Letting Placido Polanco Walk in 2009 has Proven to be Right Call for Tigers


Spend any amount of time perusing the blogs, message boards, and sports talk radio shows and you’ll find one thing to be true about many a fan of the Detroit Tigers; we do like to lament the sins of the past.

Jair Jurrjens for Edgar Renteria? Yep, we love to complain about that one. Scott Sizemore for David Purcey? We didn’t even wait until the ink had dried to cry foul (and for good reason). How about the Juan Gonzalez deal? Hell, we even like to continue to moan about John Smotlz for Doyle Alexander, even though that one was 24 years ago and it worked out for us (no matter what Smoltz went on to become). You want to dig further? Ask a Tigers fan over the age of 50 about the Jason Thompson for Al Cowens trade.

But sometimes it’s more than bad trades that stir up the rage from Tigers fans. Sometimes it’s a bad free agent signing or, more recently, a decision to allow a fan favorite to walk away a year or two too soon. Now, if the best-laid plans had worked out for the Tigers in the last two years, perhaps we wouldn’t be so upset, but they didn’t and so we are left only to wonder ever more loudly why the Tigers didn’t offer arbitration to Placido Polanco after the 2009 season.

I don’t want to spend too much time getting into the logistics of why he wasn’t offered the chance to stay. The decision was one of the first made after the heartbreaking Game 163 loss to Minnesota and GM Dave Dombrowski noted that the Tigers needed to make “corrections” in regard to payroll. It wasn’t long after Polly left town, signing a three-year deal to play third base in Philadelphia for $18 million, that the Tigers dealt away Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson in a trade that brought back four major league pieces (and also saved a boatload of money).

Yes, you could argue that unnecessary contract extensions that had been given to guys like Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, and Nate Robertson were the major issues that forced the over-budget Tigers to have to make these corrections, but the corrections still had to be made. If they hadn’t been, maybe the Tigers wouldn’t have had the money to convince Justin Verlander to sign long-term.

So here we are two years later and the Tigers still haven’t found Polanco’s replacement at second base. Sizemore was tried there twice before being shipped off to Oakland. Will Rhymes has had the job on a couple of occasions as well. Carlos Guillen, Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn have each also spent time as the “starting” second baseman for this team. None of them have done anything to chase the memories of Polly’s oddly-shaped melon from our minds.

To hear most Tigers fans tell it, you’d think Polanco was the greatest second baseman in franchise history, or at least the best since Charlie Gehringer. There are things to remember, however, and chief among them is that Polanco would have a great deal of difficulty maintaining his level of play had he remained in Detroit. How do I know this? Because he hasn’t maintained that level in Philadelphia over the past two seasons.

Citizen’s Bank Park is a notorious hitter’s park. Comerica plays a bit more neutral, though it does favor hitters slightly. More than that, many of the National League’s best pitchers are playing for Polanco’s Phillies team, meaning he doesn’t have to face those guys at all. It stands to reason that in a better hitter’s park, facing even slightly worse pitching overall, Polanco should have thrived in his return to the NL.

Looking at Polanco’s entire career, it’s easy to see that 2007, when he hit .341 for the Tigers, was the apex. He played that season at age 31. That season he posted an OPS of .846. In the years since then, his OPS had dropped each season to .768 in 2008, .727 in 2009, .726 in 2010, and .674 in 2011; the last two of those coming with the Phillies, of course. Polanco finished up a four-year, $18 million deal in 2009, a contract that paid him $4.6 million that season. In the past two years, while his production has fallen drastically from his peak season, his salary has risen. In the past two year, Polanco has made over $10.5 million in total and will make another $6.4 million in 2012.

Now, is an extra $2 million per year added to the Tigers payroll too much for the stability and consistency that Polanco surely would have offered? No, of course it isn’t. Except that Polanco has offered neither stability nor consistency in his two years in Philadelphia, so he probably wouldn’t have in Detroit, either. Polanco really never became an everyday player until he was traded to the Tigers in 2005 and in the years since, he’s played an average of 133 games per year. He played in 132 for the Phillies in 2010, and only 122 in 2011. Not only has he been significantly less-productive as he’s aged, but he’s been prone to missing chunks of time as well.

Now, the fans may or may not want to acknowledge all of these arguments, because all we see is the revloving door that has taken over at second base in Detroit. We see lineups that feature Don Kelly in the two-hole instead of Polanco’s grace and bat control in that spot and it makes us irritated.

Here’s the hard truth: Not only was Polanco no guarantee to make the Tigers a better club, the Tigers actually got better offensive production from their second basemen in each of the last two year than the Phillies got from Polly.

In 2010, Polanco offered a .298/.339/.386/.726 line while the Tigers got a .276/.335/.410/.745 line from their combined second basemen. In 2011, the difference in OPS was even more drastic as Polanco posted a .277/.335/.339/.674 line and the Tigers’ second basemen posted a line of .260/.311/.394/.705.

It’s easy to look at the names that have played second for Detroit in the last two years and long for the days when Polanco gracefully manned the position. But he isn’t that guy anymore and he wasn’t that guy really even before he left Detroit. Had the Tigers kept Polly around and given him the deal he wanted, the club would still be in need of an upgrade at second base; they’d just have a more expensive problem than they’ve had.