Over the weekend, the Dodgers got some good news as far as the continued recovery of their legions of injured, as both Vicente Padilla and Marcus Thames began their rehab stints in the minors. Padilla threw two scoreless innings for Rancho Cucamonga, striking out one and allowing a hit, and he was reportedly back at Dodger Stadium for Monday’s game. He’ll likely need another outing or two in the minors, but may not be far from returning. When he does, there’s no shortage of young relievers in the current bullpen who could be sent back down to the minors to clear up a spot. (My money’s on Ramon Troncoso.)
Thames homered in his Albuquerque debut on Sunday, then went 0-4 on Monday. He played left field both days, and considering he was able to play in the field on consecutive days to start his rehab, we can do a bit of speculation and infer that he’ll be ready to return soon. But unlike with Padilla, there’s no obvious answer to the question of how he gets put back on the roster. So the question must be asked: who is about to lose their job for Marcus Thames?
Let’s get the obvious right out of the way and say that as much as we might pray for it, I don’t think there’s any chance that Juan Castro goes. If he’s cut, the club will have only four active infielders for the three non-1B spots in Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, Rafael Furcal, & Aaron Miles. All four are at least 33, and I don’t need to remind you of the various injury concerns there. It’s not a risk the club would – or should – take at this point, though we may finally get rid of Castro when Juan Uribe returns later in June.
That means – assuming that they won’t drop from 12 pitchers to 11, which is extremely unlikely – that when Thames returns, we’re saying goodbye to Tony Gwynn, Jay Gibbons… or Jerry Sands. Let’s look at how they’ve been used since May 3, the day that Gibbons returned from the DL to take Thames’ spot.
There’s no typo there – Gwynn has just two hits in May as we enter the last day of play, and has only 16 on the season. Though he’s gotten into more games than anyone, he’s started just three; he’s been all-but-exclusively a defensive replacement, and if not for the fact that he had to replace Matt Kemp against Florida last week after Kemp was ejected, he might not have even had the chance to get that second hit.
Gwynn’s lack of production and low-impact role would seem to make this a simple choice… except for one issue: he’s the only one capable of playing center field other than Kemp, and he’s the only plus glove in what is generally a below-average defensive group. Sands and Ethier are average fielders on their best days, and Gibbons and Thames are really designated hitters who have been handed gloves. If Gwynn is gone, what happens if Kemp needs a day off or suffers a minor injury? Do we really want Thames or Gibbons out there in the 9th inning of a tight game when defense is crucial? Were you that entertained by Sands’ emergency appearance in center recently that we should make it a more regular thing?
So that leaves us with Gibbons or Sands… and here’s the part I don’t think you’re going to like. I think it’s going to be Sands heading back to the minors.* I don’t like it any more than you do, but just look at how the pieces are falling into place. (My arguments here are just how I imagine the team might think, not necessarily how I’d look at it, of course.)
*unless, of course, another injury – real or imagined – pops up in the next few days.
- Thames is a righty power bat who can kind of sort of play left field & first base, as is Sands. If Gwynn is really just the defense guy, I can easily see Don Mattingly preferring a lefty/righty duo for this role in Gibbons and Thames, rather than two righties in Sands and Thames.
- Sands has been good – dig that .371 May OBP – but you can’t argue he’s been great. This isn’t Russell Martin coming up and wowing in 2006; this is a guy who is hitting .221 with two homers. (This is where you chime in and note that Sands has shown much improvement since arriving and is tied with Kemp for the highest May OPS, at .784. I get it, and I agree. Just playing devil’s advocate here.)
- Mattingly seems to like Gibbons, who has started nine of the last ten games (partially, I will admit, because Ethier’s injury opened up more playing time last weekend.) Gibbons hasn’t done much to repay that faith with indifferent offense and questionable defense.
- The Dodgers have a long-established history of wanting to keep as many players under control as possible. Unless a veteran has been so bad that he’s just impossible to hang on to (I’m looking at you, Lance Cormier), they’ll usually wait as long as possible before dropping the DFA hammer. Sands has options. Gibbons does not.
- With James Loney showing signs of life in recent days – the Dodgers having shown no inclination to dump him anyway – and Casey Blake now available to be a RH 1B on some days (along with Thames), there’s less of a need for Sands to be available to play first base.
I don’t like to think it either, but there’s plenty of reason to be worried that Gibbons sticks and Sands doesn’t when Thames returns, as crazy as it may sound to send down one of the team’s top offensive performers. To be honest, I don’t think the Dodgers really want to send out either, but they’re also not going to not activate Thames. So unless you think that they’ll really go down to 11 pitchers, risk cutting Castro and have just one backup infielder, or cut Gwynn and risk not having a backup center fielder, this is the choice you’re left with – unless you’re a true believer in the ‘phantom injury.’ (Hey, maybe Gibbons is still having eye issues?)
Let’s hear your opinion in the comments and the poll below.