquiring Dee Gordon from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a major trade that also included Dan Haren and sent top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney away among a slew of other players. In that trade, Gordon was the coveted prize for the Fish, as the team was looking to fill the void that has been second base and do so for the foreseeable future. Gordon is under team control for another four years including this one, so Miami believes it has second base covered for some time.
The only question left to answer is just how good is Dee Gordon?
1. Dee Gordon
2. Donovan Solano
3. Jeff Baker
Minor League Depth: Derek Dietrich, Jordany Valdespin
The Marlins have a lot of names at second base, but not a lot of Major League options. Solano and Baker are backups and bit players. Derek Dietrich still has a potential future, but he needs to be able to play the second base position accordingly.
Gordon is the man, like it or not. But just how good is he? Well, after the trade, we already discussed this a little. The argument for Gordon is that he had a breakout campaign in 2014 with the Dodgers, complete with a 64-stolen-base season that nearly matches a Marlins club record. The Fish have wanted that kind of dynamic speed at the top of their lineup for years, having always missed the work of Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo in the past. It never worked out with Emilio Bonifacio, but the team envisions Gordon to be a redux of Pierre at the leadoff spot.
The problem is that, aside from speed, Gordon is nothing like Pierre or Castillo. Neither of those guys struck out at all; Pierre owns a 5.8 percent career strikeout rate, while Castillo owns an 11.4 percent mark. Castillo also made up for it by walking an awful lot to offset the extra outs he made via the whiff. All told, both guys posted remarkably similar strikeout-to-walk ratios (1.06 for Castillo, 1.04 for Pierre). Gordon has no such plate discipline or contact skill as of right now, as he has struck out in 16.5 percent of plate appearances and walked in just 5.2 percent of them. He hit an astonishing low in the walks department in the second half of his All-Star 2014 year, taking just four free passes in 258 plate appearances, a 1.6 percent rate.
Gordon is blazing fast, but the old adage is that you "cannot steal first base," and getting on base will be Gordon's primary challenge as the Marlins' leadoff man. He swung at just under 45 percent of pitches seen last year, but his profile was all off. His 34 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone would have ranked third-highest among Marlins with more than 200 plate appearances in 2014, while his 55 percent swing rate on in-zone pitches would have been last on the team. In other words, the problem with Gordon is that he simply cannot differentiate balls from strikes.
His speed does bring certain advantages. Gordon's infield hit rate of 11.3 percent was ninth in baseball last year and matched his career mark. Since 2012, he is actually 10th in the league overall among qualified big leaguers, behind only the fastest men in the game (and Johnny Gomes, for some reason). He upped his bunt hit rate to a career best, and since 2012, he has the third-most bunt hits in the game. Those are some bonus ways for him to inflate his BABIP and "steal first," so to speak.
His speed is also a raw advantage on the bases. Gordon was 18th among qualified players in baserunning runs above average as per FanGraphs, but among the top 30 names, he had the lowest number of plate appearances. Aside from Rajai Davis and Eric Young, he is the most efficient baserunner by that metric in baseball, clocking in at around nine runs above average per 600 plate appearances. He may need all of those runs to be a positive factor at the plate in 2015.
The projection systems are mixed on Gordon's likely performance. The variance comes in the expectation of his BABIP; Steamer is guessing the low end of a .306 mark, while ZiPS is expecting a higher-end .339. The Fans expected a .323 average that may be the comfortable middle range we might see this season.
This BABIP number is crucial, because a player like Gordon with no power and very little ability to draw walks relies on singles and doubles to provide his on-base value. These systems are not seeing much in the way of improvement in that area, as each of them are expecting him to more or less match his career marks.
On average, we are looking at a .268/.314/.341 batting line, corresponding approximately with a .297 wOBA. That line would be worth seven runs below league average in an estimated 620 plate appearances for Gordon. That would be a relative coup for the Marlins when you consider his baserunning. Last year, Gordon was worth a whopping nine runs better than average on the bases. Similar players have averaged around seven runs above average per season on the bases. We could give Gordon a modest six runs better than average on the basepaths and he would still come close to being a league average offensive player.
Gordon was a below average defender last season at second, but it was his first campaign and he has a very limited sample size at the position. It is not unreasonable to guess that he would be slightly below average again, and an estimate of two runs below the league average is believable.
All told, you are looking at a 1.6 win player for the 2015 season. That is about league average given where FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have set their replacement levels. The Marlins paid a lot to get Gordon, but league average in 2015 is something they would be willing to accept.