All winter, we’ve been wondering exactly how the outfield quagmire would play out, beyond just in terms of playing time. We’ve wondered if Marcus Thames‘ defense would make us fondly remember the days of Manny Ramirez, and we’ve wondered if Tony Gwynn would hit enough to carry his glove. We’ve wondered if Jay Gibbons could do anything at all, and we’ve wondered if Xavier Paul really had any prayer of making the team, though accepted that he probably didn’t. We’ve wondered how atrocious Andre Ethier would be against lefty pitching, and we’ve wondered if putting Gibbons or Thames in left alongside Matt Kemp and Ethier might make the pitching staff revolt as ball after ball fell in for hits. Stepping beyond the outfield for a second, we’ve wondered not only who would hit second in the order – Casey Blake‘s Bunting Extravaganza hardly thrills – but who might lead off if and when Rafael Furcal is unavailable.
As spring training goes on and the season looms, it’s becoming more and more clear that the best possible scenario to fill all of those answers – and more – is Tony Gwynn claiming a starting job, and that might be exactly what’s happening.
When Gwynn was signed back in December, I’ll admit that I wasn’t fully on board, openly questioning if he was really better than Paul. It’s not hard to see why – Gwynn hit just .204/.304/.287 for the Padres in 2010. As I said when I wrote about him on Baseball Prospectus earlier this week, usually “a .591 OPS in your age-27 season would earn you a one-way ticket to the finest buses in the Pacific Coast League.” But there’s some reason for hope, because Gwynn did put up a .350 OBP in 2009, and his 2010 was marred by a wrist injury and the news that his father was battling cancer. Despite the poor stat line, he did both increase his ISO and decrease his K/BB from 2009 (which he’d in turn increased from 2008). So while expectations must be kept low, you could at least see how he could bounce back from “unbelievably horrendous” to “merely mediocre” at the plate. Remember, you’re never expecting power from him, just hoping for on-base percentage.
So far, we’ve seen Gwynn taking advantage of his opportunity, hitting .344 with an OBP of nearly .400 in spring, and a perfect 6-6 in steals. Meanwhile, Paul hasn’t distinguished himself by leading the club in strikeouts, and Gibbons has had a totally nightmarish camp. He’s missed time due to the flu and with vision issues, and collected just his third hit (all singles) today, though he hopes his new contact lenses put the eye problems behind him. Gibbons’ spring has been so lousy that it’s not even a given that he’ll make the team at this point, if you read Don Mattingly’s quote at the end of the Ken Gurnick article:
“I’d like to see him healthy,” manager Don Mattingly said when asked if Gibbons was a “lock” to make the club as a platoon left fielder. “If the vision thing isn’t right and you can’t swing a bat, you know the plan going in, but you want to see him with clear vision. If you can’t see, you can’t hit. I’m telling you that right now.”
We’ll get back to Gibbons and his place in a second, but let’s say for the moment that Gwynn’s winning the job and ends up with the majority of the playing time as the third outfielder, providing decent OBP and excellent fielding. Think about how many of the previously-mentioned issues that solves:
1) He massively improves the outfield defense. Gwynn’s one of the best outfielders in the game, while we all know about the issues of Kemp and Ethier. Regardless of whether that would push them to the corners while Gwynn plays in center – which would probably be for the best, though Mattingly seems to be against it – having a plus defender like Gwynn rather than the subpar (at best!) Gibbons and Thames is a huge improvement.
2) He fits the batting order. This only works if he’s actually getting on base at a good clip, of course, but rather than Blake, I’d much rather have a guy with good speed and better contact skills – a full 10% fewer whiffs than Blake last year. That’d probably push Blake down to 6 or 7, which is where he really belongs anyway. If Gibbons gets the majority of the time, then Blake stays at #2, which is less than ideal.
3) He improves the bench. As pessimistic as I’ve been about Gibbons and Thames, they could potentially make a pretty decent lefty/righty duo off the bench with some power. They’re better bench options than Gwynn because you generally prefer power off the bench later in the game, and that again allows you more time in the field with Gwynn than with those two.
4) He gets Ethier out against lefties. You’re going to have to bear with me on this one for a second. For much of the offseason, I’d been saying that the Dodgers needed to sign not one but two righty outfielders, since neither Gibbons or Ethier are productive against them. (Ethier, in particular, has been declining terribly every year against LHP.) The obvious problem here is that Gwynn isn’t great against lefties either, but that’s a flaw in the construction of the roster. Barring the increasingly unlikely option of Casey Blake playing LF, you’re going to have to start at least one lefty outfielder all the time anyway. So if none of your options can hit them, and you’re playing Thames at the further expense of the defense, you’d rather Gwynn’s plus defense rather than Ethier’s mediocre defense. I know it seems odd to say you’d ever want to play Gwynn rather than Ethier, but you need to avoid the scenario of a Thames / Kemp / Ethier outfield whenever possible.
It says a lot about the construction of this team that I just wrote about 900 words on why Tony Gwynn may be the best choice they’ve got, but it just might be true. The way things are currently configured, nothing could work out better for this team than for Gwynn to keep up his hot spring and grab the job. Besides, it’s only until Jerry Sands is ready in the second half, anyway, right? (By the way, he, along with Justin Sellers, were sent to minor league camp today. No surprise there.)
When Jon Link got shipped back to minor league camp the other day, I was surprised to see that the team had apparently fully committed to using him as a starter. As Christopher Jackson of the Albuquerque Examiner reports, Link doesn’t seem to be fully on board with the idea either:
“The only thing I enjoy about starting is getting to hit,” said Link, who only started once in 45 appearances with the Isotopes last season (3-2, 3.71 ERA, four saves). “That’s the one thing I enjoy. I don’t have the patience to start. (But) I’ll do whatever the club needs me to do, I’ll make the best of it, make the best I can.”
Link said starting takes an entirely different kind of mentality than the one he has had throughout his career.
“I don’t like waiting five days to pitch again, especially if you have a bad start and you have to sit on it,” Link said. “If you have a good start you obviously want to keep things rolling, so you’re really anxious to get into a game.
I’m open to the idea, but Link seems like an odd choice for the conversion. He’s never started before, and the team is pretty deep in starting candidates. What’s more likely, that you’ll need to get to your 11th starting option (which Link would be), or that you’ll need him to pick up a few bullpen innings this year? Especially if he’s not into it.
One year ago yesterday, we were discussing who would be the 5th starter. Names in the mix? Eric Stults, James McDonald, Carlos Monasterios, Charlie Haeger, and the Two Ortizii of the Apocalypse. My, how far we’ve come.