MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Left Field

Ah, left field: where hope goes to die. No, really; over the last ten seasons (2002-2011), the Dodgers have had 47 different players make an appearance in left field, and it’s not like they were all token appearances – 34 of the 47 were out there at least ten times. Who can forget the 48 games and .661 OPS from Jason Grabowski in 2004-05? The continuing stream of busted veterans like Luis Gonzalez, Ricky Ledee, and Jose Cruz conspiring to keep superior young players out of the lineup in 2006-07? And dear lord, Garret Anderson and Scott Podsednik on the same roster (though, thankfully, not at the same time) last year? With the obvious exception of Manny Ramirez‘ monster performance in 2008 and parts of 2009, the only Dodger left fielder with any meaningful playing time to put up an OPS of even .800 (which isn’t exactly a top mark from a power position) over the last decade was Andre Ethier, who just barely topped the minimum at .803 while playing there for much of the first three years of his career.

With Manny finally gone after 2010, left field was an obvious problem spot all winter, one that never quite got filled. Jay Gibbons and Tony Gwynn arrived early, later joined by Marcus Thames to form the immortal “JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr.” trio that was absolutely never going to work – and, you know, didn’t – but much of the winter was marked by the Dodgers trying and failing to bring in others. Bill Hall was considered, but he went to Houston to play second base. (Fortunately for the Dodgers, as it turned out). Matt Diaz was sought, though he went to Pittsburgh. Brothers Scott Hairston and Jerry Hairston both appeared in rumors; neither arrived. With no upgrades available, the club eventually resigned themselves to wishing for the best from the Gwybbons Jr. trio, as we entertained ourselves by wondering if the team would break the record for most left fielders in a season while waiting for the day Trayvon Robinson would come save us. This, of course, would not do, as Dodger left fielders finished 23rd in MLB in OPS at .680, and Robinson, as you might have heard, was dealt to Seattle.

But remember, it could have been worse: in November, Ned Colletti actually picked up the team half of Podsednik’s mutual option, an offer that Podsednik foolishly (and disastrously) turned down in hopes of a bigger payday elsewhere. Podsednik ended up being injured for much of the year in AAA for Toronto and Philadelphia, and didn’t play a single MLB game. He was nearly the starting left fielder for the Dodgers. Good lord. Let’s get on with this hot mess.

(If you’re looking for Juan Rivera, he’ll appear in right field, even though he started more games as a left fielder, just to keep the left field pit of hell a little more manageable.)

Tony Gwynn (C)
.256/.308/.353 .660 2hr 22sb 1.1 WAR

Tony Gwynn might just be the blandest player to think about on the Dodgers. When Junior signed, we expected great fielding, some contribution on the basepaths, and just about nothing at the plate. And… well, that’s exactly what happened. Feel the excitement!

I wasn’t really sold on his signing – I wasn’t sure he was even better than Xavier Paul, though mostly I really had wanted a righty outfield bat – but after a solid spring, we were doing our best to talk ourselves into him:

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.

He didn’t quite take over in the early going, sharing time with Marcus Thames and others, and hit a Gwynn-esque .264/.291/.377 through April, though he did pitch in with a game-saving catch. Then April turned into May, and… oh, that’s gonna leave a mark.

Split G GS PA H RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
May 26 4 32 2 1 1 2 7 .067 .125 .100 .225

Gwynn’s May was so bad that by the end of of the month, when we were wondering who might get DFA’d to make room for a returning Thames, the only reason it seemed worthwhile to keep Gwynn around was the lack of another option to help Matt Kemp out in center field. Gwynn survived the purge, and managed to pick up two hits in his first game of June despite not entering the game until the 8th inning. That was the start of a resurgence, because over June and July Gwynn picked up 40 hits, for a combined line of .305/.377/.389. That still shows absolutely no power whatsoever, but it doesn’t matter, because a player who can get on base at that rate along with good baserunning and excellent defense is quite valuable.

Of course, Gwynn followed up his nice stretch with a .245/.278/.367 run over August and September, which sounds about right from him. Overall, his .308 OBP is basically the same as his .304 mark with the Padres in 2010, but very troubling is the fact that his walk rate dropped from 10.6% and 12.1% the previous two years to just 6.8% with the Dodgers.

So what next? His plate performance is lousy, though his defense is rated excellent by most metrics and that absolutely passes the sniff test. Considering his utility on the bases, he’s a useful enough piece, and he wants to return. If I was running the team, I’d probably look to upgrade, but assuming he doesn’t get much more than ~$1m or so if he makes it to arbitration, that seems fair enough.

Jerry Sands (B-)
.253/.338/.389 .727 4hr 0.0 WAR

When camp started, we were all intrigued by the 2010 performance of Jerry Sands in the minors, and we hoped that if all went well, we might be lucky enough to see him in the bigs by September. By March 7, Sands was so impressive that I was creating polls to see how long people thought the Dodgers could really keep him down, especially considering the lack of production at his two primary positions, first base and left field. Even then, the majority of people figured “July or later”, so it was no surprise when he was sent back to minor league camp on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sands started off his AAA season by homering in each of his first four games, and as the Dodger offense struggled with injury and ineffectiveness, they shocked us all by recalled him on April 17, far sooner than anyone expected. The initial returns were promising, with fans giving standing ovations for his debut, and he repaid them with doubles in each of his first two games and in five of his first nine, as the Dodgers – to their credit – committed to the experiment, playing him nearly every day.

But despite the doubles, the excitement, and the promised plate discipline, something was missing. Sands wasn’t quite the savior we’d been looking for. There were some nice moments, of course, including his first homer on May 21 and a grand slam on May 24 in Rubby De La Rosa‘s debut, but they were few and far between. By the end of May, I was open to the idea that it should be Sands who went back down when Marcus Thames returned. Sands survived, with Jay Gibbons surprisingly getting the axe on the day that Dee Gordon arrived, but just over a week later it was Sands’ turn:

Numbers aren’t everything, of course. When Sands arrived, we heard a great deal about his maturity, ability to make adjustments, and command of the strike zone. From this vantage point, all of what we’ve heard has been true and then some. Before his recent slump, he’d shown an increased ability to pull the ball, rather than always going the other way, and even when the power wasn’t there he was seeing a lot of pitches and getting on base.

By sending him back down now, you hope that he goes down knowing he can play on this level, with a few adjustments. This is where the maturity comes into play; some rookies can’t handle a demotion well, but Sands sounds like the type who can. Ideally, he goes back down to ABQ, mashes Triple-A pitching for a while to get his confidence back up (also important, as you don’t want a string of oh-fers in the bigs to get him down), and then we’ll see back up later in the summer. I’d say “when rosters expand on Sept. 1″, but I think we all know that injuries will necessitate a recall sooner.

Sands is a big part of this team’s future, and it’s in his best interest to go back down and get his confidence back up. He’s not helping the team right now, and he’s not helping himself. He’ll be back, and he’ll be better for the experience.

That’s exactly what happened, because much like Gordon, the Sands we saw the second time around was far different from our initial look. When Sands was sent down, he was hitting .200/.294/.328 in 144 plate appearances; after his return on September 8 (with the arrival of Rivera and the resurgence of James Loney, he stayed down longer than I would have guessed), he hit .342/.415/.493, playing mostly right field with Andre Ethier injured, including a 14-game hitting streak and hits in 16 of 18 games. He ended up finishing fifth on the club in doubles, despite having just 227 plate appearances; the hot streak all but guaranteed himself a spot on next year’s club, though it remains to be seen what position he’ll play.

If there is one big red flag about Sands, it’s that his home/road splits with the Isotopes were beyond atrocious. Courtesy of Andrew Grant’s Minor League Central, we can see that he hit .347/.406/.709 with 18 homers at home, and just .186/.258/.401 with 9 homers on the road. I’m always driving the “ABQ stats mean little without checking the splits” train, so I can’t in good conscience tell you to completely ignore that here. However, when we talk about ABQ-inflated stats, we’re usually talking about a player who is either a semi-prospect with little to point to before reaching ABQ (think Justin Sellers), or an older Quad-A fringe type who could never stick in the bigs but who was lucky enough to land in the perfect place to pad his stats (like Trent Oeltjen recently, or Dee Brown or Hector Luna in previous years.) As a young player who comes with quality scouting reports, a solid track record in the minors before landing in New Mexico, and an excellent finish to his season in the bigs, Sands has a lot more going for him than the other names mentioned, so his splits aren’t cause to write him off – just something to note.

Marcus Thames (F)
.197/.243/.333 .576 2hr -0.7 WAR

Despite the fact that it didn’t even come close to working out, giving Marcus Thames a shot as a LF/1B bench bat wasn’t the worst idea in the world at the time:

So if you’ve come here looking to see if I hate the idea of Thames, then no, I don’t. I hate that this is the best the Dodgers are going to be able to do; I hate that with every passing day the idea that much is riding on Tony Gwynn hitting enough to win the CF job. I think there’s good arguments to be made for preferring Hairston or Milledge, yet I can’t complain too much about getting a guy who has an .820 OPS and 94 homers over the last five years (assuming the money is small).

Really, this is going to be determined by Thames’ usage. If he’s a lefty-killing specialist who is 80% off the bench and 20% in left field, that’s useful enough. If he’s penciled in to a strict platoon role where he gets a goodly amount of playing time in the field, that’s an enormous problem. Thames is one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, and as tenuous as the idea of a Jay Gibbons / Matt Kemp / Andre Ethier outfield might be, putting Thames in LF alongside Kemp and Ethier would be atrocious, to the point that it might be the worst fielding trio in the game. This is going to be another test for Don Mattingly, and we’ll have to see how he handles that.

We never found out. Thames was as poor as advertised in the field, but he was also surprisingly bad at the plate, albeit in just 70 plate appearances. I think some of that might be chalked up to his usage, because after starting five of his first eight games in left field, he was essentially reduced to pinch-hitting until he was injured in early May. For a player used to getting three and four at-bats per game as a designated hitter in the American League, the transition to pinch-hitting was a difficult one.

Thames landed on the disabled list on May 3 after injuring his left thigh and missed slightly more than a month. When he returned, Mattingly attempted to get him back in the mix by giving him eight starts in left field in June, but it didn’t work; Thames failed to hit and missed several more games with a calf strain. He pinch-hit twice in July and was finally DFA’d in favor of Juan Rivera over the All-Star break, eventually returning to the Yankees on a minor-league deal.

Like so many other Dodgers in 2011, Thames couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t do much to justify his existence when he was. Not exactly a memorable tenure from a short-term Dodger.

Jay Gibbons (D-)
.255/.323/.345 .668 1hr -0.5 WAR

Gibbons, as you probably remember, was a nice story at the end of 2010. As much as that made for some fun puff piece stories in the press, I was a bit concerned about what to really expect from him going into 2011:

You all know his story by now, as he went from “reasonably successful Oriole” in the early and middle part of the decade, to “blackballed Mitchell Report name who was largely out of baseball” in 2008-09, to “heartwarming success story for his hometown team” in 2010. Though he was certainly a nice boost for the team last year, I’ve always felt that his performance got a little more hype than it probably deserved. Coming on the heels of the Garret Anderson debacle, the bar was set pretty low, and Gibbons made a great first impression – he homered in his first start and put up a 1.102 OPS over his first 47 PA back in the bigs. That’s all well and good, except beyond his own defensive issues, 47 PA is hardly a large sample size, he ended the season in a 6-32 slide, and we’ve learned several times that people put far too much stock into first impressions. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been saying the exact same thing about Rod Barajas for months.

This isn’t to bash Gibbons, who made for a nice story in the dog days of a lost season. It’s just to point out that despite all the accolades, he’s still a 34-year-old who put up a .313 OBP in 80 PA, and can’t possibly be expected to sustain a .507 SLG. While all the stories read that he hadn’t played in MLB since 2007, it actually goes beyond that; due to injuries, he didn’t even get into 100 games in either 2006 or 2007.

I think I nailed the trepidation there pretty well, and Gibbons did little to change that in 62 plate appearances in May and early June. That said, while i don’t think he was ever likely to produce, you do have to feel bad for him in how it went down. Gibbons returned early from winter ball complaining of vision problems, and started the season on the disabled list with the same issue. When he returned in May, he made it to early June before getting a somewhat surprising DFA which landed him back in Albuquerque, where he underwent another eye surgery in hopes of restoring his vision.

On the season for the Isotopes, he hit an Albuquerque-fueled .305/.407/.463, which is nice, and if we’ve learned anything about Gibbons it’s that you can’t count him out. But he’ll be 35 next spring, didn’t get a September call-up, is a poor defender, and in 2012 it’ll have been nearly six years since he was last an effective big leaguer for more than a few weeks. If he wants a job in AAA I’m sure he can have one somewhere, but I wouldn’t expect to see him back with the Dodgers again, especially since he elected to become a free agent in early October.

Xaver Paul (inc.)
.273/.273/.273 .545 0hr -0.1 WAR

I don’t use this photo in Paul’s card to make fun of him, but mostly because it was one of the few photos of him playing for the Dodgers this year I could actually find.

That’ll happen when you get just 11 plate appearances before being shipped off to the place where all mediocre Dodgers go to die: Pittsburgh. (Here’s looking at you, Delwyn Young & Andy LaRoche.)

Paul had long been one of my favorites, but he never really seemed to get the chance he deserved based on his minor-league track record and strong throwing arm. It’s not that he ever looked like a future star or even more than a fourth outfielder – I can’t even say he did much in Pittsburgh in his first crack at semi-regular playing time – but the simple fact that he kept getting swept aside for over-the-hill veterans like Garret Anderson really burned me.

So long, Xavier. We’ll always have you as the answer to the trivia question, “who was DFA’d to get Jerry Sands on the roster?”

Jamie Hoffmann (inc.)
.000/.000/.000 .000 0hr -0.2 WAR

Hoffmann had four plate appearances over two April games, so obviously there’s not a lot of his MLB season to analyze. The greater question here is, who did he piss off? Hoffmann hit .297/.356/.497 in AAA this year, while backing up his reputation as an excellent defensive outfielder by breaking a 53-year-old PCL record for consecutive errorless games. While the standard ABQ disclaimers apply (dig that 200+ split in home/road OPS), you don’t hit 22 homers completely by accident, yet on a team that carried both Eugenio Velez and Trent Oeltjen for months, Hoffman didn’t warrant even a token September recall. That can’t bode well for his future with the team, though I still don’t see why he couldn’t be a useful backup.

******

Next! It’s center field! You may know the guy who plays there! I hear he’s sorta good!

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