Five questions about the Dodgers infield

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
3:13
PM PT
From 1973 to 1981, the Dodgers enjoyed the most stable infield in the history of the game, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey forging the heart of some very good Dodgers teams. Those days are long gone.

Turnover is the order of the day now and the Dodgers' infield has proven highly changeable. You might have forgotten by now, but Justin Sellers and Luis Cruz both started on Opening Day last season. Dee Gordon started two Opening Days ago. Jamey Carroll and Rafael Furcal were still around three Opening Days ago and two Blakes -- DeWitt and Casey -- were in the starting lineup to kick off 2010.

And next season? While Adrian Gonzalez provides steady production and presence at first base and Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe both return, the Dodgers again will be dealing with uncertainty. They signed Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero to be the team’s everyday second baseman, but the team has enough doubts about his ability to field the position steadily that it now says that will be an open competition this spring.

Guerrero might even begin the season in the minor leagues. The Dodgers continue to try to convince Michael Young to put off retirement and return as a place-holder second baseman, bench contributor and veteran presence.

With just 10 days to go before pitchers and catchers report to Camelback Ranch, let’s explore five key questions:

Will fielding be a problem?

The Dodgers realize they don’t have the perfect formula. Ideally, your best fielders would be your shortstop and your second baseman and the guys on the corners, who see fewer chances, would provide power bats.

The Dodgers have to hope that thunder up the middle doesn’t lead to a deluge of ground balls sneaking into the outfield. They have a shortstop, Ramirez, with 30-home run power who is, to put it kindly, a below-average fielder. They have a second baseman who is a mystery, particularly with his glove. Meanwhile, Uribe and Gonzalez are among the best fielders at their positions, but neither is much of a home run threat these days.

“If you’re starting from a textbook and drawing up what you would want your team to be, you’d start with defense up the middle and want to have power on the corners , but that’s only one way to do it,” team president Stan Kasten said on 710 ESPNLA earlier this winter. “There are plenty of examples of teams who do it with a different model.”

Just because the model is different doesn’t mean it won’t work, but it’s risky. The Dodgers have the luxury of playing in a stadium that forgives pitchers who allow fly balls, one of the reasons they can sacrifice some infield defense. The Ramirez-Guerrero tandem likely would be untenable in the AL East, for example.

Is Guerrero ready?

Nobody had ever heard of Miguel Rojas until about a month ago, when the Dodgers started dropping his name as a legitimate alternative at second base. Considering Rojas is a career .234 hitter in the minor leagues, that’s a pretty good clue they’re having their doubts about Guerrero’s readiness for Opening Day.

Guerrero’s attempt at accelerating the learning curve transitioning from shortstop was derailed by hamstring injuries in the Dominican winter league.

Officially, the Dodgers say Guerrero is “leading the pack,” in the competition to start at second base, but Rojas -- who spent six years in the Cincinnati Reds’ system -- is a defensive wizard who is in the process of moving from shortstop as well. He impressed Dodgers veterans and coaches with his nimble infield skills last spring.

There is, however, good news. The Dodgers expect Guerrero to be an above-average offensive contributor when he’s ready and they have heard nothing but good things about the way he’s approaching the job.

“He’s very mature, an incredibly hard worker with great makeup,” Kasten said.

Are the Dodgers overly reliant on Uribe?

After two dismal seasons in Los Angeles, Uribe saved the Dodgers and redeemed his earning potential last year. After Luis Cruz simply stopped hitting, Uribe stepped in and batted .278 with 12 home runs, a huge post-season hit and spectacular defense (+15 Defensive Runs Saved), for an overall outstanding season of 4.1 WAR.

That earned Uribe a raise, a two-year, $15 million deal. The problem is he is 34, an age at which many players -- particularly third basemen -- begin a fairly spectacular decline. A bigger problem is how few fallback options the Dodgers have if Uribe doesn’t work out. Right now, Justin Sellers is listed as the backup third baseman.

The context, however, is key: Uribe was easily the most-appealing option in a field largely bereft of free-agent third basemen.

Look for the Dodgers to continue to try to woo Young. If that doesn’t work out, they’ll probably give Chone Figgins a long look this spring. They still badly need some coverage at three infield spots.

Can Ramirez stay at shortstop?

The Dodgers toyed with moving Ramirez back to third base. It was one of the scenarios on the table if Uribe wanted more than a two-year deal.

The problem with moving him again is that he’s an even worse third baseman than he is a shortstop. In 860 innings as a third baseman in 2012, Ramirez had a Defensive Runs Saved of -11 and a UZR of -3.6. In 651 innings at shortstop last year, he had a DRS of 3 and a UZR of 0.2. He was an awful third baseman two seasons ago and roughly average at shortstop last year.

The Dodgers are hoping that wasn’t the result of a small sample size. The best position for Ramirez in the long term might be the outfield, but the Dodgers are a little crowded out there these days. The good news is he very well might be the best-hitting shortstop in the game. He certainly was last year. Among players with at least 225 plate appearances, only Miguel Cabrera had a better OPS than Ramirez’s 1.040.

Keeping Ramirez healthy might be the most important question of this Dodgers season. It was pretty obvious what he meant to the team in the NLCS last October.

Are they stretched thin?

Imagine a major injury to any of the Dodgers’ everyday infielders. Now, imagine the possibilities to replace him. Frightening, isn’t it? If the Dodgers learned one thing from last season, it’s the importance of depth, because they somehow survived an endless string of injuries.

Losing Gonzalez for an extended period would be almost as trying as having Ramirez in and out of the lineup.

They may not know for a while how badly they’ll miss Mark Ellis, Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker.

Even if they convince Young to come back, it’s not as if he is a wizard with this glove. Dee Gordon is short on experience as a bench player and hasn’t proven he’s anything more than a one-dimensional player, a pure speed threat. Scott Van Slyke has mostly played outfield in the major leagues and, like Gordon, is a bit uni-dimensional -- all power.

Sellers has never hit a lick in the major leagues. Figgins didn’t even play last year. See why Rojas has suddenly become such a popular player within the organization? He keeps popping up as a possible answer to a number of different questions.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239