Dodgers Facing An Extended Kemp-Free Existence

We don’t yet know the extent of how badly Matt Kemp has re-injured his hamstring, but a return to the disabled list seems like an absolute certainty. That’s actually underplaying it, considering Kemp was throwing around quotes like “it feels worse than the first time” and that he expects to be out for at least a month. That would conservatively cost the Dodgers his services well into July, and no matter how well the team played during his initial absence, you can’t replace a player of that caliber. You just can’t. We never expected this club to play .700 ball all season, and now we’ll get to see how they respond without Kemp as they fight their first slump of the season, having lost four of six and needing to beat Zack Greinke tonight to fend off their first sweep of 2012.

Still, it’s premature to say that all hope is lost, because this club looks a lot different than it did when Kemp was initially lost a month ago. I have a half-written draft I had been planning to run tomorrow for Juan Rivera‘s return, arguing that the lefty/righty/defense left field trio that flopped so miserably with Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, & Tony Gwynn last season could potentially be very productive with this year’s group of Bobby Abreu, Rivera, & Gwynn, if they were used correctly. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an issue now, but now Don Mattingly isn’t going to have to worry about having too many left fielders anymore. (For tonight, it remains to be seen whether Rivera will be activated a day early or if Jerry Sands or another Isotope heads back to the bigs.)

Gwynn, of course, will remain the primary center fielder, and his outstanding defensive skills represent an upgrade there over Kemp. He’s one of those guys who we can never seem to agree on regarding his bat – I’ll admit that every time I turn around, it seems like he’s getting a base hit, but he still has just a .318 OBP after two seasons of .304 and .308 – but his glove is so good that as long as he’s not a total zero at the plate, he’s useful. (Now, whether he should be the leadoff hitter simply because of some concept of “speed” is another matter entirely…)

In left, once Rivera is back, he and Abreu could in theory make for a solid platoon, as long as neither one ever, ever has to face same-handed pitching. You might also see Jerry Hairston out there occasionally, especially once Juan Uribe returns to handle some of the third base work, though I prefer him as an infielder, and Scott Van Slyke is still around.

Here’s a thought, though: Rivera alone isn’t enough to fill the right-handed needs of the bench. You need him at first base to spell James Loney against lefties – and let me repeat, Loney should never, ever be allowed to face lefties – and while you can live with Andre Ethier against them, having an all-lefty outfield of Abreu / Gwynn / Ethier against tough lefties (assuming Hairston is playing third) is a disaster waiting to happen. Sure, you could use Sands or Van Slyke in left or first, as Mattingly has been doing, but it’s pretty clear that neither is ready for the bigs right now and each would be better served by everyday play in Albuquerque. That doesn’t make the righty need any less, though, so I wouldn’t mind seeing the only other available righty member of the 40-man besides catcher Tim FederowiczAlex Castellanos.

Castellanos, as I’m sure you remember, was destroying the PCL before he suffered his own hamstring injury in late April and missed a month. He’s only been back for four games, so I admit this may be slightly premature, but he’s been outstanding, collecting seven hits – including three doubles and a homer. Had he not been injured himself, there’s almost no certainty that he would have been up long ago, before Elian Herrera, before Ivan De Jesus, perhaps before Sands & Van Slyke. He’s been working on a transition to second base, and while that’s still a work in progress, all indications are that it’s going well enough to keep at it, and the Dodgers of course have a massive hole at the keystone.

That’s not how I would use him, though, because it’s tough to think you can just stick him in every day at second in the bigs this early into his transition. Castellanos is by trade a corner outfielder, and has still seen some time there with ABQ this season, so he could be the righty partner that Rivera needs. Let him start against all lefties in left field while Rivera plays first, let him get in a game or two at second base a week, and hope that the bat carries the rest. It’s not ideal, but on a team that figures to be struggling for offense for a while, it might just be worth a shot.

Whether it’s Castellanos or someone else, it’s going to be impossible to cover the loss of Kemp, so strap in for a rough couple of weeks, because this puts even more pressure on players like Ethier, A.J. Ellis, and the pitching staff to perform. Best case scenario, from my perspective, they continue to tread water for the next few weeks, and then hopefully pick up the best trade deadline acquisition in the history of baseball when Kemp returns – hopefully, fully healthy this time. Judging by the quality of the rest of the division, they just might be able to pull it off.