Scott Van Slyke’s Time Is Now

Just barely more than a year ago, the Dodger offense was struggling outside of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, & Jamey Carroll, who was providing a surprising amount of on-base skills for a player his age. In the infield, James Loney & Juan Uribe were contributing nothing. The left field situation was a mess, as Ned Colletti had attempted to patch over the post-Manny Ramirez era with Tony Gwynn and two busted veterans, creating the unholy trinity of “JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr.”

It didn’t work, obviously, and barely half of April had passed before the club jettisoned Xavier Paul and called up a highly-touted righty first baseman/outfielder who despite not having been a high draft pick had been the previous season’s minor league hitter of the year – Jerry Sands.

Sound familiar? 2012 is basically the same story, with A.J. Ellis playing the role of Carroll and Juan Rivera & Bobby Abreu replacing Marcus Thames & Jay Gibbons as the past-their-prime left fielders. With Rivera injured and production lacking, the Dodgers are once again dipping into the minors to call up a righty first baseman/outfielder who despite not having been a high draft pick was last year’s minor league hitter of the year, except this time it’s Scott Van Slyke. Yet despite all the similarities, the Dodgers need to hope the results are different.

Sands arrived in Los Angeles with an enormous amount of hype after hitting 35 homers across multiple levels in 2010, crushing the ball in spring training with the big club in 2011, and making a mockery of the PCL in his short time there to start the season. He doubled in his first at-bat against Tim Hudson and had his moments – a four-hit game in Chicago, a grand slam in Houston two days later – but was generally a disappointment, to the point that when he was sent back down in June, I was completely in favor of it. Sands returned to the minors, made some adjustments to his swing, and successfully returned to the Dodgers in September, hitting .342/.415/.493 in 20 games to restore some of his lost luster – even as we tried to ignore the home/road splits that had him hitting just .186 away from Albuquerque. Expected to challenge for a spot on the big team this spring, he was a mess, quickly falling out of the conversation for the final spot which eventually went to Justin Sellers. Despite a homer and a double last night, he’s hitting just .233/.324/.408 in Triple-A, amid reports of continued tinkering with his mechanics and more concerning home/road splits.

When the Dodgers needed a righty replacement for Rivera, they chose Van Slyke, who is now clearly ahead of Sands on the depth chart. (On a related note, Alfredo Silverio, another slow-blooming righty outfielder coming off a big year who may have beaten Van Slyke up were it not for a car accident in January, underwent Tommy John surgery yesterday and is out for the season.) Yet the similarities may end there, because while Sands was a quick mover through the system, reaching the bigs in his fourth pro season at 23, Van Slyke has been kicking around the organization for eight years, and he’ll be 26 in July; he didn’t get out of High-A ball for good until 2010, his sixth pro season. If Van Slyke was never the prospect that Sands seemed to be, nor has he had as much trouble producing outside of his home field in the minors.

I haven’t yet given up hope for Sands, who is still only 24. But the Dodgers are likely to fill at least one of the holes at first base or left field this winter – if not both – and for the moment, he’s fallen behind Van Slyke, who has nothing but opportunity staring him in the face. With Rivera out and Jerry Hairston likely to join him on the DL, Van Slyke is sharing time at first base and left field with Loney, Gwynn, & Abreu, all of whom are lefty, and none of whom have the standing to command an everyday spot in the lineup. Assuming Don Mattingly doesn’t foolishly stick Van Slyke into a strictly lefties-only diet – and as he’s shown little of a platoon split in the minors, there seems to be no reason to – he’s likely to see a lot of playing time over the next few weeks until Rivera is ready to return.

Van Slyke has a history of starting slow at new levels, a reputation he’s been able to shake so far this year in Triple-A. With such a perfect opening for him in Los Angeles right now, with Sands struggling behind him, Silverio completely off the radar, injured or ineffective veterans ahead of him, and a window before the club considers trades or free agent signings, Van Slyke’s time is now. It’d do both him and the Dodgers well if he could take advantage of that.