Phillies turn to Polanco, again

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By David Murphy
Philadelphia Daily News

THEY STOOD together, wearing smiles and spilling platitudes – the player and the general manager, with the bygones nowhere in sight. When it came time for the made-for-TV donning of the uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. helped Placido Polanco slip into something more comfortable, namely a pinstriped jersey with a familiar No. 27 on the back. (And they say chivalry is dead . . . )

They laughed. They posed. They patted each other on the back.

It was a good, old-fashioned baseball bromance, made possible by a sport in which meritocratic thinking often falls victim to guaranteed contracts and service time.

“Here I am again,” said Polanco, who yesterday signed a 3-year, $18 million contract to play third base for the team that traded him to Detroit midway through the 2005 season. “Thank God I did not fight anybody here.”

Yesterday’s news was an excellent example of the dizzying rate at which things can change in this sport. It also provided a good look at the vision the front office has for its team.

It just so happens that the future required a call to the past.

When Polanco joined the Phillies in 2002 in a trade that sent third baseman Scott Rolen to St. Louis, he joined a team that was just beginning its maddening ascent to competitiveness. The opening of Citizens Bank Park loomed and the front office was attempting to build a team that would, at the very least, fill seats. The Phillies finished tied for 14th in the majors with 710 runs in 2002, and power was high on the agenda that following offseason. The mission led them to David Bell, a 29-year-old third baseman who had hit .261 with 20 home runs in ’02 with the Giants. Forget the fact that Polanco’s batting average (.302), on-base percentage (.339) and OPS (.737) over the previous three seasons were better than Bell’s, and that Polanco’s fielding percentage at third base was significantly higher. Bell signed a 4-year, $17 million contract and Polanco moved to second, where 2 1/2 years later he was dealt to Detroit to make room for a young hotshot named Chase Utley.

“I loved Polly when he was here,” said Amaro, who was an assistant GM under Ed Wade at the time. “We didn’t want to move him, but we had a situation where at the time it was the best thing for our organization . . . It worked out for him personally, I think, as well.”

Indeed, Polanco signed a 4-year, $16 million contract extension with the Tigers and helped lead them to the World Series in 2006 (where he lost to Rolen’s Cardinals). He hit .307 with a .351 on-base percentage and a .762 OPS in his four full seasons in Detroit, nabbing a Gold Glove at second base last season. Utley, meanwhile, would help lead the Phillies to a title in 2008 while teaming with young stars like Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins to turn their lineup into one of the majors’ most powerful.

And now, Polanco is charged with two main goals in Part II of his Philadelphia story:

* Balance a lineup that finished third in the majors with 224 home runs but 14th with a .334 on-base percentage (the other three teams that advanced to the LCS finished first, third and fourth in OBP).

* Help the Phillies reclaim their World Series title (still sounds weird, doesn’t it?).

“I always wanted to be here,” Polanco said, adding that his 6-year-old son continued to wear his Phillies jersey throughout the family’s stay in Detroit. “I never wanted to leave . . . They are committed to winning. And I want to win.”

The Phillies feel Polanco provides a better opportunity to do so than Feliz, and at a similar rate of pay. Feliz, who would have made $5.5 million this season had the club exercised its option, was one of the league’s best defensive third basemen the last two seasons. But he hit just .259 with a .306 on-base percentage and .699 OPS while hitting just 26 home runs. Polanco, meanwhile, has hit .295 with a .340 on-base percentage and .747 OPS with 18 home runs over the last two seasons.

“I think it was important for us to change the structure of our lineup,” Amaro said. “Polly, over the course of his career, he’s a contact hitter. He’s a guy who makes quality outs . . . He adds a different element to our lineup that we really haven’t had.”

But he also will be 34 on Opening Day, and 36 by the time his contract expires (the deal includes a mutual option for 2013). And his average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS have declined in each of the last two seasons. And he’ll be playing third for the first time since 2005.

“There is some risk going with older guys,” Amaro said. “But again, this is a guy who takes care of himself. If it was somebody who wasn’t dedicated to his craft, then it would be different . . . As long as they take care of themselves, and I think they will, you hope you have continued production from him.”

Polanco’s ability to play second base could also help the Phillies find a way to rest – cue the irony again – Utley, who has suffered injuries the last two seasons. The organization says it is comfortable playing Greg Dobbs at third base on a limited basis, which could allow Polanco to slide to second every now and then.

For now, the focus is on Polanco starting at third and helping the Phillies reach their third straight World Series.

Phillers

Ruben Amaro said the Phillies will turn their attention toward the bullpen, which features just three players under contract for next season (incumbents Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin are arbitration eligible). One league source said the Phillies have made strong overtures toward righthander Brandon Lyon, who has posted a 3.45 ERA over the last 4 years for the D-Backs and Tigers. Lyon saved 26 games for Arizona in 2008 and can pitch multiple innings . . . The Phillies officially signed infielder Juan Castro, who agreed to terms last week.

Dec. 4, 2009