It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to any Marlins fan. Matt Dominguez has officially lost his job as starting job at third base, opening the race for third base wide open with one week left. Throughout the offseason, we were expecting this to happen; the Marlins had no major backup plans going into Spring Training and were fully expecting Dominguez to impress and win the job. It seemed like early in Spring Training he was doing just that; witness this blog post by the Palm Beach post’s Joe Capozzi from March 6th or this article by Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald from the same day.
Yet just a few weeks later, the Marlins are left with no definitive answer at third base and guys like the Sun Sentinel’s Mike Bernadino calling for the experiment to end and getting their wish. Let’s look at this development from a few different angles.
How quickly we forget in spring
Here’s a quote from Bernadino’s article that illustrates the illusory nature of Spring Training.
"“We’re not going to force the situation,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “If he’s not ready, he’s not ready, and then we’ll move on.”Dominguez, sent home Tuesday with a stomach virus, is 1 for his last 28. That horrific skid has dropped his spring average to .175 (7 for 40), although he does have a couple of home runs and four walks."
Dominguez is on a terrible slide at the plate, but that isn’t really the focal point here. Before going on such a tailspin, the sort of tailspin that happens many times in the majors every season, Dominguez was six for his first 12 at-bats, a very respectable .500 batting average. Twenty-eight plate appearances later, his job vanished.
This sort of thing happens every Spring Training. A player struggles for a just little bit, in an insignificant number of plate appearances, and he’s suddenly judged to be unworthy of a job even though people were more than willing to heap praise on him early. When Dominguez was six for his first 12, manager Edwin Rodriguez had nothing but positive things to say, and the beat writers lauded Dominguez’s play. Now that Dominguez struggled, coaches and beat writers everywhere were ready label him as “not ready for the majors.”
Just for fun, I tried using the Baseball-Reference Play Index to find a similar set of streaks in the majors. I searched for the longest hitless game streaks in the majors in 2010 and looked specifically for the players above 20 AB, in order to approach Dominguez’s 1-for-28 mark. Eighteen players had streaks of more than 20 AB going hitless, including five with at least 27 hitless AB. Among those names are young players like Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith, and Ruben Tejeda along with established bad hitters in Ryan Theriot, Brendan Ryan, and Ryan Langerhans. You know who was also on that list? Mike Stanton went 0-for-27 in a stretch during his first month of the season. He went on to do pretty well.
Now of course, I’m not saying that Dominguez would have hit as well given the chance. The coaches probably saw something in him too that was making him look bad at the plate. I’m just emphasizing that we shouldn’t make rash decisions on a player’s skillset based on a small sample. I don’t care about Spring Training numbers; I want coaches to watch a player and see if he has the right approach, regardless of result.
Reaffirming what we already knew
However Dominguez performed in Spring Training, Marlins fans were all fairly certain that he wasn’t ready to be a contributor in 2011. Again, he was just average in his league for the past two seasons, and he is very young, turning 21 this season. There was simply no need to rush him to the majors when he clearly wasn’t ready based on his minor league performance. The projection systems agreed, tabbing him for a pretty terrible line in 2011 that would have to really depend on his excellent glove to succeed in the majors.
At this stage of the game, the Marlins should not be expecting much from Dominguez in 2011. A few seasons ago, they sent Gaby Sanchez to the minors after struggling in Spring Training and didn’t bring him up for significant playing time that season. Logan Morrison struggled in Spring Training in 2010, but he received heavy playing time only after Chris Coghlan‘s season ending injury and trades sending Cody Ross and Jorge Cantu away. This season, the Marlins are unlikely to send anyone away that would fill the gap at third, and Dominguez wasn’t as prepared at the plate as Sanchez and Morrison were when they were brought up in 2009 and 2010 respectively. I suspect Dominguez will spend the majority of time in Triple-A in 2011, receiving a cup of coffee late in the year. If the Marlins situation at third is dire enough and Dominguez tears up Triple-A, I suspect a move will be made to reinstate Dominguez, but I doubt he’ll will hit all that well in Triple-A and the Marlins weren’t willing to put Cameron Maybin back in after he tore up Triple-A the last few seasons.
The remaining options
Right now, it sounds like the Marlins are going to go with either Donnie Murphy or our Greatest Fear Emilio Bonifacio at third base, meaning the team will more or less punt the position for around 1.0 to 1.5 WAR at best next season. All other internal options, particularly minor league signing Ruben Gotay, have been sent down to the minors or are named Wes Helms. None of these names strike fear into the hearts of players, but if I had to name one guy I’d want to see out there, I’d swallow my pride and say Murphy is the option with whom to go. He’s the best hitter of the bunch and seems like he’d play capable enough defense considering he once was a utlity infielder who could fill in at shortstop.
The team is also looking into external options. The Marlins have considered a few outside names according to Clark Spencer:
"Outside, keep an eye on Pedro Feliz, who is in Royals camp — at the moment. Other names that are floating around out there: Felipe Lopez, Eric Chavez and Garrett Atkins, along with the much pricier option: Michael Young."
Here are my thoughts on those players:
Pedro Feliz: Feliz may still be a good defender, as prior to last season he had been worth around eight to 10 runs above average with the glove each year. The problem is he isn’t a major league hitter anymore, and it’s questionable as to whether he ever really was. Feliz is a career .250/.288/.410 hitter with a three-year track record of hitting .247/.287/.364. To be anything above replacement, he’d have to still be top notch with his glove, and he’ll be 36 years old next season. This is a sideways move at best, and a terrible one at worst.
Felipe Lopez: A couple seasons ago, Felipe Lopez hit .310/.383/.427 and almost had a four-win season. Last season, he hit .233/.311/.345 and was barely above replacement. In other words, you never really know with him. I can’t get a good gauge on how strong he is defensively, though the fans don’t see him as more than average at best, which sounds about right. He wouldn’t be a bad flyer to take, but he’s a boom or bust player depending on his BABIP.
Eric Chavez: The obsession with Eric Chavez will always be there. He’s only 33 years old, but it feels like he’s 40 because of his injury history. He’s worth a flyer since he was so good a long time ago, but he’ll never play a full season and he’s hit just .222/.265/.330 in his 245 PA since 2008.
Garrett Atkins: Two years ago, Garrett Atkins hit .226/.308/.342 in 399 PA while hitting half the time at Coors Field. He’s also a terrible third baseman defensively and is better suited at first base. He was also bad for the Baltimore Orioles last season. Pass.
Personally, I’m a big fan of Joe Crede and think he could be worth a shot, but the truth is that he isn’t likely to be a whole lot better than a Gold-Glove Dominguez and he is definitely not going to stay healthy for an entire season. At this rate, if the Marlins don’t get their hands on a Michael Young for cheap (and I mean really cheap), their best bet sadly is to turn to Donnie Murphy.