2011 Marlins Season Preview: Third Base
By Michael Jong
Up until today, we have been previewing the 2011 Florida Marlins with mostly predictable results. None of the positions previously covered have much in the way of controversy; Hanley Ramirez is sure to be the Opening Day shortstop. Gaby Sanchez is sure to be the first baseman. Omar Infante was bound to play somewhere, whether thas was second or third base. The Marlins didn’t give John Buck $6M a season to be a backup catcher.
But third base is the first of two positions that have major turmoil and controversy surrounding it. Last season, the Marlins rid themselves of Jorge Cantu and his awful glove at the position, planning on replacing him with Chris Coghlan for the time being. When Coghlan tore his meniscus on a celebratory leap, that plan was derailed, and the Marlins got by with a myriad of journeyman names, including Wes Helms, Donnie Murphy, Chad Tracy, and Emilio Bonifacio. This season, the Marlins are planning on taking an early look into the future at the position.
Starter: Matt Dominguez
Backup: Wes Helms, Donnie Murphy, Emilio Bonifacio
Minor league depth: Ruben Gotay
This is the first season that the Marlins will be debuting a player the team developed at third base since the club moved Miguel Cabrera to the position as an emergency plan thanks to Mike Lowell‘s injury in 2003. Of course, Cabrera paid off big time eventually, despite his major defensive shortcomings. Nevertheless, Matt Dominguez is not the same player as Miguel Cabrera, and he’ll never be mistaken for the same player. But what can Dominguez bring, and how will an early big league appearance affect the 21-year old prospect?
Dominguez is the odds on favorite to take the starting job at third base this season, though he will still presumably have to “earn it” with a good Spring Training stretch. Dominguez holds the pedigree of a first-round draft pick (2007), but while he shares a draft year and birth year as Mike Stanton (Dominguez is two months older), he does not share his teammate’s early career success. While Stanton jumped out to a monstrous start that led to a successful short rookie year in 2010, Dominguez was still going through the motions in Double-A Jacksonville, managing a .252/.333/.411 slash line that translated to a .337 wOBA. Such a performance was only worth a 102 wRC+, indicating that Dominguez’s offensive output was only two percent better than the league average.
So what we are seeing here is a player who was only two percent better than the Double-A league average at age 20, trying to make the jump to major league pitching the following year. It should not surprise anyone that difficulties lie ahead if Dominguez indeed opens 2011 as the Opening Day starter at third base. Those who made claims that Dominguez simply could be struggling like Ramirez did in his full season in Double-A before moving on to the majors ignore that Dominguez was a very similar player the previous season (117 wRC+ in High-A) and lacked the offensive display that Ramirez showed before the shortstop’s 2005 season. Comparisons to Cabrera prior to the superstar’s short 2003 Double-A season seem more apt (the year before, Cabrera hit .274/.333/.421 in High-A) but would ignore his Stanton-esque .365/.429/.609 start in 2003. Dominguez’s best season in the minors, his .296/.354/.499 performance in Low-A, was in 2008, two long seasons ago.
Dominguez’s prospects for success at the next level as a hitter don’t bode well in 2011. This is what Kevin Goldstein said about Dominguez in this season’s prospect series at Baseball Prospectus:
"The Bad: Dominguez lacks a star-level offensive ceiling. He just doesn’t have the pure hitting skills to hit for average, and will need to make up for it with power and walks. He’s a below-average runner."
The good news is that Dominguez’s work at the plate seems to be improving. After walking just 7.3 percent of the time in his standout 2008 season, his walk rate has climbed in each of the past two seasons, up to 9.7 percent in 2010. Goldstein notes that Dominguez has a patient approach at the plate, which means he may still be developing that discipline and pitch recognition needed to supplement what sounds to be a naturally depressed average. In his three full seasons in the minors (including his short Double-A stint in 2009), Dominguez hit just .290 on balls in play, and given his production each of the past three seasons, that sort of number is what we may expect in the future from him. His strikeout totals have remained steady both in looking and swinging punchouts despite the increasing plate discipline, so one should expect around a 20 to 23 percent strikeout rate in the majors from Dominguez.
The walks are one improvement we can hope to continue seeing, but it is fast appearing that Dominguez lacks the power the contribute the traditional power numbers of the hot corner. Where he should make up for all of this is on defense, where scouts like Goldstein love his work:
"The Good: Any discussion of Dominguez begins with his glove, as most scouts label him the best defensive third baseman in the minors. He has outstanding instincts, reacts well, has soft hands, and a strong, accurate arm."
It is good to hear about a Marlins prospect who projects well defensively. The minor league TotalZone data is mixed for him, but defensive analysis is so difficult as it is that I would rather believe a respected name like Goldstein on the defensive impact of Dominguez rather than trust the numbers on this one. Undoubtedly, if Dominguez is as good as he supposedly is, those numbers will eventually bear themselves out.
If Dominguez is one day a Gold Glove player at the position, we will have a strong asset for the major league team. However, he will probably have to still be acceptable at the plate, and it seems difficult to believe that he can do just that in 2011.
These three projection systems all say one basic thing: next season will not be a good major league season for Dominguez. Consider that Bonifacio’s 2010 season, in which he hit .261/.320/.328 with 12 steals, was worth a .306 wOBA that is a hair better than each of these projections. Giving his glove more than the benefit of the doubt by placing it at +10 runs above average per season, I get the following projection for Dominguez.
Projection: 550 PA, 1.4 WAR
This is by no means a bad thing. In fact, this was about as good as Jorge Cantu projected last season. However, it is nothing special and depends on Dominguez’s glove to perform as well as advertised (that is, at a Gold Glove level). Consider that, in a six-year span since 2005, only five third basemen averaged more than ten runs per season above average, including two superstars (Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman) and two all-time glove greats (Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre). This is the defensive standard that Dominguez would have to match next season in order to be solidly below average. That does not sound like an appealing case made for him in 2011, and it is the reason why I was so adamant about signing a stopgap at third base for a season or two while Dominguez’s bat improved with minor league work.
Should Dominguez falter in Spring Training, the Marlins will likely look in other directions for assistance, but they do have a variety of mostly unpalatable choices of their players remaining. The team could turn to Helms as it did in 2006, when “Uncle Wes” inexplicably hit .329/.390/.575 in 278 PA and promptly earned a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies which he could never realistically match. Helms is a disaster of a player now, about as good as the other guys we have at the plate but with no tools of interest. Bonifacio is a one-tool player whose one tool does not mesh well with the rest of his game; he can never get on base to utilize the baserunning speed he has.
Lurking in the back are two dark-horse options that the Marlins should perhaps consider. Now that we have the access to multiple projections, the various systems have some interesting, if not disputable, results for career minor leaguers Murphy and Gotay that could prove valuable to the team should Dominguez struggle. I’ll discuss these options later on today.