The 2011 Marlins possess two distinct characteristics: youth and flexibility. Yet they might have taken that idea a step too far this winter when they named former NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Chris Coghlan the starting center fielder. While Coghlan has experience in the outfield, he has never played center as a professional, and his defensive numbers in left field have been below average. It makes me wonder if they made the move to ensure future flexibility.
Coghlan will roam center field mainly out of necessity. I’m sure even the Marlins believe that his defensive skills profile better in the corner spots than in center, but there just aren’t any corner outfield spots available. Mike Stanton has right field in the bag. Logan Morrison is a natural first baseman, but Gaby Sanchez impressed enough last season to keep his job there. Thankfully for the Marlins, Morrison can slide into left field. That leaves precious few options for Coghlan.
In the minors Coghlan primarily played second base, but Dan Uggla blocked his path to the majors. That prompted the move to left field, where Coghlan looked uncomfortable at times during his rookie season. He could move back there this year, but the team did acquire Omar Infante when dealing Uggla, and they likely want to see if he can repeat his production from the last two seasons, in which he produced a total of 3.9 WAR in 735 PA.
Coghlan also manned third base in 42 minor league games, and it’s easy to envision him sliding over to that position. But the Marlins appear determined to give Matt Dominguez the job, if not right out of camp than not long after the season starts. If they moved Coghlan there they’d have to move him off the position relatively soon, and I’m sure they would rather have him at a set position rather than moving him around willy nilly.
Given the issues with him playing the infield, installing him in center field is the only remaining option if they want to keep his bat in the lineup. He will in all likelihood cost the team runs, but they have to be confident that his bat will help compensate. Then, as the season plays out, there could be opportunities for him to move into a more natural position, which would be left field or second base. There are a few scenarios that could bring about a more permanent move for Coghlan.
Scenario 1: Infante is ineffective
While Infante has impressed in his last 200 games, in the 590 prior to that he was, for the most part, a light-hitting utility infielder. It won’t take too much for him to carry his weight as a second baseman, but if his production declines enough the Marlins might want to make him the utility man. That would open up second base for Coghlan.
The issue with this scenario is that Osvaldo Martinez is knocking on the door and could force his way into the second base conversation at some point this season. If he is producing at AAA the Marlins will face a similar situation as they do with Dominguez. It makes little sense to move Coghlan back to the infield just to have him move again when Martinez is ready.
Scenario 2: Sanchez is ineffective
Gaby Sanchez played well enough last year to garner some Rookie of the Year support, but he was one of the older rookies in the league. His minor league track record is strong, so we could see some improvement from him this year. If he hits a sophomore slump, the Marlins might be inclined to make a move, especially if they’re contending with the Braves and the Phillies.
The logical move there is to reinstall Morrison at first base and slide Coghlan over to left. This is what I see happening eventually, anyway. Maybe the Marlins find a taker for Sanchez on the trade market and improve their team elsewhere. But in any case, long-term I believe Morrison will play first and Coghlan will play left. An ineffective Sanchez in 2011 could expedite that scenario.
Scenario 3: Dominguez isn’t ready
Since we’ve established that the Marlins probably don’t want Coghlan to play third, an unfamiliar position, only to have him move when Dominguez is ready, we could see Infante take over that position temporarily. That would open up second for Coghlan. That again raises the issue of Martinez, but as with any prospect, he doesn’t provide any guarantees. The Marlins might be more comfortable enough with Coghlan at his most familiar position that they wouldn’t mind moving him between there and the outfield.
Chris Coghlan does provide flexibility, in that he can handle infield and outfield positions, but the team is stretching that by playing him in center field. By all indications, however, this is a temporary move designed to keep his bat in the lineup while the rest of the team shakes out. One way or another he’ll move off the position in time. Whether that means playing left field or second base will depend on how the season progresses. There will be opportunities, and when they arise the Marlins will be ready. That’s the payoff for building a flexible roster.