Continuing what I anticipate to be an extended look at a variety of the different roster spot and playing time competitions brewing for this spring, I thought we would look at one of the more curious contests that's shaping up down in South Florida. The Marlins walked out a big procession of mediocrity at the position last season, primarily giving the spot to Jorge Cantu, Wes Helms and Chad Tracy with a sprinkling of Quad-A talent, and the team seems like they're content to do the same in 2011.
Depending on who you ask, Florida currently has either top prospect Matt Dominguez or longtime utility infielder Helms penciled into the position, and either way they're not exactly asking for a particularly strong performance. Helms is 34, and while he's solid defensively, he's batted .244/.303/.356 over the past four seasons, which isn't remotely tolerable for a corner infielder. Dominguez brings a plus glove to the table, but it's generally considered to be easily his best attribute by the scouting community, and it's hard to see the 21-year-old hitting much in the majors coming off a .252/.333/.411 season in Double-A.
If one of those guys is getting everyday playing time in the majors next season, that can't be seen as anything but a negative for Florida. Helms is hardly more than a mediocre bench guy with some ability to hit lefties at this point, considering that he hasn't been a useful hitter in four years despite getting 230+ PA in each season. Dominguez would provide solid defensive value, but the bat would be an issue, and given his youth and lack of performance in Double-A last season, he really should be in the minors improving his skills and continuing his development. Pushing him into an everyday role at 21 with 169 games of mediocre Double-A performance under his belt simply isn't the way to maximize his potential.
There are other guys that they're likely to pepper in there, such as Emilio Bonifacio, Donnie Murphy, and possibly prospect Oswaldo Martinez, but there's one wild card that people should really keep their eye on: Ruben Gotay. The 28-year-old may not have the youth of Dominguez or the veteran presence of Helms, but he does bring one thing to the table that's unique among the team's options: on-base skills. While Gotay reached the majors in 2004 at age 21, he never thrived in four different seasons and hasn't been back to the big show since a 2008 stint with Atlanta. But over the past two seasons in Triple-A, he's been nothing short of an on-base machine.
After batting .272/.429/.450 in 479 PA with the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate in 2009, he followed that up by hitting .285/.410/.436 in 577 PA with the Diamondbacks' Triple-A club. Over those two seasons combined, he walked 197 times while striking out only 185 times, and he even flashed some pop with a .163 isolated power. Even if he's not much more than adequate defensively at third, and he's never been a particularly good defender, it's not hard to see the possibilities with Gotay given the numbers he's put up.
I think the pretty obvious solution here would be to try out some sort of platoon with Helms and Gotay at third base, giving Dominguez the chance to return to the minors to refine his approach and improve his batting skills so he can be a legitimate, high-quality option for the club at third base long-term. Helms can still hit lefties a little bit and Gotay's a switch-hitter with a solid track record against RHP, so it's not hard to see the two providing solid performance overall at the position. At the very least, it should be a solid improvement upon playing Dominguez everyday or batting Helms against right-handers consistently.