Placido Polanco hit .398 in April with nine extra-base hits, then .243 the rest of the season with 10. His OPS was .972 at the end of April, then .591 the rest of the way. It only got worse in October, when Polanco went 2 for 19 with no walks, runs, or RBI and one rally-killing double play in the first inning of Game 2.
Polanco’s defense was unsurprisingly elite in 2011 – it passed both the eye test and the sabermetric test, as he ranked first in baseball with 14.0 runs saved – but he offered the Phillies very little in the way of offense. The need for more run production at third base became glaring in the playoffs when, batting seventh, Polanco fronted a 7-8 that reached base a combined three times in five games.
With one year remaining on a three-year, $18 million contract that made sense at the time, what do the Phillies do with Polanco? Can they enter the 2012 season with an injury-ravaged contact hitter who seldom makes solid contact anymore?
Well, it might be the Phils’ only option. The majority of the 2012 free agent class is weak, and third base is no exception. Aramis Ramirez could potentially void his $16 million player option for 2012, and has implied his intentions to do so if the Cubs don’t sign him to a multi-year extension. But he is 33, and even after an impressive season, is not the kind of player Ruben Amaro should commit four or more years to. With the contracts of Polanco (next year) and Raul Ibanez (this year) coming off the books, the last thing an aging team needs is to give another older player his last long-term contract.
After Ramirez, the best available third baseman – if you can believe it – is Wilson Betemit. The 29-year-old journeyman has been relatively valuable with the bat the past two seasons, hitting .290 with a .359 on-base percentage and .479 slugging percentage. On the flip side, he is a defensive nightmare at the hot corner, having allowed a total of 47 runs more in his career than the average defensive third baseman. Because of the poor defense, the switch-hitting Betemit is more of a platoon player than an everyday starter. And one has to wonder whether or not his desired situation would be splitting time at third with Polanco or finding more regular work elsewhere.
Polanco’s offensive ineffectiveness in 2011 can be attributed to a back injury and a sports hernia, sure, but that’s kind of the point. He is an elderly man, in baseball years, and has had a plethora of health problems since signing with the Phillies after the 2009 World Series.
It is unfortunate that Polanco’s rock-solid career appears to be coming to an end, because the signing looked great at the time. Polanco was set to add a dimension that Phillies lineup lacked – a pure contact hitter who you could trust with two outs and runners in scoring position. It is ironic that by the end of the second year, that was the very type of situation in which Polanco had lost the fans’ confidence (see: second inning, NLDS Game 5).
The Phils can expect above-average defense at third base for as long as Polanco can stay on the field in 2012, but whatever they get offensively will be a bonus. They will likely have to ride this contract out and hope to acquire a third baseman heading into 2013, when David Wright and Kevin Youkilis could potentially highlight the third base class.