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Hot Corner, Hot Seat: the Phillies' 3B Woes

Blame Scott Rolen or scouting or bad luck, but the Phillies have managed to squeeze the last ounces of productivity out of third basemen. Will Michael Young fare any better?

Phildelphia Phillies fans will welcome Michael Young, the newest third basemen, at the start of the 2013 season.

Young comes to Philly entering the last year of his contract at age 36. He's been called a professional-hitting, reliable bat with a strong track record who's ready to bounce back after a tough season.

But maybe someone should warn Michael Young what he's risking by playing third here in Philly. If the eerie track record of Phillies third basemen is any indication, Young need not fear the fans' ire, media tenacity or a bad cheesesteak.

What he should consider is why the string of players who have anchored that position previous to his arrival have never gone on to do anything since.

The catalogue of Phillies third basemen since the infamous (bittersweet?) departure of MLB's favorite, gold-gloved, baseball-mashing sourpuss, Scott Rolen:

  • 2012 K. Frandsen/Polanco
  • 2011 Polanco
  • 2010 Polanco/Dobbs
  • 2008-9 Feliz/Dobbs
  • 2007 Dobbs/Helms/Nuñez
  • 2006 Bell/Nuñez
  • 2004-5 Bell
  • 2003 Bell/Houston
  • 1997-2002 Rolen w/some K.Jordon
  • 1996 Zeile
  • 1995 Hayes/Hollins
  • 1994 Batiste/Hollins
  • 1993 Hollins/Batiste
  • 1992 Hollins
  • 1990-1 Hayes/Hollins

There's some consistency in the '90s with Hollins, a young guy with upside who dealt with injuries and diabetes. Kim Batiste, Charlie Hayes and Todd Zeile helped the team through before Rolen became the only bright spot during the dark times at the end of the millenium—but they're by no means stand-outs.

After Rolen, the team paraded around a number of glorious, part-time utility guys like Tyler Houston, Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms—the kinds of guys upon whom good teams can rely every once in a while, but in whom mediocre teams (like those early '00s Phillies) depended far too much.

Still, Dobbs, Houston, and Helms weren't terrible. They just shouldn't have started as many games as they did.

Bell, Feliz, Polanco (and Nuñez)

Three players in the last 11 seasons were brought in as serious starters: David Bell, Pedro Feliz, and prior Phillie Placido Polanco.

Abraham Nuñez, part of the haul in the Rolen trade, was a laughable choice for a starter, but being the only option, he had the job for a season or so (it felt longer back then, didn't it?).

Perhaps he was given a shot with the hope that he'd pan out as slightly above-average so the trade wouldn't have seemed so lopsided. I have lots of ridiculous hopes that don't pan out, too.

Despite being an injury risk, Bell's signing wasn't horrible, although three years sounded like six for a guy on the downside of health and productivity. Still, he was a good defender before his back started to limit his abilities.

I still see the pre-Rolen '90s as a pretty decent handful of years for the team at the position since Hollins' injury was freakish and his diagnosis obviously random. Bell's back? Feliz's toothpick bat? Not so random.

Injuries hurt Feliz, too, although he was also overvalued by the team from day one, perhaps even more than Bell. Feliz had some O.K. stats in San Francisco, but nothing that suggested he'd make up for light hitting with Rolen-like defense (or even Bell-like defense). He did get a few key hits in the 2008 postseason, which, in some ways, makes him worth something in Phillies history.

Polanco is another guy who, despite how much I love him, wasn't brought in to light up the scoreboard. His defense was solid, and he was, until he arrived, a good OBP guy. Sad to say, though, that Feliz ended up with a higher OPS (thanks to his "power") and Polanco ended up just as useless towards the end as Bell and Feliz had been. Doesn't that make it three in a row?

Consider the stats of the Phillies main third basemen from Rolen through the just-departed Polanco:

Player AB/Games AVG HR OPS WAR Polanco (3 yrs, 3B stats only) 1326/344 .281 13 .686 2.6 Bell (4 years) 
1711/470 .258 38 .715 4.8 Feliz (2 years) 1005/291 .259 26 .699 1.3 Nuñez (1 year) 574/259 .221 2 .587 -2.7 Rolen (7 years) 3125/844 .282 150 .877 28.1

Look, even if you add up all of the stats for the post-Rolen starters, Rolen's seven years were phenomenal. But we know that, right? Consider, too, that the stats for the non-Rolens are based on 1,500 extra at-bats.

Still, I'm not arguing Rolen was awesome. He was.

Out of Philly, out of the game

Here's the awesome and troubling fact though: Nuñez, Feliz, Bell all were out of the bigs within a season of leaving Philly.

Polanco just got a one-year deal with the Miami "no contract will end here" Marlins. And, yes, Helms and Dobbs have found life in Miami with those same Marlins, but is that even considered life? (Perhaps a life sentence...in baseball prison. ZING!)

Going backward, other third basemen have also found themselves out of baseball after manning the hot corner in Philly: Jon Vukovich, Dick Allen, Don Hoak, and Al Dark. Even Dave Hollins stepped off the Vet turf and into retirement! (Although he clearly came back to simply finish as a Philly when he was 36 and, well, finished.)

It's easy to cherry-pick names from the past, but the recent track record of Philly third basemen makes me worried that Young's tenure will be short and, perhaps alarming for him, might involve injury and/or an exit from The Show by the time he's 38.

According to WAR, Schmidt (#2) and Rolen (#11) are two of the greatest third basemen in MLB since 1900, but the team has recently found itself with a WAR of 6.0 from the position since Rolen's departure.

That's six wins more than what replacement players (i.e., guys like Dobbs or Helms or guys better than Abraham Nuñez) would provide over the course of 11 years. That's not good.

In my gut, I feel like Young's destined to be somewhere between Pedro Feliz and Placido Polanco in terms of offensive WAR, and less than them defensively. He could find a one-to-two-year deal in 2014 if he manages to bounce back this season after last year's sub-par performance.

The early stat projections from ZiPS supports my gut, but the only way to know is to play. I'm going to root for him and hope the team's future third baseman is young and loves Philly.

Jamie Blanchard January 06, 2013 at 07:13 PM
What a great story! Love it!
chris_kuty January 07, 2013 at 03:46 AM
What is the point of this? That, ignoring Scott Rolen (who went to six of his seven All Star Games and won a World Series after leaving Philly) that the other Philly third basemen since Schmidt have been mediocre to terrible? So what? How many other positions on other teams can you say this about? Spotty production for extended periods is the norm. How is this a story?
Matt Skoufalos (Editor) January 07, 2013 at 05:05 AM
I think the point is that this has been a problem the Phillies have been trying to fix for the better part of a decade (a la the Flyers goaltending crisis, only not as devastating). And the interesting point, as I see it, is that the Phillies have tried to plug this hole with not only guys who didn't really cut the mustard, but who weren't even in baseball shortly after their stints in town. It's even more of a glaring hole when you consider how stabilized the rest of the infield has been for the last eight years or so. And as third base is traditionally a power hitting position, and the Phils have also been searching for a right-handed bat to protect Howard for as long as they've had him, there's more than a few kinds of hopes pinned on Young, and a bit of a cloud hanging over the position he'll play.

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