When the Detroit Tigers made the announcement that they weren’t bringing back Placido Polanco, it seemed as though a chasm was opened and from the bowels of Hell a whine of Siren-esque proportions spewed forth: fans were stunned and outraged that the oddly-shaped-headed one would be suiting up somewhere else despite his play, which seemed to show no decline. Heck, he was even coming off a career year of sorts: he hit ten homers, scored 82 runs, and drove in a career-high 72 runs. Defensively, his OOZ was holding steady at 39 for three years, and he sported a 5.3 RngR and an 11.8 UZR. Why in the world were the Tigers letting him walk?
Well, it’s been nearly four years since Polanco left for the greener pastures (and stacks of cash) of the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Tigers have been dealing with the blank void of second base all that time, eventually acquiring former Tiger Omar Infante. We’ve examined how abysmal second base has been in Detroit all these past years, as well as how much Infante will help. Now, let’s take a look at how the erstwhile Polanco has done in his time away, and see if, by the power of 20-20 hindsight, we can be glad or mad that the Tigers let him walk all those years ago.
As previously stated, Polanco had just posted a career year in 2009 at the age of 33, and even won a Gold Glove and finished 25th in MVP balloting. The issue then became, “does a 33-year-old second baseman deserve a lucrative contract extension?” The career year, in a way, suggested “No.” Athletes, and baseball players in general, seem to have a peculiar habit of playing tremendously in a contract year. As a student of fantasy baseball I’ve seen this quite a few times, and fantasy analyst godfather Ron Shandler has examined the theory in his Baseball Forecasters. In addition, one has to recall that Polanco was batting in front of Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera and hitting behind Curtis Granderson, so the phrase “Catbird Seat” comes to mind.
The Phillies offered a three year, $18 million dollar deal to come over and primarily play third and back up Chase Utley at second. Detroit felt it was too much (even though they would shell out a two year, $11 million contract to Brandon Inge the next year…), so they let him walk. Many were slapping their foreheads that such a good player was leaving, but some canny folks knew that although the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Ballpark would help his numbers at first, age would eventually catch up to him.
Polanco had a decent 2010 season batting behind Jimmy Rollins and in front of Utley and Ryan Howard, scoring 82 runs with a .298/.339/.386 slash. His defense was solid at third with a 10.0 UZR and a 33 OOZ, but a .0.7 Rng. Filling in for Utley at second, he put up an OOZ of 5, a Rng of 2.5, and a UZR of 3.5. All of this in only 132 games.
2011 saw a decline in runs to 46 in 122 games played, and a slash of .277/.335/.339. His ISO dropped from .080 in 2010 (down from .112 in ’09) to a .062 in 2011. He was also moved to a full-time position at third, playing only one inning at second, and this was in a season where Utley only played in 115 games. Granted, he played in an All Star game and was awarded a Gold Glove, but let’s be honest: neither of those can be particularly indicative of a player’s actual performance (see Fan Voting and Coaches’ Sentimentality for bias…).
The bottom dropped out for Polanco in 2012: His WAR was in a decline, from 4.0 to 2.9 to 0.6. He played in only 90 games. His slash was a pedestrian .257/.302/.327. His UZR at third went from 14.0 in 2011 to 4.1. He looked slow running bases, and slow with a bat. The Phillies were anxious to dump him, and were struggling as a team. Needless to say, this was not a good season.
So, what can we draw from this? The Tigers didn’t do much better with the Ryan Raburn/Ramon Santiago/Danny Worth/Brandon Inge Cavalcade of Putridity at second, offensively or defensively. Would Polanco have made that much of a difference being plugged in there? I’d like to think that he wouldn’t. He was leaving his prime at a position that was (and is) evidently important to the Tigers – the first baseman and shortstop couldn’t cover up the stink of second base. Still, one has to wonder if things would have gone easier for the Tigers if they’d kept him, if they still would have tried to swing a trade to land a new second baseman, or if the 2010 and 2011 seasons would have ended on more positive notes.
But that’s the thing about “What If’s”: you can never really know.