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March 19, 2012

The Process

Remember Matt Dominguez

by Bradley Ankrom

The most immediately visible effect of Miami’s signing Jose Reyes to a six-year deal last December was that face-of-the-franchise shortstop Hanley Ramirez would be forced to another position. The Marlins were quick to clarify that Ramirez would not move to center field as some had speculated, but rather third base, where he would team with Reyes to give Miami one of the most potent left sides of the infield in the game. Less discussed was that Reyes’ arrival virtually closed the door on former top pick Matt Dominguez’s career in Miami, exactly three months after he’d made his major-league debut against the Mets.

It may seem like Dominguez has been around for ages, but the truth is that he won’t turn 23 until the end of August. The 12th-overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft, Dominguez was considered by some to be a “Scott Rolen starter kit” at third base, possessing acumen on the field and in the batter’s box that would enable him to serve as a franchise cornerstone for a decade or more. He and shortstop Mike Moustakas, taken second overall by Kansas City, became the second pair of high school teammates selected among the top 15 picks of the same draft.

Dominguez began his first full season in extended spring training but hit .296/.354/.499 after a late-May promotion to Class-A Greensboro, enough to qualify him as baseball’s 26th-best prospect entering 2009, according to Kevin Goldstein.

The Florida State League proved to be a greater challenge for the 19-year-old the following year, but he held his own before a second-half promotion to Double-A Jacksonville. On the year, Dominguez hit .247/.325/.400 and was one of seven players under the age of 20 to collect 100 Double-A plate appearances. He spent all of 2010 back in Jacksonville, joining Brett Lawrie and Carlos Triunfel as the only 20-year-old Southern League regulars.

His overall numbers (.252/.333/.411) improved only slightly from the year before, but that was enough for Dominguez to make a return to Goldstein’s Top 101 rankings, taking the 80th spot after falling off of the list completely the year before.

The Marlins entered last spring with a gaping hole at the hot corner, but an awful showing in big-league camp punched Dominguez’s ticket to Triple-A. He missed the first five weeks of the season after an errant pitch broke his left elbow and suffered through a miserable season when he returned, his 714 OPS establishing a new career low. Despite that, Florida gave Dominguez his first taste of the major leagues with a September call-up in which he started 13 of the club’s final 21 games. A postseason assignment to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit just .226/.305/.393, did nothing to improve his stock.

* * *

To this point, it might seem that Dominguez has done very little to inspire confidence that he’ll ever be more than a glove-first, replacement-level third baseman in the major leagues. A popular comparison is Pedro Feliz, who parlayed good defense and above-average power into an 11-year major-league career. From ages 28-32, Feliz was worth more than six WARP, largely due to his outstanding defense. From 2003-2007, Feliz’s 38.4 FRAA ranked second behind Rolen (47.33) among all third basemen in baseball.

Offensively, Feliz was worth just under a win above replacement, but his defense earned him an additional three wins, accounting for more than 75 percent of his career 3.9 WARP. Is .250/.288/.410—Feliz’s career slash line—the best Dominguez believers can hope for?

The most glaring flaw in Feliz’s game was his inability to get on base at a reasonable clip. His .288 career on-base percentage ranks in the bottom 25 all-time among players with at least 4500 plate appearances and, for comparison’s sake, is worse than that of his former teammate in San Francisco, Neifi Perez.

For all of his flaws, Dominguez has shown some ability to discern balls and strikes. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has dropped steadily in his four full seasons, from 2.43 in 2008 to a low of 1.71 in 2010. It climbed back up to 1.96 last year but still fell below the Triple-A average of 2.06.

His strikeout percentage has also declined as he’s climbed the ladder, and Dominguez established a career low by striking out in only 13.9 percent of plate appearances last year, down from 23.3 percent in his debut and 18 percent below the average of his Triple-A peers.

Year

Age

PA

Level(s)

SO/BB

SO/PA

2007

17

60

R/A-

7.00

23.3%

2008

18

381

A

2.43

17.8%

2009

19

543

A+/AA

1.79

16.9%

2010

20

577

AA

1.71

16.6%

2011

21

395

AAA/AA/A+

1.96

13.9%

The quick ascents of some of his prep colleagues from the 2007 draft make Dominguez’s steady climb appear glacial by comparison. Jason Heyward, taken by Atlanta two picks after Dominguez, was finishing up his second full major-league season when Dominguez made his debut last September, and he wasn’t even the first high schooler to reach the Show. That distinction belonged to Detroit right-hander Rick Porcello, who made the jump from advanced Class-A to the Tigers rotation less than two years removed from high school. Madison Bumgarner, taken by San Francisco two spots ahead of Dominguez, joined Porcello in the big leagues later that summer.

It is notable, however, that Dominguez has posted average or better numbers at every stop while consistently competing against players several years his senior. In 2011, the average Pacific Coast League pitcher was 27.1 years old. The previous year, Dominguez battled against pitchers who averaged 24.2 years of age. Being exceptionally young for his leagues does not excuse his lack of overwhelming results, but it should cause evaluators and fans to pause before writing him off completely.

* * *

In prospect circles, Dominguez is virtually a lost cause, exiled to the ranks of players who failed to pan out. He didn’t appear on anyone’s list of Top 100 (or Top 101) prospects this winter, and he has been usurped by Christian Yelich as the Marlins’ top prospect.

Meanwhile, Will Middlebrooks, another defense-minded third baseman with a questionable bat, has climbed prospect charts and could nudge Kevin Youkilis off of third base in Boston before the end of the year. Last year, Middlebrooks hit .285/.328/.506 across three levels but collected 85 percent of his plate appearances in Double-A. For his career, Middlebrooks is a .272/.330/.440 hitter, his 770 OPS edging Dominguez by 24 points. While his numbers at Double-A were impressive, Middlebrooks was also a year older and playing a level below Dominguez in 2011.

* * *

With third base blocked for at least the next six years, Dominguez is a man without a clear path to playing time in Miami. Dominguez’s disappointing 2011 campaign, coupled with his lack of a place in the Marlins’ long-term plans, makes this an ideal time for another team to swoop in and buy low.

Atlanta will have a massive hole at third base if and when Chipper Jones finally hangs up his spikes. The most logical solution would be to move Martin Prado permanently back to the infield, but that would open up another hole in left field. Prado will also be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, and the organization’s top internal hot corner candidate, Edward Salcedo, hit .248/.315/.396 in Class A in 2011.

The Mets also will also face a problem at third base whenever the team decides to move David Wright. Though he’s still a shortstop in title, Wilmer Flores is likely to move to the hot corner eventually, but he may not have enough bat to be a regular.

Another division rival, Philadelphia, can claim a dearth of respectable options at third base, especially as Placido Polanco’s skills continue to degrade with age. Dominguez’s youth would be a welcome addition to baseball’s oldest lineup, but it’s hard to envision the Marlins making a move with their top competitor in the division.

The Astros have the National League’s shallowest pool of talent but appear willing to give Jimmy Paredes a chance to stake his claim to the third-base job in Houston. Dominguez could probably deliver what Danny Valencia will to the Twins’ offense this year, but with much better defense.

* * *

While there is no guarantee that Dominguez will improve with the bat, his age and demonstrated skills provide tangible anchors for hope. Even if this is what he is—Pedro Feliz with a touch less power and a bit more on-base ability—that has value to a major-league roster. It’s all but guaranteed that he won’t develop into a star in Miami, but there is still a chance he could blossom under the tutelage of another organization’s coaching staff.

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