The Dodgers Outfield Dilemma
The Dodgers are paying almost $57.9 million this year to Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier, whom have collectively been worth -0.6 WAR this season. Rest-of-the-season projections don’t suggest much of a turnaround for the Dodgers outfield either. Assuming Yasiel Puig starts most games in right field (and depending on your projection preference), the Dodgers primary starters in left and center field will be worth 2-3 combined wins on the season. With their World Series hopes dependent on more outfield production, what options do the Dodgers have to improve their sagging outfield?
The Dodgers didn’t just fall into three expensive outfielders for two spots. During the summer of 2012, the Dodgers extended Ethier, signed Puig to a deal few pundits lauded given Puig’s limited exposure to top competition, and traded for Carl Crawford. Matt Kemp was coming off of a 8.4-win season, coming just one home run short of 40-40. The expectations of a Crawford-Kemp-Ethier outfield seemed downright plausible, even if Ethier’s extension skewed towards the hefty side. Puig’s emergence changed those plans in a hurry and left the Dodgers with a very expensive dilemma.
With Ethier, Crawford, and Kemp all struggling to provide even positive contributions, the realistic options are limited. Ethier is owed another $52 million after this season and Crawford will make over $62 million, making both players virtually untradeable. (Ironically, Crawford’s contract includes clause prohibiting a trade to the Bronx- how many other teams could take him besides the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers?) Fans shouldn’t expect the Dodgers to simply pay another team to take one of them- unless either player proves to be more than a 1-win player, who would absorb such a constrictive asset?
The Optimal Dodgers Outfield
Looking at the current roster, there is one immediate option. Scott Van Slyke has made the most of his 45 plate appearances this season, hitting 3 home runs with a .405 ISO, and 210 wRC+. Van Slyke shows strong splits, struggling against right-handers but mashing lefties this year to the tune of a .542 ISO and 282 wRC+. Given the left-handedness of both Ethier and Crawford (and their additional ineffectiveness), Van Slyke should be in the lineup against left-handed starters. At the very minimum, when situational relievers are brought in to face Ethier or Crawford late in a game, Van Slyke needs to be subbed in.
Given the nature of the Dodgers’ roster construction, the most realistic solution is different from the best solution. Let’s assume Kemp gradually returns to starting in center field every day, leaving left field as the primary point of contention. It’s inconceivable both Ethier and Crawford ride the pine for more than a planned day off. Van Slyke might see an increase against lefties, but he won’t get as many at-bats as he should. Far more probable, the Dodgers will continue to pencil in Ethier or Crawford against right-handed pitchers, and use Van Slyke primarily as a 4th outfielder/pinch-hitter.
Ideally, Van Slyke’s platoon-mate is recalled from Triple-A Albuquerque. Joc Pederson has been lighting up Triple-A with a 1.098 OPS, along with 7 home runs and 10 steals. At Double-A Chattanooga, Mike saw a 15/15 big league corner outfielder whose current helium looks legit. To further cement the issue, Pederson is absolutely crushing right-handed pitching with a .440/.548/.773 triple slash. Based on projections for Van Slyke and Pederson, it’s easy to see the new and improved Dodger left field as a 2-win upgrade over the current iteration.
With a Van Slyke/Pederson platoon starting alongside Kemp and Puig, the Dodgers outfield suddenly looks a lot more dangerous. Against lefties, Van Slyke provides coverage in the five- or six-slot behind Adrian Gonzalez, while Pederson slides in behind Matt Kemp or Juan Uribe. The potential 2-win bump might be a difference maker in a crowded National League playoff hunt, though it’s unlikely we see a Van Slyke/Pederson platoon.
The Dodgers have all the tools within the organization to upgrade their outfield, but they won’t. The team went all-in with their TV-money backing and is now paying the price. They’ve not been shy about promoting rookies (Pedro Baez was just called up, albeit a different caliber prospect), but Pederson’s not likely in Albuquerque on account of his service clock. The Puig lottery ticket is paying off handsomely- no one should complain about his emergence. However, the Dodgers outfield mess is another demonstration of over-reliance on proven veterans and/or free agency when cheaper and, in many cases, better options are available through player development.
7 May 2014 / Ben Flajole /
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