Hardball Talk, the irreplaceable baseball blog run by Craig Calcaterra, did a listing of the top 150 baseball free agents at the start of open season last week. It begins with Robinson Cano, obviously, and winds all the way down to Rich Hill at 150, a man who hasn't been the same since they stopped making Sniglets. I appreciated Hardball Talk's list a little more than standbys like Keith Law's or Ben Reiter's because it went all the way to 150. You reach free agency so rarely in your career that it's an honor just to be included, even if you're Tsuyoshi Wada down at 145.
I'd like to note one player in particular, though, a free agent who might mean more to me than any other. I'd like to talk about No. 132, Placido Polanco. Placido Polanco is a handsome, important man in the prime of his life and his career and he deserves your acknowledgement. He's not going to be just forgotten, people.
Placido Polanco was drafted in the 19th round by the St. Louis Cardinals on June 2, 1994; Polanco was only 18 years old. He played 34 games for the Arizona Fall League Cardinals that year, hitting .213 with a homer. In four games, he played against Michael Jordan. At the time, that was the only baseball going on; MLB had just canceled the World Series. The next season, Polanco played for Class A Peoria, establishing himself as a reliable daily presence, a consistent hitter who could play both shortstop and second base. By 1996, he was one of the best hitters in the Florida State League -- Jordan was on his fifth NBA title by then -- and in 1998, he was in the majors for the Cardinals. The day Mark McGwire hit his 61st homer, Polanco was playing shortstop. (He actually was the only man to pinch-hit for McGwire that season.) He wasn't a Bryce Harper-level phenom, but, at 22 that season, he was one of the brightest prospects in the Cardinals' organization. His whole future spread out in front of him, limitless.
By 2001, when Polanco was 25, he was an established Major League regular worthy of short Sports Illustrated profiles and was playing in his second postseason. At this point, he was such a well-liked, young-guy-who-plays-like-a-veteran he became trade bait, and in July of 2002, the Cardinals traded him, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin to the Phillies for disgruntled third baseman Scott Rolen. (And someone named Doug Nickle, whom the Cardinals waived a few weeks later.) Polanco was no Rolen, but the Phillies instantly liked him, and he played there for three seasons. In 2005, when was 29 and still young and vibrant and vital, the Phillies traded him to Detroit for Ugueth Urbina, who was just released from a Venezuelan prison last year, where he'd served six years for attempted murder.
In Detroit, Polanco -- still young, still relevant! -- became a favorite of manager Jim Leyland, who said he was "one of the all-time greats for a manager, because you never worried about him. … I really like him. I don't know if we're supposed to be friends or not with the players, but he's a friend. I really think the world of him."
He was outstanding in 2005, hitting .331 with a career-high 128 OPS+. In 2006, he was the MVP of the American League Championship Series, a four-game sweep of the A's in which he batted .529, which back in the days before David Ortiz, was considered impressive. He missed out on a chance for his only championship ring by going 0-for-17 against the Cardinals in that World Series, and he played three more years with the Tigers. In 2007, he finished 17th, and in 2009 he finished 25th while winning his second Gold Glove.
The Phillies, who missed him, signed him before the 2010 season to a three-year, $18 million contract. Three years is the sort of deal you give to a young person who you anticipate being important for a while, the sort of guy who is fit and active and young, important to mention young there. Polanco just missed the Phillies' championship teams but played in two postseasons for Philadelphia, losing to the Cardinals again in 2011. That season earned him his third Gold Glove and, more important, his first All-Star appearance. At this point, at the age of 35, a virile, powerful, regal age, fans actually voted him in as the starter, though he was unable to play in the game because of a bulging disc in his back, which is the sort of injury that just occasionally happens in baseball and had nothing to do with any sort of advancing age, nope.
The Phillies declined their option on Polanco before the 2013 season and the Miami Marlins, looking for a chiseled veteran presence for their younger players to model themselves after, gave him a one-year deal for $2.75 million. Like many men of Polanco's age, he was healthy all season, but unfortunately for him, his game collapsed. He hit .260 with just one homer and 13 doubles -- he had the second-lowest ISO in the majors -- and his defense slipped as well. Unkindly, and ignoring that Polanco was at the age that a man truly begins to understand who he is and where his place in this world resides, Marlins blog Fish Stripes said "the team received the corpse that once was Placido Polanco."
In September, Polanco, experiencing self-doubt not uncommon for men of his still-radiant age, admitted he was considering retirement. "I have to see what's out there, but the kids, the wife and family is probably ready for me to be home now. This year was really good, the fact I was at home most of the time. It seems like the season went by quick and everybody was happy." Just two years ago, he was an All-Star and a Gold Glover. Now he may be out of baseball. You can fall off the cliff fast. You can be elderly before you know it.
But he hasn't announced anything yet, and he's still on the market as free agency begins. Down there at 132, in between Alfredo Aceves and Daisuke Matsuzaka. You never know when someone will need a veteran infielder. Someone born on October 10, 1975, a wise man, with wits and smarts and the healthy mindset of a 38-year-old man with much life left to live, like all men born on October 10, 1975. There has to be a place out there for Placido Polanco, child of October 10, 1975. It can't be over for him yet. There's plenty of time. There has to be plenty of time.