Should Ivan DeJesus Get a Shot at the 2B Job?

We’re taking a one-day break from season reviews to point out that Ivan DeJesus is off to a hot start for Don Mattingly’s Phoenix Devil Dogs of the AFL, hitting .370/.433/.593 with a homer in seven games. Granted, seven games is a meaningless sample size, and that minimal impact is lessened even further when you’re talking about a fall league of varying competition, so let’s not put too much stock into that stat line. That said, the opportunity to play directly for the new manager of the big club provides a chance to make an impression beyond the numbers.

For his part, DeJesus’ goal is clear:

“I need to be ready in Spring Training,” he said, “and get that job at second base.”

That’s what he wants, of course, but the more pertinent question for us is, is that what we want? Among the many holes the Dodgers have headed into 2011, second base is perhaps the largest. I’ve been through the horrendousness of non-tender candidate Ryan Theriot more than once, and Jamey Carroll shouldn’t be seen as a full-time option at the position. With Blake DeWitt in Chicago, the trade market largely barren beyond Dan Uggla (who’s likely to be priced beyond the Dodgers’ reach), and the free agent market not offering much (and no, Orlando Hudson will not be returning), there’s clearly an opportunity for DeJesus to make his mark.

First, some background: DeJesus was drafted as a shortstop in the 2nd round of the 2005 draft, a pick the Dodgers received as compensation for losing Adrian Beltre to Seattle. Most reviews of him – both predraft and during his first two seasons – mentioned above-average glovework and good on-base skills, but worried about a total lack of power. He largely lived up (?) to those preconceptions between 2005-07, not once generating an OPS over .800 due to puny slugging numbers, but showing encouragingly improving OBP, with marks of .354, .361, and .371 during those years.

In 2008 at AA Jacksonville, DeJesus had a true breakthrough year despite not turning 21 until May, making him one of the youngest players in the league. His .324/.419/.423 line got him a spot in the Futures Game during the All-Star Break and earned him the Dodgers’ 2008 Minor League Player of the Year title.

Heading into 2009, hopes were high. Baseball America had him as the #6 Dodger prospect, while Baseball Prospectus had him at #2 thanks to some kind words:

De Jesus has an excellent chance to outdo his father, a glove-first shortstop who spent 15 years in the majors, and Junior’s pedigree certainly factors into a basic baseball intelligence that raises every aspect of his game. For the second year in a row, his stock rose, and he earned the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year honors for his season at Jacksonville. Though he doesn’t project for much power, Ivan the Younger is a patient, contact-oriented hitter who works the count and sprays line drives to all fields. He’s a strong defender as well, with steady hands, good range, and a solid arm; some feel that second base may be his ultimate destination even with Hu’s fall from grace.

With Orlando Hudson signed for just one season and Rafael Furcal always at risk of injury, the hope was that DeJesus would continue to progress at AAA in 2009, and challenge for a middle infield job in 2010. Those were hopes were dashed when he broke his leg sliding into home during a spring game in early March, costing him the entire season (save for four late season rookie-league games).

The injury was serious enough that he had to be shut down during winter ball in Puerto Rico, and he was still feeling pain during this year’s camp, despite proclaiming himself healthy. Now more of a second baseman than a shortsop, 2010 was seen as a big test, and DeJon Watson had plenty of nice things to say about him in a March interview with Baseball Prospectus, who also claimed he had the “best plate discipline in the system”.

Depending on how you look at it, 2010 (.296/.335/.405) was either a step backwards or a nice comeback. His OPS dropped 100 points from 2008, mainly because while he struck out exactly as often as he did in 2008 (81 times), his walks dropped by more than half from 76 to 32. On the other hand, he’d missed over a year with a serious injury, jumped up a level, and still hit nearly .300 while setting a career high in doubles (33) and tying his high in homers (7).

That said, not in DeJesus’ favor is that he didn’t receive a September callup alongside fellow infielders Russ Mitchell, Chin-lung Hu, and John Lindsey. At the time, Ken Gurnick mentioned it in an mlb.com article:

Clubs send a message with the players they call up in September. For the Dodgers, the most glaring omission from the list of callups is second baseman Ivan DeJesus Jr., who hit .299 with 89 runs scored and 70 RBIs at Triple-A Albuquerque after missing the entire 2009 season with a broken leg suffered in Spring Training.

DeJesus was drafted in the second round in 2005 as a shortstop, but he played second base this year, and scouts say his range and footwork around the bag need improvement, perhaps the aftereffects of the injury.

Sources also claim that DeJesus, the son of longtime Major Leaguer Ivan DeJesus, is in the doghouse because he has yet to grasp some of the subtleties of teamwork and game approach. He is scheduled to play in the Arizona Fall League.

So what say you? I’ve seen it suggested in several places that DeJesus ought to be given a real chance to win the 2011 second base job, but I’m not so sure. He’s still quite young (won’t be 24 until May), and he’s only had one year as a full-time second baseman, which is important, judging by the scouting comments from the Gurnick article. Another year in ABQ’s high-offense environment, another year off the injury, and another year refining his 2B fundamentals don’t seem like a bad idea at all to me, and if he can parlay that into a late-season call-up, then you give him a shot in 2012 – when he’ll still be just 25.

Still, someone has to play 2B, and it absolutely cannot be Theriot, who may make nearly $4m in arbitration. You can either pay a comparable cost to get better (though not star-level) production than Theriot, or you can get Theriot-level performance for about 25% of that cost. So if DeJesus continues to impress Mattingly in Arizona, and completely tears up the spring, then sure, I wouldn’t be upset to see him there. I just think that it’s probably better for both him and the team to get a stop-gap solution at second base (not that there’s a ton of options, but it’s not hard to do better than Theriot) with an eye towards DeJesus later in the year or the year after.

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