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Saturday, July 12, 2014
Joc Pederson's hour fast approaching?

By Mark Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- Scott Van Slyke is not the reason the Los Angeles Dodgers lost 6-3 to the San Diego Padres on Friday night. He might not even be in the top five most culpable Dodgers.

The ball Chase Headley hit that glanced off the webbing of Van Slyke's glove as he leaped to attempt a catch near the center-field wall might have wound up as an RBI double with half of the center fielders in baseball trying to catch it. Van Slyke turned his head to find the wall, but that's pretty basic self-preservation.

Joc Pederson
Joc Pederson is hitting well at Triple-A Albuquerque, but the Dodgers need the stability he could bring on defense more than anything.
"That's a tough play," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That ball's crushed. I thought it would have been an incredible play."

Said pitcher Dan Haren: "I'm not going to make excuses. I've got to be better. Scott made a great effort on that ball."

Fair enough, but it's indicative of the Dodgers' current plight that the man who didn't catch it is a 6-foot-5 former first baseman who might be -- in fact, is, according to Mattingly's most recent lineups -- the team's best option in center field at the moment.

The Dodgers decided nearly two months ago that Matt Kemp, running on a surgically repaired ankle, is no longer a center fielder. They apparently decided not long ago that 32-year-old Andre Ethier, with practically no power left in his bat and average speed in his legs, isn't good enough to play center every day. So, what, they're going to keep running Van Slyke out there every day until he really does get exposed? Look around the major leagues. Do you see a lot of guys built like Van Slyke playing center field?

The storyline is so old, it's more a punch line than an observation: The last thing the Dodgers need is another outfielder. They have one, Carl Crawford, who is being paid more than $20 million to come off the bench and pinch hit or play a couple of innings of defense these days.

But it's becoming more evident by the day: The first thing the Dodgers need is an outfielder. They need a true center fielder and that center fielder is Joc Pederson. They need Pederson not because he is batting .324 and has a 1.016 OPS for Triple-A Albuquerque. You can discount those numbers at whatever rate you want because of the thin air of New Mexico, or you can throw them out entirely if you like.

They need Pederson because of his fresh, 22-year-old legs, his agility and the fact he has been playing the position his entire career. They need him to catch the ball. Whatever he produces at the plate is gravy.

To call up Pederson, of course, is to turn a four-outfielder logjam into a five-outfielder logjam with all sorts of potential for strife. Then, you'd be guaranteed that a couple of the highest-paid outfielders in baseball are riding the bench every night. But these things are fixable. The trading deadline is rapidly approaching. A source indicated that the Boston Red Sox had some interest in Kemp last season. While Boston, sinking in the standings, wouldn't appear to be the most natural trade partner this season, the fact that a smart front office the year they won the World Series considered Kemp worthy of exploring tells you there is interest in Kemp despite his injury woes.

The Seattle Mariners have gotten a whopping four home runs from their left fielders this season. After another brilliant outing by Felix Hernandez on Friday night, Seattle has a 1 1/2-game lead for the American League's second wild-card spot. If they don't at least explore the possibility of trading for Kemp -- who could provide a little right-handed protection for Robinson Cano -- they're just not trying hard enough. This presumes, of course, that the Dodgers would discuss eating a sizeable portion of the $107 million left on Kemp's contract after this season.

Even if the Dodgers can't find the right trade partner in the next couple of months (Kemp could easily get through waivers with that contract), they might just have to live with an uncomfortable clubhouse for a while to have a more comfortable pitching staff, one that knows it can allow some deep fly balls to center field that won't cost it games.

The Dodgers could easily thrive with Kemp or Crawford in left, Puig in right and Pederson in center, with Ethier playing sporadically or pinch hitting. Van Slyke becomes a backup first baseman in that scenario. Adrian Gonzalez, 32, is batting .250, after all. They could bat Pederson seventh or eighth and tell him not to worry about his offense. Just catch the ball and do his best. That might be selling him short, of course. Mattingly loves Pederson's swing. Otherwise, he wouldn't have compared it to those of Carlos Gonzalez and Cano.

They don't need Pederson to be their savior. They're in perfectly good shape as is to qualify for the playoffs. They need Pederson because having him playing center field gives them their best team, and isn't that the point?