On June 8, 2005, the Philadelphia Phillies traded Placido Polanco to the Detroit Tigers for Ugueth Urbina and Ramon Martinez. At the time, it was seen as a smart and even necessary move for the Phillies.
The Phillies needed bullpen help to get over the hump and into the postseason. And the move made room for Chase Utley to play every day at second base.
In hindsight and even after a Phillies World Series championship in 2008 and a return trip in 2009, it was anything but smart.
Urbina was not the final piece to push Philly into October. The Phils finished two games back of the Braves for the division – so close but so far. The right-hander appeared in 56 games for Philadelphia, going 4-3 with a 4.13 ERA. Urbina would never pitch in the major leagues again. He is currently serving a prison sentence for attempted murder after attacking five men with a machete and attempting to pour gasoline on them in October of that same year.
Chase Utley did flourish into the star he was expected to become. In his first full season, Utley hit .291 with 28 home runs and 105 RBI. Since then, he has become the premier second baseman in baseball, winning the Silver Slugger award for the position and finishing in the MVP voting each year. Utley is a highly respected player for his intensity and no-nonsense style.
But the X-factor in it all is the hot corner. In 2005, David Bell manned third base for the Phillies. Bell was endeared by the fans for his defensive capabilities and team-first attitude, but he just couldn’t hit. His .248 average that year was a weak spot for Philly in a tight pennant race.
Yet in that moment, in 2005, no one blinked when Placido Polanco was traded in June. He was hitting .316 with 50 hits in 43 games and he had no errors playing the middle infield, third base, and outfield positions. Polanco was invaluable to that Phillies team, but few could see it at the time. Everyone was too excited for the future. The fans and the front office wanted to see Utley and Howard and talk about big plans for 2006. Lost in the excitement was the fact that Polanco, 29, was the key to the present and the future.
With Polanco in 2005, the Phillies may have made the playoffs. And with Polanco from that summer through 2009, the Phillies would have been even better. Imagine that infield and that lineup with Polanco at third for five years.
But few fans imagined the scenario. Sure, Placido was good, but he wasn’t memorable. A Phillies World Series took away the need to wonder about the past. The present was so sweet, why worry about a utility man from 2005?
And that’s fair. Until you see what Polanco is doing as a 34-year-old in 2010 for the same franchise. He signed with the Phillies as a free agent in the offseason to replace Pedro Feliz, a player who has a strikingly similar skill set as David Bell.
The 2005 trade didn’t warrant much discussion. Polanco was a good player who was easily replaceable. Since then, he has proven to be a great player who is among the most valuable in the game.
When Polanco left Philadelphia for Detroit in 2005, he took his game to another level. He finished the year hitting .338 in Detroit and .331 for the season. In 2006, he helped the Tigers to the World Series in an electric October for the rejuvenated franchise. He pounded out 200 hits in 2007 at a .341 clip. That year, he also made his first All-Star appearance and won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at second base. Did I mention that he didn’t commit one error the entire 2007 season? Think about that. As a second baseman in the major leagues, you get a lot of groundballs. You turn double plays. You cover first base in some bunt situations. You cover the bag on steals and you take throws from the outfield. There are a lot of chances to screw up even just on a throw. And Polanco didn’t once. He continued his streak into the 2008 season, but it eventually ended at a major league record 186 games. Polanco was always known as a pesky and professional hitter, but now, he was proving he was a complete player and among the best with the glove. The next two years, he piled up 178 and 176 hits respectively. And he rarely struck out.
In 2010, he rejoined Philadelphia. And he continued to rake and play ball the way he always has. This season, he is hitting .308 with 147 hits in 114 games. He has been the one constant the Phillies lineup. His approach at the plate is brilliant. And he is the main reason the Phillies are in first place in the NL East despite all their issues all summer. Fittingly, Polanco came up with the game-winning hit to lift the Phils into the top spot for the first time since May 30 on Tuesday.
But he’s still not getting the love he deserves.
The Phillies have been decimated by injuries all season, but they have also managed to weather every storm. There were different heroes at every point this summer. Roy Halladay fired away every fifth day for 1-0 wins while the offense struggled. Ryan Howard had an MVP-worthy stretch to carry the offense until an ankle injury forced him to sit out a few weeks. Carlos Ruiz picked things up from there with clutch hit after clutch hit – “Chooooooch” became a regular victory cry at Citizen’s Bank Park. Even Jayson Werth despite looking clueless at times at the plate and Raul Ibanez who was cold most of the season came up big to steal the headlines after the All-Star break.
Day after day, these names popped up in the newspapers and on Daily News Live as Philly’s finest broke down the team’s play. And day after day, Placido Polanco’s name was conspicuously absent from the discussion.
Even though, day after day, Polanco roped hit after hit, line drive after line drive to pace the rest of the lineup. Every game, when the Phillies bats were silent, Polanco was there to get the first hit. He was there to get the clutch hit and drive in key runs.
And that consistency deserves recognition.
That consistency makes Polanco the Phillies MVP. He held this team together with his quiet and professional attitude.
He is far and away the best baseball player on the Phillies. You might look at him and say he’s not athletic. You might look at his stats and say he doesn’t hit home runs or pile up RBI. And if you’re saying that, then you’re missing the point. You’re not watching the game.
Polanco may not be the most gifted player on the team, but he understands it better than anyone and he gets the most out of his talent. He always makes the right play and he always plays hard. That’s what it means to be a baseball player.
I emphasize baseball with player because not every major leaguer is necessarily a good baseball player. Greg Dobbs, who has often served as the Phillies pinch-hitter, struggles to make routine plays when he’s at third and gets cheated a lot at the plate. Jayson Werth looks good on paper and he’s a very good player, but he strikes out way too much and he has suffered some pretty big mental lapses on the base paths that have cost the Phils.
Polanco never loses focus. It’s why he is sure-handed in the field. It’s why he never strikes out. And it’s why he’s the definition of a ballplayer.
He chokes up half an inch on the bat, a rarity in today’s game. He’s in control in the batter’s box and with his bat. He stays within himself and understands fighting off pitches and ripping line drives into center field is his game.
He does it all with a quiet and unassuming grace. Polanco has been on the disabled list a few times this year, but he’s always been back quickly. And he never misses a beat. Yesterday he admitted he has been playing with a small break in his left elbow, but he won’t have surgery until after the season because October is too important to miss. He never complained or made excuses or called attention to himself all season. He just fought through the pain and along the way showed the Phillies how to play ball.
He’s been doing it his whole career.
And it’s a beautiful game to watch.
More people should tune in. Or at least understand how good – no, how great – Placido Polanco is on the diamond.