By TONY PAUL, The Detroit News, Dec. 3, 2009
Placido Polanco is back with the team he never wanted to leave.
The Gold Glove winner wasted little time in signing a multiyear contract with the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday. He’ll move from second base, where he starred for four-plus seasons with the Tigers, to third base with the Phillies, who are all set at second with Chase Utley.
It was Utley who made Polanco expendable by Philly when he was dealt to Detroit in 2005.
“I always wanted to be here, I never wanted to leave,” Polanco said in an afternoon press conference, sporting a Phillies-red cap and a No. 27 jersey. “It’s obvious this team is committed to win.”
Polanco arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday morning, passed his physical and signed a three-year deal, reportedly worth $18 million, with a mutual option for a fourth year. It’s a decent raise for Polanco, who averaged a modest $4.6 million a year from 2005 to ‘09 -- a span in which he batted .311 as a Tiger, with a high .341 in ‘07, good for third in the AL behind Magglio Ordonez and Ichiro Suzuki.
Polanco’s departure means Scott Sizemore, he of zero major league experience, will be the Tigers’ starting second baseman in 2010, assuming he has no setback recovering from a broken left ankle.
Apparently, interest in Polanco escalated quickly once the Tigers declined to offer him salary arbitration by Tuesday’s deadline. Had he been offered, the signing team would have had to fork over to the Tigers a first-round draft pick, the compensation MLB deems fair for teams losing a Type A free agent. That, it’s a good bet, would’ve made Polanco’s venture into free agency a bit more rocky.
The Phillies, though, have been interested for some time. Polanco first met with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. about three weeks ago in South Florida.
In Philly, he will replace Pedro Feliz, known for slick fielding but a low batting average. He will be their No. 2 hitter, moving Shane Victorino down into a run-producing spot in the order.
There are a number of solid third basemen available this winter, including Chone Figgins and Mark DeRosa, but Amaro said Polanco was targeted as the No. 1 choice for a variety of reasons. Among them, his defense and his ability to put the ball in play.
“Pedro Feliz, defensively, we got kind of spoiled. We felt, our scouts and others felt, that we weren’t going to have much of a dropoff with Polly a third base,” Amaro said. “Additionally, it was important for us to change the structure of our lineup.”
Polanco won Gold Gloves in 2007 and ‘09 in Detroit, and is one of the toughest hitters in the majors to strikeout. During his Tigers tenure, he whiffed just 146 times in four-plus seasons – 24 fewer times than Brandon Inge K’d just last season alone.
The Phillies have a lot of free swingers, too, with the likes of Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez and Utley, so adding a contact hitter was a priority as the offseason began.
As for the switch to third? No problem, said Polanco, who noted he played third base collegiately, and with the Cardinals and Phillies – 322 major league games in all, but none of the past four seasons.
“I feel pretty confident about it,” Polanco said. “It’s gonna be easier, the fact you have to move less. But you still have to catch the groundball and throw it. I’ll get used to it pretty quick. Should be easy.”
Polanco, 34, began his major league career with the Cardinals in 1998 and was traded in July 2002 to the Phillies in a deal that sent Scott Rolen to St. Louis. He then was dealt in July 2005 to the Tigers for reliever Ugueth Urbina, who made 56 relief appearances for Philly that year before his career was cut short by an attempted murder rap in Venezuela.
Urbinia is early in a 14-year prison sentence, while Polanco became a semi-star. It remains, by a comfortable margin, the greatest heist in Dave Dombrowski’s Tigers tenure.
“We loved Polly when he was here. We didn’t want to move him,” Amaro said. “But we were in a situation where, at the time, it was the best thing for our organization. “And it worked out pretty well for him, as well.”
As the No. 2 hitter in Detroit, Polanco made one All-Star team and had a 200-hit season.
Polanco also was a key cog in the Tigers’ 2006 playoff run, batting .412 in the first-round victory over the Yankees and .529 in earning MVP honors in the AL championship series sweep of the A’s. That series was capped by one of the most memorable moments in franchise history – a hoodie-wearing Polanco exuberantly leaped his way around the bases as Magglio Ordonez’s three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning sent the Tigers to their first World Series since 1984.
But it was his defense that made him a rock for the Tigers. Polanco didn’t commit a single error in ‘07 (141 games) and made just two this past season (151 games). During his Tigers tenure, he put together a 186-game errorless streak that remains a record for major league second baseman.
The Red Sox and Astros were among the other teams reportedly interested in Polanco, who didn’t find it necessary to continue shopping himself at next week’s winter meetings in Indianapolis.
“The Phillies were always my first choice,” said Polanco, who made no comments about the Tigers during his 20-minute introductory press conference in Philadelphia.
As for developments on the Tigers’ other notable free agents:
Closer Fernando Rodney hasn’t generated a ton of buzz, it seems, but the Braves apparently were considering him as a possible setup option for their new closer, Billy Wagner. It’s unclear if they still have interest after signing reliever Takashi Saito to a one-year deal Thursday.
Reliever Brandon Lyon is reportedly drawing some interest from the Yankees, while the Red Sox have contacted the agent of shortstop Adam Everett.
Rodney and Lyon were offered arbitration, so, as Type B free agents, if they sign elsewhere, the Tigers will receive a sandwich pick, between the first and second round of next year’s draft.