Four-outfielder drama begins ominously

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
6:31
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- When Don Mattingly walked into the Los Angeles Dodgers' interview room at about 9:45 a.m. Friday, he was unaware that Yasiel Puig was running late for pregame stretch, an infraction that -- 20 minutes later -- would cause Mattingly to bench him in favor of Matt Kemp.

"If I had known earlier, I wouldn't have had to come in here earlier and talk to you guys about Matt," Mattingly said.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
AP Photo/Jae C. HongMatt Kemp made his 2014 debut in the starting lineup, but it happened only because Yasiel Puig was late and benched for the game.
And that was just day one of this four-outfielder logjam, which seems about as sustainable as a coal plant in the heart of the Amazon rain forest. It has the potential for pollution, and that's just the air in the clubhouse.

On Friday, the home opener, tension between Kemp and Mattingly gave way to frustration inside the coaches' offices with another slip-up by Puig. That was just the first day of what could be a season-long docudrama. What's next? Kemp again speaking his mind -- he has already declared he should be the everyday center fielder -- the next time he sits for a game or two? Andre Ethier complaining? Somebody asking to be traded?

The party line is that having four talented outfielders is a plus, not a minus, for the team. General manager Ned Colletti gets testy anytime anyone suggests otherwise. And, if you view it strictly in terms of roster management, he's right. Kemp is injury-prone. Crawford is injury-prone. Ethier is left-handed-pitcher deficient.

And Puig ... who knows what he's going to do next to take himself off the field. He already has been pulled for disciplinary reasons three times and he has barely more than four months' service time.

"I hope he doesn't make it to a point where you expect it," Adrian Gonzalez said. "That's up to him. Learn your lesson, show up on time the rest of your career and you don't have to expect it. If he continues to show up late or show up just in time to not be late, you push that envelope."

In this era, players have a way of turning these uncomfortable situations into untenable ones, especially when those players -- Kemp, Puig, Ethier and Carl Crawford -- are all making between $6 million and $21 million, as they all are.

During Friday's strange 8-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants, Kemp had an RBI double but also made an error and couldn't catch a deep, run-scoring drive he said he should have caught. Afterward, he was more conciliatory about the situation than his pregame body language suggested.

"If you're not in the lineup, you're supposed to be mad," Kemp said. "You don't want to be sitting there watching a team beat your club. The four or five of us have that same attitude every day."

Someone asked Kemp if he thinks he'll play Saturday.

"You've got to ask the coach that question," Kemp said. "You can't ask me that question."

For the record, Kemp probably will play. And so will Puig. The Giants are starting nasty left-hander Madison Bumgarner. Ethier is hitting .125 with nine strikeouts in 24 at-bats against him. Crawford is 0-for-3 with a strikeout. So, one would hope one of those guys gets it if he isn't playing Saturday.

Mattingly isn't expecting much smooth sailing when it comes to navigating this particular situation.

"I'm going to do the best I can with the situation," Mattingly said, "and that's it."

If you're the team, all you can hope for is a modicum of self-honesty and understanding from the players. Mattingly and the coaches are going to look at matchups and trends and try to line up the best outfield alignment game by game. If everyone proves healthy and productive, Colletti probably will look to trade somebody, but neither of those things is established at this point, so it could be a while before something like that comes together.

Again, it's about asking for a modicum of self-honesty and understanding, just while it lasts.

It didn't bode well that, before the sixth game of the season, the first day Kemp was healthy enough to play, he had to discuss how upset Kemp was about not being in the lineup.

As Mattingly said, it turned out to be unnecessary. Puig essentially handed Kemp his lineup spot by showing up late. But avoiding it Friday would have simply made it a topic for another day.

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

WINS LEADER
Zack Greinke
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.65 153 139
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .316
HRA. Gonzalez 15
RBIA. Gonzalez 70
RY. Puig 59
OPSY. Puig .943
ERAC. Kershaw 1.76
SOZ. Greinke 153