Friday, November 14, 2014

Philography: Placido Polanco

An important cog in the Philadelphia Phillies lineup for 7 of the 11 seasons between 2002-2012, Placido Polanco can nonetheless be considered the hard-luck player in the Phillies decade of winning excellence to open the 21st century.

His two stints as a starter with the ball club, first in the early part of the decade when he was mostly used as the starting 2nd baseman, and then at the end as the starting 3rd baseman, sandwiched the 2008 World Series victory, of which he was not a part.

But Polanco's excellent play for the team in that long stretch cannot be overlooked. He brought steady professionalism, along with both winning play and a positive attitude. In the beginning, he helped the team realize it could compete with anyone. In the end,
he was a big part of a record-setting Phils season.

Placido Polanco's career began in the Saint Louis Cardinals organization at the tail end of the 20th century. Born and raised in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he was selected by the Cards in the 19th round of the 1994 amateur draft out of Miami-Dade College.

He began his pro career that summer playing shortstop with the Cardinals rookie league affiliate at age 18, and remained at short when assigned to A-level Peoria in 1995. Then in 1996, Polanco was moved over to 2nd base. He would play mostly that position in both '96 at High-A and then again for the Cardinals AA-level affiliate at Arkansas in 1997.

Though he did swipe 19 bags in '97, Polanco was a light-hitter known for his ability to make contact. He was also proving highly skilled with the glove, and he graded outstanding in overall baseball smarts. Many in the organization, as well as outside evaluators, were pegging him as a future utility infielder who would definitely reach the Major Leagues as the 90's were drawing to a close.

He finally achieved the Big League dream with a call-up to the Cardinals in July of 1998. In his 2nd game, his first start, Polanco was installed as the leadoff hitter playing 2nd base in a game vs the Reds at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati. In the bottom of the first inning, Polanco lined a clean base hit to short rightfield off Reds' lefty Brett Tomko for the first hit of his career.

Later in that 1998 season, in a game at Busch Stadium in Saint Louis vs the Florida Marlins, Polanco was given a start at shortstop by manager Tony LaRussa. With one-out in the bottom of the 2nd inning, Polanco drove a ball deep down the leftfield line against Rafael Medina for his first career homerun.

It was just a first taste of life in the Big Leagues for Polanco, who would split time from 1998-2000 between the Majors and AAA. Each year his time with the Cardinals increased, and finally by the end of August 2000 he was the regular starting 2nd baseman in Saint Louis as the Cards won the N.L. Central crown. He saw regular action that year during the team's first post-season appearance in 13 years, a tough NLDS loss to Atlanta.

Over the course of that first full 2000 season, Polanco had been bounced around the infield from 2nd to short to 3rd. His versatility fully established, he was finally given a chance in 2001 to settle at a spot. He saw 103 games, 92 starts, at 2nd base that season, while also seeing a career-high 42 games at shortstop.

Saint Louis again reached the postseason, this time as a Wildcard, and again took the NLDS to a decisive game. But again, Polanco and the Cards fell short, losing in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to the Arizona Diamondbacks. A pattern of postseason frustration was being established that would see a World Series crown always just beyond Polanco's grasp.

In 2002, Polanco was moved over to 3rd base by the Cardinals as the regular starter, seeing 131 games at the position. But then just before the non-waiver trade deadline, on July 29th, a stunner. Polanco was included in a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils were looking to move disgruntled 3rd baseman Scott Rolen, and found a match in Saint Louis.

Phils traded disgruntled 3B Scott Rolen to Cards for Polanco

Now beginning a new chapter of his career in Philadelphia, Polanco finished out the 2002 season with a Phils club that had come in 2nd place in the NL East, just 2 games back, during the 2001 season. The '02 team struggled through a losing September to finish a disappointing 80-81. It would prove to be the team's last losing season for a decade.

In 2003 the Phillies were closing Veteran's Stadium, and wanted to open the new Citizens Bank Park on an upswing. The club brought in free agents Jim Thome, David Bell, and Dan Plesac to upgrade the overall roster. The team responded by battling into late September in a dogfight with Florida and Houston for the NL Wildcard spot. However, 6 straight losses in a season-closing 1-7 stretch dropped them out of playoff contention. They finished 10 games over .500, but finished 5 games behind the Florida Marlins.

Polanco was the regular 2nd baseman in both that final 2003 season at The Vet, and in the inaugural 2004 season at Citizens Bank Park. In '04, the team again finished 10 games over .500, but they finished 10 behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL East crown and 6 games behind Houston for the Wildcard. They were obviously close, but not quite a championship contender.

That fall of 2004, Polanco became a free agent for the first time. In the end, liking his place with the team and the direction in which they seemed headed, he chose to sign a 5-year deal with the Phillies. His future was secure financially, and it appeared that he had a pivotal role on a team that looked to be a consistent contender into the future on the field as well.

His on-field production was also improving as he moved into his prime years and gained more consistent playing time. In 2003 he hit .289 with 14 homers and 14 steals, had 30 doubles, and scored 87 runs. In 2004, at age 28, he upped his average to .298 and his homers to 17.

2005 would be a near-miss for the Phillies playoff fortunes. The club won a couple more games, finishing 14 over the .500 mark, but still fell 2 games short of the Braves in the division. Perhaps more excruciating, they missed the Wildcard by just a single game. Polanco, however, was not around for the near-miss. That contract he signed did not have full no-trade protection.

On June 8th of 2005, the Phillies dealt Polanco away in an effort to bolster their pitching staff for the 2nd half. He was sent off to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Ramon Martinez and Ugueth Urbina. The Phillies felt Polanco was expandable now that Chase Utley was ready to fully take over at 2nd base.

Young 2B Chase Utley made Polly expendable in 2005

In the American League for the first time in his career, Polanco was also given a steady position for the first time. He would be the Tigers starting 2nd baseman for the next 4+ seasons. In the best portion of the prime of his career, from ages 29-33, Polanco hit a combined .311, and in 2006 he helped lead the Tigers to a Wildcard playoff berth.

In the 2006 playoffs, the Tigers would roll through the Yankees and A's, winning 7 of 8 games to take the American League Pennant for the first time in 22 seasons. Polanco was integral. The Detroit 2nd baseman hit .413 in the ALDS vs the Yanks, and then .529 in the 4-game sweep of Oakland in the ALCS for which he was named the Most Valuable Player.

Moving on to the World Series for what would be the only time in his career, the Tigers were taking on his former team, the Saint Louis Cardinals. Polanco would also be squaring off with Rolen, the player for whom he was traded to Philly four years earlier. The two teams split the first two games in Detroit, and headed to St. Louis for the next 3 games.

The Tigers knew they needed to win just once in order to ensure at least a return trip to Detroit. It would never come. In Saint Louis, the Cardinals swept all three games to win the World Series. For his part, Polanco was almost non-existent. In his only Fall Classic he didn't register a single hit, going 0-17 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. Rolen was strong, hitting .421 with a homer and 5 runs scored in winning his lone career championship.

In 2007, Polanco would show that his previous postseason failures were not indicative of any erosion in his talent. At age 31, Polanco hit .341 with a .388 on-base percentage, he produced a career-high 67 rbi, scored 105 runs, reached 200 hits for the only time in his career, including a career-best 36 doubles. The result was his first-ever All-Star Game, as well as receiving the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards.

Polanco was MVP of the 2006 ALCS while with Detroit

In both 2007 and in 2009, the Tigers would finish 2nd in the A.L. Central Division but were unable to secure a playoff spot. Polanco continued to be solid, hitting .307 for a losing Detroit team in 2008, and then winning his 2nd Gold Glove while driving in a knew career-high 72 runs in 2009.  Also in 2008, Polanco had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, taking his oath before a game right on the field at Comerica Park.

Following the 2009 season, the 5-year deal that he had originally signed with Philadelphia was now up, and he was again a free agent. The Tigers were ready to move on from their 2nd baseman, who would be turning 34-years old in 2010.

Meanwhile, back in Philly, the team had won the 2008 World Series and returned there in 2009. Their 3rd baseman, Pedro Feliz, was turning 35 years old in 2010 and had his contract expiring. Despite his not having played 3rd base since leaving Philly in 2005, the Phils approached Polanco about the possibility of moving back to the hot corner. Polanco jumped at a reunion.

Signing a 3-year deal to become the Phillies new 3rd baseman, the man who had become known as "Polly" set out to show that he could still produce at a high level. In his first season back in 2010, he played a strong 3rd base, and the Phillies reached the NLCS before losing in six games to San Francisco.

The following year of 2011, both the team and Polanco upped their games. The Phillies set a franchise record with 102 victories in rolling to their 5th consecutive National League East Division crown. Polanco made his 2nd All-Star team, his first in the National League, and would win the Gold Glove. In doing so, Placido Polanco became the first player to win a Gold Glove at two different positions.

With all of the 2011 success, the ending would prove disastrous for the team, and would signal the beginning of the end of Polanco's time in Philly and his career as a whole. The Phils were edged out by his old Cardinals team in the NLDS thanks to a 1-0 loss in the decisive game. As in the 2006 World Series, Polanco again did not produce against them, going 2-19.

Polanco returned to the Phils as their 3rd baseman 2010-12

In 2012, Polanco and the Phillies suffered from injuries and began to fall apart. The team struggled to a .500 finish, missing the postseason for the first time since 2006. Polanco's season would be ended by injury just as September began. But before it happened he had one more moment of glory. On May 14th he cracked a homerun off Houston Astros reliever David Carpenter for the 2,000th hit of this Major League career.

Granted free agency once again following that 2012 season, approaching age 37 and wanting to spend more time with his wife and two small children, Polanco considered retirement. He would only play if it could be near them, limiting him to the southeastern clubs. He signed eventually with the Miami Marlins, playing one final season as their 3rd baseman before finally retiring.

In a career that spanned parts of 16 seasons, Placido Polanco fashioned a .297 batting average in nearly 8,000 plate appearances spread across a little over 1,900 games. He appeared at 2nd base in more than 1,000 games and at 3rd in 751, as well as 122 at shortstop. He won the Gold Glove in both the AL and the NL, was an All-Star in both leagues, and had done both while with the Phillies.

Polly also proved to be very reliable. He finished with well over 500 plate appearances in every season for which he was given the opportunity during his prime years, 10 of the 11 seasons between ages 25-34. The lone exception was 2004 in Detroit when he barely missed at 495 thanks to a mid-August to mid-September injury.

A career near-.300 hitter who was a great defender. An All-Star caliber player who proved to be both versatile and dependable. A consummate professional who was well-liked and well-respected by both his peers and by fans. That is how Placido Polanco will be remembered by baseball fans in general, and Phillies fans in particular.

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