Long before Dave Dombrowski cemented his position as one of the best general managers in baseball, he was in the process of rebuilding a Detroit Tigers team that had fallen on hard times, to put it nicely. After a 43-119 record in 2003, Dombrowski made a series of moves that would later pay off in a big way. He traded with the Seattle Mariners for shortstop Carlos Guillen and signed free agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez prior to the 2004 season. After a 72-90 record in 2004, he signed Magglio Ordonez to a head-turning five year, $75 million contract.
There were many more pieces to the puzzle added before the team's surprising run to the 2006 World Series, but one that always seems to get swept under the rug is a mid-season trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2005. On June 8th, the Tigers sent closer Ugueth Urbina and utility infielder Ramon Martinez to the Phillies for second baseman Placido Polanco. With the younger and cheaper Chase Utley emerging as a superior player, the Phillies had no use for the 29 year old Polanco. The Tigers did, and Polanco would repay them with 15.9 WAR over the next five years, the fifth-highest total among all Tigers second basemen.
|2002||STL / PHI||595||9||49||5||.288||.330||.403||.323||96||3.0|
|2005||PHI / DET||551||9||56||4||.331||.383||.447||.365||124||5.5|
Placido Enrique Polanco was born on October 10th, 1975 in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. He briefly attended Miami-Dade College in the United States before being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 19th round of the 1994 draft. The Cardinals pushed him aggressively through the minors, but a .291 batting average with 21 extra base hits in Double A in 1997 helped earn him a midseason call-up in 1998. Still just 22 years old, Polanco hit .254/.292/.342 in 122 plate appearances at the MLB level.
Polanco improved over the next couple seasons, but primarily served as the Cardinals' utility infielder. He hit .316/.347/.418 in 350 plate appearances in 2000, forcing his way into a more prominent role in 2001. After hitting .307 in 610 plate appearances that season, the Cardinals traded him, Bud Smith, and Mike Timlin to the Phillies for Scott Rolen in July of 2002. The trade was a relative success for both sides, but Rolen's 25.8 rWAR in six seasons with the Cardinals dwarfed what Polanco and company would do over the next few seasons.
Polanco split time between second and third base in 2003, but was finally given a full-time role as the Phillies' second baseman in 2004. He hit .298/.345/.441 with a career high 17 home runs in 555 plate appearances. However, despite the solid numbers -- Polanco also had a .793 OPS with the Phillies in 2005 -- he was traded to the Tigers, his third organization of his career.
For the first time, Polanco was entrenched as a starting player, and the certainty of his role seemed to show up in his numbers. He hit .338/.386/.461 with 28 extra base hits in 378 plate appearances after joining the Tigers in 2005, though the team would go just 44-61 after acquiring him. In 2006, Polanco hit .295 and played his usual solid defense, but a myriad of injuries sapped what little power he possessed. He slugged just .364 and finished the regular season with 1.1 WAR.
Polanco missed the final six weeks of the 2006 regular season with a separated left shoulder, but his return helped spark the team in the postseason. We all know how the Tigers dispatched the Yankees and swept the Athletics, and Polanco's leaping gallop to home plate is etched in the memories of fans young and old. However, that moment was just one of 19 times Polanco reached based in the ALDS and ALCS, good enough for an on-base percentage of .514 in 37 plate appearances. While his bat would go quiet in the World Series like many others, Polanco and the Tigers had brought baseball back in Detroit.
After helping put himself and his team back on the map in 2006, Polanco enjoyed a lot of personal success in 2007. He made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He hit a career-high .341/.388/.458 with nine home runs and 67 RBI, finishing third in the AL batting title race. Polanco also played phenomenal defense at second base, compiling 1.6 defensive WAR. He did not make an error all season long, becoming the first everyday second baseman to ever complete a perfect fielding season in MLB history.
While the 2008 and 2009 seasons would end in heartbreak for the Tigers for very different reasons, Polanco stayed remarkably consistent. He hit .295/.340/.407 across the two seasons, drawing 71 walks to 89 strikeouts. He committed a career-high eight errors in 2008, but only had two miscues in 2009, leading to his second career Gold Glove. He was worth 5.8 WAR during the stretch, bringing his total with the Tigers to 15.9 WAR in under five seasons.
Unfortunately, the 2009 season would be Polanco's last in Detroit. The team neglected to offer him arbitration following the 2009 season, and Polanco eventually signed a three year, $18 million contract with the Phillies. He continued to stay productive for the next couple years, compiling 6.2 WAR in 2010 and 2011. However, he started to falter in 2012, hitting just .257/.302/.327 in a part-time role. The Phillies declined to pick up Polanco's mutual option for 2013, and he signed with the Miami Marlins. He served as the team's starting third baseman for most of the year, but hit just .260/.315/.302 in 416 plate appearances.
While his career has come to an unceremonious end -- he hasn't officially announced his retirement yet, but Polanco did not play baseball in 2014 -- Polanco will always be remembered as one of the best contact hitters of his era. He struck out just 538 times in 7887 plate appearances, a measly 6.8 percent strikeout rate. Only two hitters have struck out fewer times in at least 6,000 plate appearances since 1995: Eric Young and Juan Pierre. Polanco did not walk often, but hit for a high enough average to get on base at an above average clip. Among Tigers second basemen with at least 1,000 career plate appearances, Polanco's .311 batting average sits behind only the legendary Charlie Gehringer.