The Miami Marlins have an infield filled with interesting position players, but Martin Prado appears to be the elder statesman and the one with the least intrigue involved. Unlike Dee Gordon, Prado has no shot of being a star. Unlike Adeiny Hechavarria or Justin Bour, he does not have a potentially high-variance skillset. Prado is the metronome of the infield, consistently performing at one level for years now. But can that performance continue into 2016?
Third Base Depth Chart
1. Martin Prado
2. Derek Dietrich
3. Miguel Rojas
Minor League Depth: N/A
The Marlins will turn to Prado after opting not to trade the veteran infielder. The team noted his leadership as a clubhouse presence as a solid reason for why they opted to keep him for this season, but Prado did indeed bring more to the table last year. The question is if that will continue.
The first thing that should be noted is that Prado finished the 2015 season on fire, hot enough to bring his batting line back to around his career levels. After an uninspiring .272/.311/.370 batting line (.299 wOBA) in the first half of the year, the second half brought a nice .305/.364/.419 (.336 wOBA) batting line. The overall result ended up being an exactly league average season for Prado, with very familiar batting average and on-base percentage numbers. His .288/.332/.394 (.317 wOBA) line nearly matched his career marks in average and OBP, with the fall in power likely entirely associated with the slightly harder offensive environment in Miami.
Still, there were some negative trends for Prado. In his days with the Atlanta Braves, he did his best work avoiding soft-hit balls, with a soft-hit rate of 12 to 13 percent in his best seasons in Atlanta. In the last two seasons, however, Prado's rate of soft-hit balls has gone up to 16 to 17 percent, and that has shown in his rate of extra-base hits too. A late-season run of homers with the short fences in New York kept him from losing out on ten homers in 2014, but in both 2014 and 2015, his doubles rate was down. Last season was the second year in a row in which Prado failed to reach 30 doubles.
Prado did make up for it last season by playing what appeared to be a well above-average defense at third base, something the Marlins have lacked since the days of Mike Lowell. Both UZR and DRS saw him as nearly nine runs better than average at the position last year. Part of this was decent range and a great double-play partnership with Hechavarria and Gordon, but a lot of this was due to Prado's sure-handedness; he led the majors in defensive runs from error avoidance according to UZR. Prado probably will not repeat that particular performance again, and that made up half of his defensive value at third base. Plenty of regression should be expected.
So on either side of the argument, there is some expectation that Prado will get worse this year. The strongest argument for that is that he is another year older, as he will play the 2016 season at age 32. Prado spent a good deal of his career moving from second to third base, and while he is a strong defender, he is not getting any younger and sprier on his feet. He was already a poor career baserunner, and with his power slipping, one can see the beginning of a steady decline potentially starting this season.
ZiPS and Steamer seem to essentially see the same player in Prado, while PECOTA is projecting a steeper drop in the 2016 season at the plate. A season more like the ones ZiPS and Steamer are projecting would lead to a player closer to the one we saw in 2015, who surprisingly put up a three-win year and exceeded expectations thanks to his defense. PECOTA sees a much more marginal player with negative defensive contributions according to their system and an overall worse player.
Which one is to be believed? The ZiPS and Steamer projections may indeed be a bit optimistic on Prado, and a small decline may lead to a more precipitous one for a player with only contact skills to his name and power that has been marginalized by age and his stadium. Still, as we have been doing for all our projections, an average seems like the best bet for estimating Prado's chances. An average line of .274/.322/.388 would be worth about a .309 wOBA, which is pretty similar to the expected batting line of Gordon for next year. However, with Prado's negative baserunning value, the sum of his offensive performance is probably worth three runs below average.
The key for Prado will be his defensive contributions. Prado has averaged seven runs per 1000 innings above average when taking DRS and UZR into account. There is certainly a decent chance that these figures are wrong and that Prado is a mild negative defender at third base as well, as Baseball Prospectus's FRAA has output during his career. If you take these three data points into account, you get an average of four runs above average per 1000 innings. If Prado gets to the 140 games and 580 plate appearances that FanGraphs is expecting (a reasonable guess at his playing time) and we take his career marks at third base as predictive of half of his true-talent defensive level, we might suspect Prado to be a +2 run defender in this time period. This is a conservatively low estimate, but it would only range a likely additional one or two runs at most in the positive direction, and the estimate should be more conservative considering his age.
Add that all together and you get about a two-win player for the 2016 season. Prado is not an elite talent, but even based on these estimates, we can expect at least a league average season from the 32-year-old. That may be able to help Miami further along towards a playoff spot or snag something of use towards the trade deadline.