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The plot thickens on Dodgers' infield shuffle

3/13/2012

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- After Jerry Hairston committed two errors at shortstop and Jerry Sands went hitless in two at-bats for the Dodgers in Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Rockies at Camelback Ranch, I was feeling pretty good about my pre-spring training prediction that Justin Sellers would end up beating the odds, and Sands, to claim an Opening Day roster spot.

After all, without Sellers, the Dodgers don't have a true backup shortstop, what with Juan Uribe entrenched as the everyday third baseman and Hairston a lot more comfortable across the bag at second.

But then, as has been his tendency this spring, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pretty much shot my theory to a million pieces.

First, he pointed out, the second error with which Hairston was charged was at least a debatable scoring decision. What Mattingly didn't say, but didn't have to, was that the first error had been a wild throw to first that in no way reflected Hairston's ability to actually play the position.

That still left the question of who will be Dee Gordon's backup at short, but when Mattingly got around to addressing that, the answer was basically that Gordon doesn't need one.

"If we get into a situation where we need a shortstop for an extended period of time, it's not going to be Jerry,'' Mattingly said. "But I really don't plan on giving Dee, honestly, that many days off.''

So on the rare occasion when Gordon needs to catch his breath or Mattingly needs to make a late-inning double switch that results in Gordon watching the rest of the game from the dugout, the Dodgers can make do with Hairston, who during 14 big league seasons has posted a perfectly acceptable .973 fielding percentage in 102 games at short.

"If you're doing a double switch, you're behind anyway," Mattingly said. "At that point, you're just worried about scoring runs."

If, however, Gordon suffers an injury that keeps him out for a couple of weeks or longer, Sellers, regardless of whether he already is in the majors or would have to be called up, would be the guy.

"I don't think we would look at anybody else,'' Mattingly said. "We talk about pitching and defense. We need to score runs, but at the end of the day, we're going to hang our hats on feeling like we have good pitching and guys who can catch the baseball, and hopefully, we're going to score enough runs to win the game.''

Again, Hairston is at least a serviceable shortstop. But really, he is a second baseman who, out of sheer necessity, has also spent chunks of his career at short and third and in left and center field. He even made one appearance, in 2006, at first base.

"I'm a super-utility guy,'' Hairston said. "I'm not a bench guy. I'm going to play, and that means playing here, playing there, playing everywhere. That (ability) has definitely helped me get at-bats and helped my career.''

This year's Dodgers, perhaps more than any team your humble correspondent has ever chronicled, figure to be a mix-and-match outfit, with Mattingly constantly shuffling the lineup day to day and often inning to inning on nights when he is trying to protect a lead. That makes Hairston especially valuable, and his ability to play the outfield as well was a big reason the Dodgers signed him this winter to a two-year, $6 million free-agent contract.

Hairston's ability to play the outfield also adds fuel to the notion that Sellers, and not Sands, should grab the final roster spot. Sands, one of the organization's most promising young power hitters, is 2-for-14 this spring, raising questions about whether he really is ready. And with Hairston on the roster, perhaps the Dodgers don't need a fifth outfielder, a role in no way ideal for a prospect who needs constant playing time to develop.

All that notwithstanding, Sellers is going to have to hit his way onto the roster, something Mattingly pointed out after Tuesday's game and Sellers himself pointed out earlier this week. He is 5 for 14 in the Cactus League, but Mattingly and the coaching staff still want to see him go to right field more consistently. Sellers' defensive ability at short won't be enough by itself, especially considering he still would be just a phone call and a quick airplane flight away if he were in the minors.

"His glove is legit,'' Mattingly said, pointing to a nice play Sellers made at third base in the ninth inning. "It's just a question of him knowing who he is at the plate.''

The Dodgers (6-2-2) play their first night game of the spring on Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear. Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, will make his second Cactus League start and is targeted for 60 pitches.