Thursday, January 13, 2011
Updated: February 3, 4:23 PM ET
Dodgers' outfield a question mark
By Tony Jackson
How will the Dodgers' outfield be aligned?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is two-thirds answered, which is basically true. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are going to be in the starting lineup together probably nine games out of every 10, and, barring injury, one or the other will be in the lineup every day.
But what isn't entirely clear is where they will play. Yes, for now, Kemp is the Dodgers' starting center fielder and Ethier is their right fielder. But Ned Colletti said Thursday that if newly signed Tony Gwynn Jr. can hit well enough to force his way into the everyday lineup, the outfield could be shuffled.
Colletti said Gwynn's speed and defensive ability are strong enough that if he can return to form offensively, he could contend for the regular center-field spot.
In that scenario, Kemp would likely move to right field and Ethier to left, clearing a spot for the free-agent outfielder the Dodgers signed last month to a one-year, $675,000 contract.
When Gwynn signed, it appeared the Dodgers were simply adding a part-time player who figured to share time in left field with Jay Gibbons and Xavier Paul, with Gwynn likely getting the bulk of the starts -- a conclusion that was based largely on Gwynn coming off the worst season of his career, hitting .204 with a .304 on-base percentage for the San Diego Padres in 2010.
But if Gwynn can return to form -- he established career highs in batting average (.270), OBP (.350), RBIs (21) and doubles (11) just two years ago -- he could become an everyday starter for the first time in a career in which he has yet to compile as many as 400 at-bats or 500 plate appearances in any season.
Gwynn, 28, is an outstanding defensive outfielder with the speed to run down balls in the gaps. Kemp won a Gold Glove in center two years ago, but his defense came into question in 2010, mostly because he often failed to get a good jump. That alone makes a left-to-right alignment of Ethier-Gwynn-Kemp more attractive than Gwynn-Kemp-Ethier.
Meanwhile, because Kemp has one of the best throwing arms in baseball and Ethier doesn't, Kemp would be a better fit in right, with Ethier moving to left.
The big question with Gywnn is whether he can hit consistently enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup.
"His playing time at this point will be dictated by how well he hits," Colletti said. "If he can get on base enough and hit enough, he could give us added flexibility because he can play all three spots, including center field."
The Dodgers are still pursuing another outfielder, but Colletti has said repeatedly since the winter meetings that he would be comfortable going into the season with what he currently has in place. If the Dodgers go to spring training still having not added anyone, and if Gwynn then nails down the center-field job, it might negate the need for another outfielder altogether, leaving that much more money in Colletti's coffer to be used at the trading deadline.
Gwynn doesn't have to instantly transform himself into a .300 hitter. If he can get on base with consistency, his speed will instantly become an asset to the Dodgers' batting order, perhaps in the two-hole behind Rafael Furcal or perhaps in the eighth spot where, if he can reach base and be bunted over by the pitcher, he could score from second almost automatically on any hit.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.