The Marlins appeared to have settled on Emilio Bonifacio leading off for the team in 2012, regardless of the position he is likely to man next year. In fact, with Omar Infante possibly returning to the team on a multi-year deal and Chris Coghlan and Matt Dominguez being afforded every opportunity to take their respective positions in the majors, finding a spot for Bonifacio may actually be difficult.
Nevertheless, the Marlins are undoubtedly going to find a spot for Bonifacio after a 3.1 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) season, a season that stands as second best on the team. But where would be the best fit for a player heading into his age-28 season and a year in which the team will finally be paying him a semi-legitimate salary? And can Bonifacio maintain the performance he has shown this season? And if he cannot, how good does he have to be to be a playable hitter on the team?
Is this the real Bonifacio?
We addressed this question in the past before, and I mentioned that some of his offense could be sustainable (the walk rate is certainly a product of conscious effort) while some of it is unlikely to stick (the BABIP is still sky-high). However, if you would like to see where the high-end for Bonifacio’s offensive production ends up, look no further than Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn. Their careers have actually gone in similar routes:
The similarities border on the insane. At the plate, both Bourn and Bonifacio have not changed much in terms of strikeouts and contact, instead increasing their hits on balls in play. As Griffin Klett of Marlins Daily mentioned earlier, that is not all that surprising coming from a hitter who has speed and can keep hitting it on the ground. Still, expecting regression is understandable, and a BABIP of around .335 may be a better bet moving forward.
How much worse would Bonifacio’s 2011 season be with a BABIP of .335 instead of his current .369 mark? If we take away a proportional number of doubles and triples along with singles, we’d expect Bonifacio to lose about two doubles, one triple, and seven singles, amounting to ten hits in total. His new slash line would then be .272/.346/.363, which conveniently puts him at just about where his two-year slash line. Take away some of the power and you have a player right around .310 to .320 wOBA, which is close to average in this hitting environment.
While it certainly is not the impressive Bonifacio that we have seen this season, that sort of hitting line may yet be acceptable to the Fish. Let us consider that the Marlins want Bonifacio to be at least an average position. Let us also consider that playing him anywhere in the infield makes him a -5 defender, but his additional capabilities on the basepaths make up for half of his defensive liability. Over the course of a full season, the Marlins would need Bonifacio to be at least an league average hitter in order for him to be a league average player. In the past two seasons, he has a wRC+ of 106, meaning he has been six percent better than the league average. If you regress his BABIP down to an acceptable level and even knock a few points off of his power and OBP for further regression, one can still see him hovering near the league average thanks to his base stealing, similar to the way Juan Pierre used to do for the Marlins back in the mid-2000’s.
Where will he play?
Of course, those calculations really depend on what position Bonifacio plays. The team has options on where to play Bonifacio, since he is a versatile defender who can fill in at at least three spots that are currently open. However, the team ideally would have those spots filled either with a potential free agent or trade acquisition or with in-house options. For example, the Marlins would be delighted to see Matt Dominguez playing third base full-time next season. They would also appreciate seeing Chris Coghlan in center field. The club has appeared interested in keeping Omar Infante at second base. That wipes out the three “neutral” positions around the diamond. The Marlins are completely unwilling to move Hanley Ramirez off of shortstop and are not entirely sure Bonifacio would be a good fit either, so a heavily positive defensive position is out of the question.
The only opening that could be left is in the corner outfield spots, where Logan Morrison‘s future with the team remains in doubt because of his “off-field antics,” whatever those were. However, placing Bonifacio in left field would be a far more disastrous situation if he cannot handle the rigors of the outfield. Assuming Bonifacio is an average left fielder, that same offensive performance would yield a 1.5 win player instead of a league average player. Furthermore, any problems offensively and the team would be left with a bench-caliber player starting full-time and taking up the most PA of any player on the team. If the Marlins plan on moving him to left field, Bonifacio will have to excel a great deal if he is to be a successful player.
Is he a leadoff fit?
It really does not matter, does it? The Marlins are an old-school group that insist on speed at the top of the lineup ahead of anything else. Yes, they have mentioned OBP as an important factor for a leadoff man, but if the player has any sort of speed, OBP becomes a secondary factor for the team. No matter how poor a hitter he ends up being, that is where they will put him. Having said that, the Fish are at least going with a player who has a better prognosis in terms of hitting than the one they turned to in 2009, the Bonifacio that helped sink an otherwise decent Marlins team. In 2012, the team will have a shot with this Bonifacio on the field, but hopefully the regression we expect to see happens as expected and does not bring Bonifacio back to 2009 levels.