Thursday, January 30, 2014
Five questions about the Dodgers outfield
By Mark Saxon
Teams looking for outfielders knew where to come this off-season. The Dodgers were open for business.
While perfectly content to enter spring training with all four everyday outfielders still on their roster, the Dodgers also took it as an opportunity to find out what one of them could fetch. The market, it turned out, was not as robust as the team might have hoped.
At the winter meetings last month, general manager Ned Colletti spent a good bit of his time fielding calls and meeting with teams who wanted to trade for Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier -- and a few asking about Yasiel Puig or Carl Crawford -- and came away unmoved.
“It was going to have to be something that we said, ‘Whoa, we can’t hang this call up,’ “ Colletti said. “It never happened.”
It’s not as if Colletti is going to block any incoming calls from rival GMs going forward, so the situation figures to remain fluid. But right now the Dodgers have Kemp, Ethier, Crawford and Puig -- eight All-Star appearances and $61 million in salary between them -- on the roster.
With nine days before pitchers and catchers report, let’s examine some of the questions for a star-studded, but unpredictable outfield:
Are they healthy?
Kemp’s agent, Dave Stewart, told reporters recently that his client is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day in Australia, which comes about a week before the rest of baseball kicks off the schedule around April 1.
That likely caused some consternation in the Dodgers’ front office, as the team had been saying that Kemp’s body was more sound than it was at the start of camp in 2013. Stewart probably has a point, though. Kemp pushed hard to make it back for Opening Day last season and proved both unproductive and fragile early. He didn’t hit his second home run until May 20, 10 days before the first of three trips to the disabled list.
For now, it seems that Kemp’s uncertain health is reason enough to keep Ethier around. Not long before Kemp underwent left ankle surgery, Dodgers team physician Neal ElAttrache said there was enough swelling and instability in the joint to become career-threatening if it doesn’t respond.
And it’s not as if Kemp is the only injury risk. Crawford had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in 2012 and has dealt with hamstring issues. Ethier has had chronic shin splints and could barely play in the NLCS due to a microfracture in his left leg.
The spectrum of possibilities for the Dodgers outfield is practically infinite. It ranges from superstar production at all three spots -- with the best fourth outfielder in the game -- to a revolving door of injuries and players grumbling about their playing time.
Should be fun.
Would Kemp and Ethier platoon in center?
If Kemp regains his health and establishes himself at early-2012 levels, this is a laughable proposition. Kemp plays center field every day and Ethier and Crawford split playing time. Pretty simple.
But that hasn’t happened yet and one thought that has circulated is the idea of playing Ethier strictly against right-handed pitchers and giving Kemp copious days off against unfavorable matchups. Ethier hit .221 against lefties last season, .294 against righties, numbers that are fairly consistent with his career norms.
If you look at it strictly from the team’s point of view, it could be the ideal arrangement. But to pull it off would take some serious clubhouse diplomacy from manager Don Mattingly. The players in question are highly paid, longtime Dodgers and popular with the fans. They’re also accustomed to playing every day. Kemp got testy last August when someone asked him about his role.
“I'm a center fielder. That's my role, to play center field every day," Kemp said. "I don't know why people keep asking me what role I'm going to play. I want to play every day.”
It’s probably fair to expect more of that if he’s not playing every day.
What to project from Puig?
Again, the possibilities are practically endless. He’s 23 years old, so in theory, he’s only going to get better. But there are statistical anomalies from 2013 that make you wonder whether he can repeat a performance that electrified baseball.
Puig’s 22.5 percent strikeout rate was unusual for a player with such a high batting average, .319 in this case. Of the 24 players who qualified for the batting title and hit over .300 last year, none of them posted a strikeout rate above 22 percent. Puig’s batting average on balls in play, .383, also suggests he had more than his fair share of good luck. His line drive rate dipped after the All-Star break.
But even if Puig hits .285 and remains prone to strikeouts, he still gives the Dodgers a presence in the lineup and is a well-above average base runner and a defensive weapon in right field. So, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be good enough to hold down an everyday job.
Of course, there are all the less-tangible aspects of Puig’s game that became such a distraction at times last year. If he runs into problems with team rules again or continues to make fundamental mistakes, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mattingly take a tougher stand and cut back on his playing time. The Dodgers have tried to be as accommodating as possible, but have sometimes struggled to get the message across.
What about fielding?
The advanced defensive metric, UZR, is not a fan of Kemp’s. Kemp’s UZR in 2013 was -16.2, which pairs with a Defensive Runs Saved of -6, to create an unflattering picture of Kemp’s ability to track down balls and control the running game from center field.
Crawford is well-above average in left field and Puig is a mixed bag in right. He mixes the spectacular with the spectacularly bad, but the defensive metrics generally liked him in a relatively small sample size.
Ethier is the anti-Puig. He’s not flashy and his tools -- speed, throwing arm -- are in the average range, but he takes good routes and plays under control. He was a pleasant surprise when he moved to center field, a position he had scarcely played.
All in all, the Dodgers should make most of the plays and would probably be a little better off with Ethier in center instead of Kemp.
Will a trade still go down?
It seems like it. The Dodgers would be foolish to make a move before they know how much Kemp is going to be able to do as the spring progresses.
But what if he feels great going into April? What if his bat speed returns and he has no pain running the bases? It still might be prudent to keep all four, mix and match lineups and massage egos until July. By then, the Dodgers will have numbers to work with and other teams will have a good idea how healthy and productive the players are.
That’s when Colletti figures to a flurry of calls once again. Maybe this time he’ll feel compelled not to hang up.