<
>

Hot stove primer: Outfielders

Matt Kemp is reportedly drawing the most trade interest among the Dodgers outfielders. Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports

After a nearly three-year spending spree, the Dodgers seem to be retrenching this winter. That’s in part because they won 94 games last season and return a roster that is largely intact. But it also seems to be part of a wider organizational philosophy to rebuild the minor-league system and, eventually, bring the payroll under $200 million. Thus far, the only major headlines they’ve generated since being eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs involve the front office. With the winter meetings looming next week, let’s explore some areas the Dodgers might look to improve:

LOS ANGELES -- The way the Dodgers’ new executives are talking, they figure to be popular company at a downtown San Diego resort next week for baseball’s winter meetings.

“The one thing I’ll say is that, if you look at the landscape of baseball as a whole, one thing that’s really scarce is offense right now,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said Tuesday night. “We’re fortunate to have a surplus of really good offensive outfielders.”

One could bicker with Zaidi’s assessment of the surplus -- Andre Ethier, for example, batted .249 with scant power last year and the moveable parts are all in their 30s -- but events so far this winter have proven his assessment of the hitters market to be spot on. In fact, the Dodgers’ biggest loss this winter -- Hanley Ramirez -- has driven that point home while also muddying the Dodgers’ pursuit of a trade partner for one of their outfielders.

For the third time in four years, Ramirez’s 2014 season was ravaged by injuries and he didn’t provide the kind of offensive dynamism he did the previous season, but the Boston Red Sox still signed him to a four-year, $88 million contract, a deal that could balloon to $110 million over five seasons if an option vests.

Ramirez is the same age as Matt Kemp and, according to the Red Sox, will now -- like Kemp -- play a corner outfield position. They’re fairly good comparisons in terms of market value. They both are excellent athletes, with above-average speed, when they’re healthy. All you have to do is glance at some of the eye-popping numbers they have put up in past seasons to see that their upside is enormous. They have the rarest of all baseball commodities nowadays, right-handed power. They come with similar question marks in terms of clubhouse demeanor and defensive value.

Ramirez’s contract makes the remaining five years and $107 million left on Kemp’s deal less of an obstacle in trade talks. If Kemp were to hit the open market, given the precedents we’ve seen so far, he could probably command a similar deal to Ramirez’s, which just might cost Boston more in total dollars before it expires.

But can the Dodgers afford to trade the only remaining right-handed slugger on their roster, presuming Scott Van Slyke remains in a platoon role and Yasiel Puig's power remains of the doubles variety? Trading Kemp for younger, cheaper talent would be a major gamble right on the heels of losing Ramirez. It would be a particularly fraught move if the Dodgers view Kemp’s second-half power surge -- he led the majors in slugging -- was indicative of his return to good health and his truer self.

According to various reports, the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres have all shown interest in Kemp, but there have been virtually no reports linking teams to Ethier or Carl Crawford. That could indicate the Dodgers are trying to move the players teams least covet.

To move Ethier, whose production has been in steady decline, the Dodgers could have to pay as much as half of the remaining $56 million left on his deal and, even so, they probably wouldn’t return much in terms of talent. Crawford had a solid .767 OPS and is the lowest-maintenance personality of any of the Dodgers’ outfielders, but the $62.25 million left on his deal, his age (33) and the fact he hasn’t played as many as 150 games since 2010 seem to be giving teams pause.

As if things weren’t complicated enough, the Dodgers added outfielder Chris Heisey in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday, but that move should be viewed as part of the team’s intention to fortify its organizational depth. Heisey, who could be optioned to Triple-A, also is a solid center fielder and a very good corner outfielder.

Because a trade is hard to consummate doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In fact, it’s starting to feel inevitable that the Dodgers will move at least one outfielder between now and Opening Day. Having a more functional clubhouse is part of the impetus. While Zaidi and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman are sometimes mocked for being numbers-driven, they both come from organizations that put a value on personality traits in evaluating players.

Zaidi said he and Friedman both asked around about the environment when they came to Los Angeles. One of the people they consulted was former GM Ned Colletti, who now advises president Stan Kasten. The scarce playing time and plentiful supply of ego among Dodgers outfielders was one source of tension and manager Don Mattingly complained about it periodically. The combination would be particularly flammable if it lingered into 2015, now that the numbers have swollen even further, with Joc Pederson expecting a role.

“We’re not trying to put together a collection of individuals. We’re putting together a team that functions well, with guys who can fill specific roles and all pull on the rope in one direction,” Zaidi said.

At least one Dodgers outfielder will be pulling on an entirely different rope next season.