Recently, FanGraphs writer and friend of the Maniac Joe Pawlikowski wrote an interesting article on the “problem” the Marlins have regarding first base. Right now, Gaby Sanchez is the man, and he’s looking like it. Going into the season, we would have taken a .340-ish wOBA performance from Sanchez, but after a slide took his slash line to .266/.344/.411 on June 5, he has ripped through opposing pitchers to the tune of .400/.449/.625, with four homers, four doubles, eight walks, and only nine strikeouts. This has brought him to a .305/.375/.474 line for the year, good for a .376 wOBA and the second best offensive mark on the team.
However, lurking in Triple-A is top prospect Logan Morrison. Ranked by MM’s own John Herold as the third-best prospect in the system, Morrison has found his stroke since returning from an early season injury. He had a chance to win the major league job outright but struggled and was well outplayed by Sanchez. Morrison eventually returned to Triple-A and put up a .315/.424/.503 slash line. BP’s Davenport Translations have that line translate to a major league equivalent .308/.401/.497, still quite impressive.
Right now, the answer to the dilemma is to maintain the status quo. Even if the team wanted to play Morrison, there is not much room to start him (though the team may think otherwise, as you’ll see later in the article). Sanchez is entrenched at first base for the year. But thinking ahead to the future of this Marlins team, what will the Fish do if both Sanchez and Morrison continue to impress?
Can they continue to impress?
Perhaps the first question should be whether either player should continue on their tear. Sanchez in particular seems in line for some regression back down to the mean. He has done an impressive job of avoiding strikeouts, whiffing in just 14.7% of PA. This has always been one of his MO’s from his minor league days. In addition, he’s also drawn walks at around the league average clip, another one of his well-known skills. Despite those points, it is unlikely that he would continue to post a .300+ batting average, as his BABIP right now stands at .341. Before the season started, all of the systems had him at around a .300 BABIP, and now ZiPS in-season projection has him at .315 for the rest of the season. I would be willing to believe that, given his high-contact style and solid swing, he could post a slightly above average BABIP. However, few players can maintain a .340+ clip with his body type and foot speed.
Along the same lines, I have questions about how long Sanchez can maintain making contact this often given his approach. Based on his minor league numbers, I thought he was the type of hitter with solid plate recognition and good in-zone contact rates. In 2010, however, he has been a bit different than I imagined. Sanchez has swung at 34.9% of pitches outside of the zone this season, the 27th highest amount qualified players in the majors. To get a perspective on this, Sanchez has swung at more pitches out of the zone than Cristian Guzman, Ichiro Suzuki, Jose Lopez, and surprisingly our own Cody Ross. Typically, you’d expect this sort of discipline to lead to more strikeouts and fewer walks, but Sanchez is making up for it by making tons of contact on outside pitches. He has made contact on 75.5% of out-of-zone pitches, well above the league average of 66%. That puts him in the same company as Robinson Cano and Kevin Youkilis (along with some less than impressive names such as Yuniesky Betancourt).
This could very well be the way Sanchez handles himself, but I suspect that at the rate he is swinging, either those walks will drop or the strikeouts will rise. Without seeing his approach in the minors, I cannot be too sure however. For now, I’ll enjoy it.
If Sanchez’ success continues, the Marlins will undoubtedly find a way to fit both him and Morrison in the lineup for 2011 and beyond. One of them will of course play first base, but where will the other one go? As I see it, there are two options on the plate for the Fish:
1) Play Morrison in left field
It seems the Fish already have this one in mind, as the team was initially trying Morrison in left field consistently. However, Mr. Z of What the Zeph, a New Orleans Zephyrs blog, mentioned in that same thread that Morrison had not played left in a week, so the move may not have been a tryout attempt. Morrison’s body type fits the mold of a lumbering left fielder (he’s 6’3″, 235 lbs according to Baseball-Reference), and before this season he had not played the position in the pro’s.
2) Play Sanchez at third base
This has been an option that has had more exploration in recent years. Sanchez is a converted catcher and has the arm to play third, but the concerns are that his footwork and fielding in the hot corner leave something to be desired. In the minors, Sanchez played 141 games at third base and was two runs above average according to TotalZone.
Where can the Marlins most maximize the value of either player? Given the value difference between third and first base (between 12 and 15 runs per season according to most WAR systems), Sanchez would have to be a pretty terrible third baseman to not be more valuable playing third. Given the team’s insistence that Jorge Cantu can play third base, it would not surprise me to see the Marlins try Sanchez again at the hot corner given average play (in a limited sample) and the situation. Moving Morrison to left field would be significantly worse. He would have to be around a -3 to -5 defender in the corner outfield to have similar value to an average defensive first baseman, and there are definite questions about his ability to man the outfield. Given that both players are not assets defensively and would not take a position move well, I would settle for the more experienced and proven Sanchez to make the move to third.