The MSTI Master Plan for Third Base

Over at the Big Blue Wrecking Crew, my preferred Dodgers discussion board, a discussion began recently which really pointed out the amazing progression of the third base situation over the last six weeks or so. We’ve gone from having the main two competitors getting hurt in the same game; to scanning the trade winds for anyone resembling a third baseman; to having an untested rookie forced into a situation which he had no business being in; to now having a surplus in the coming days.

So let’s take a look at what’s going to happen here in the near future. With Blake DeWitt having the 2nd-best OPS on the team and a sterling glove, how can we really send him down? Now that Andy LaRoche is healthy and hitting well in Vegas, how long can we keep him down there? What to do about Nomar Garciaparra, who is likely to begin a short rehab assignment this week? Finally, Terry Tiffee is still hitting .430/.471/.630 in Vegas, and just how long does he have to keep that up before we consider this more than a fluke?

Let’s go with the process of elimination. 

I like Terry Tiffee as much as anyone, but while I’m more than willing to dump Mark Sweeney and bring him up to be a bat off the bench, what he’s doing is so far off his career history that I can’t really see him as a real option to be the everyday starter. That said, I don’t particularly like the idea of letting this guy waste the hottest streak of his life in the minors, so I’d like to either bring him up or try to trade him – but I’m not exactly ready to install him as “the guy”. So he’s out.

Then there’s Nomar. He’s cooked. There’s no way around it. He’s probably the 4th best hitter right now of the 4, and while I guess I really have no idea how good of a defensive 3B Tiffee is, I think I can safely say Nomar’s 3rd at best of the 4, behind DeWitt and LaRoche. Look, I know we all like the guy. Angelenos love him because he’s a local boy, and I personally enjoyed his dominance for years, as his peak coincided with my college years spent in Boston. But he had a 78 OPS+ in 2007, and in between two DL stints already, he’s at 66 this year. (Remember, 100 is the league average for that year. This means he’s 34% worse than your average NL hitter this year.) It’s tough for everyone to admit it, but he can’t hit, field, or stay healthy.  But he does have the biggest name, and makes by far the most money – so of course I have no doubt he’ll get the most playing time when he’s healthy.

Really, to me, it’s between Andy LaRoche and Blake DeWitt. I think we all agree that LaRoche has the higher ceiling, but how do you move DeWitt when he’s got the 2nd highest OPS on the team? Think about that for a second: other than Rafael Furcal, who is probably one of the top 5 players in baseball thus far in 2008, Blake DeWitt has the highest OPS on the Dodgers. Plus, I know I’ve been through these stats before but they continue to amaze me every single time:

Blake Dewitt, 2008, as compared to all MLB 3B with at least 75 at-bats
BA: .323 (3rd)
OBP: .398 (5th)
SLG: .479 (8th)
OPS: .877 (5th)
Range Factor: 3.42 (1st)
Zone Rating: .835 (5th)
VORP: 9.2 (6th)

Remember, that’s in all of Major League Baseball. Do you remember at the beginning of the season when we seriously wondered if he’d be able to manage .200, whether the crushing disappointment he was sure to receive at the MLB level would torpedo the entire rest of his career, and whether we could possibly live with such a player until Nomar/LaRoche were healthy? Now he’s practically an All-Star. Right now, I just cannot see moving DeWitt. Will he keep it up? Who knows? But at this point, anything is possible.

However, we also can’t just let LaRoche sit in AAA; he obviously has nothing left to prove there. He’s also proving that he’s healthy; in 12 games in Las Vegas, he’s got a .324/.500/.676 line with 4 homers and a fantastic 2/12 K/BB ratio. Leaving him there is letting a good talent stagnate, and he deserves his shot in the majors too.

So what to do? You can’t move DeWitt, yet you can’t deny LaRoche his chance any longer. Here’s what I do: absolutely nothing until Rafael Furcal proves he is healthy. In the meantime, get LaRoche some playing time at 2B in Vegas. No, I’m not so sold on DeWitt that I’m willing to tell LaRoche he’s completely off of third base, but as a college SS it’d be worth it to see if he can handle it – I’ll explain this more in a second. Once Furcal is back and shows he can play every day, send down Chin-Lung Hu and activate Nomar; DFA Mark Sweeney and bring up LaRoche. This benefits Hu by letting him play SS every day in preparation for an everyday gig in 2009, either in LA if Furcal isn’t signed or elsewhere if he is. This also benefits the Dodgers by no longer having Mark Sweeney taking up a roster spot – he’s hitting .154 (4-26) and provides no defensive value whatsoever. On a team with a roster crunch like this squad is about to have, there’s just no place for a dedicated pinch-hitter who can’t even do that.

If LaRoche shows he’s not a total butcher at 2B in AAA (I don’t believe he would be, as he was a college SS, and besides, Delwyn Young did start at 2B on Sunday and there’s no way he’s worse than that) we get him time at both 2B and 3B. I agree with those who say that a week or two at 2B in the minors isn’t enough for a full fledged position switch, but he just has to be Kent’s caddy there, not an everyday thing. Figure DeWitt starts 4-5 days a week at 3B, LaRoche gets 2-3 starts a week at 3B, 1 at 2B, and more time subbing for Kent in the late innings.

Here’s the tricky part: it makes Nomar our backup SS (and 1B, without Sweeney, which is fine by me). When Furcal is healthy, he plays every single day. I’m sure Nomar’s not great at SS these days, but I think I could live with a former All-Star at the position having to play there, in a very limited capacity, every once in a while. If anything happens to Furcal where we need more than a one-day replacement at SS, Hu is only a short trip away in Vegas. Where Terry Tiffee remains in this scenario, I suppose, as even more depth if (okay, when) Nomar hurts himself again.

And hey, after writing this but before posting it, I see Ken Gurnick agrees with me!

What would you do when Garciaparra returns?
– Glen W., Hollywood, Calif.

Assuming DeWitt continues to handle the position well, I would turn Garciaparra into the versatile utility infielder that the Dodgers desperately need. During the offseason, when it was assumed that LaRoche would make a strong bid for the starting third-base job, Garciaparra was being readied for moving all around the infield. Clearly, second baseman Jeff Kent at age 40 needs more rest than in earlier years. Rafael Furcal just missed a week with a bad back and the offense really sputtered without him. Garciaparra’s ability to play all four infield positions would make it easier for the Dodgers to keep 12 pitchers. Plus, Garciaparra has been injured repeatedly since coming to the Dodgers and spot duty might help him avoid injuries. And regardless of DeWitt’s relative inexperience, he’s done nothing to show that he doesn’t deserve to keep playing.

The benefits of this plan include:
* Seeing if Blake DeWitt keep this performance up; if not, simply stop playing LaRoche at 2B and recall Hu
* Finding out if Andy LaRoche can prove he can hit in the majors
* Discovering if LaRoche can prove to be adequate at 2B; if so, we might have our post-Kent plan right there
* Letting Chin-Lung Hu play every day in AAA rather than man the bench in the bigs
* Relegating Nomar to backup 1B/3B/SS/vet bat off the bench, which is really where he ought to be anyway
* Upgrading the offense from the bench (Hu/Sweeney to Nomar/LaRoche is just no comparison)
* Improving defensive flexibility, as we’d have three 3B candidates instead of our current one, and Sweeney is almost a non-factor in the field anyway.

Really, the only downsides here are a defensive downgrade off the bench, as obviously Hu is far superior to anyone else, and the possibility of Nomar being unhappy with his bench position. I suppose you could also point out that losing Sweeney’s left-handed bat and replacing him with two right-handed bats hurts the pinch-hitting strategies, but I find that to be a non-issue as Young is a switch-hitter and either Either or Pierre are usually on the bench anyway.

As for me, I love this plan so much that I know it will NEVER EVER HAPPEN.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg