If there’s one question I’m getting more often than any other right now – other than, of course, “Luis Cruz, first unanimous election to the Hall of Fame or simply a first-ballot guy?” – it’s “what are the Dodgers going to do when Dee Gordon returns?” In fact, it’s the headline of a story on Dodgers.com right now.
To which I generally reply, “who cares?”
It’s a question I get a lot because no one knows for sure whether Hanley Ramirez is a shortstop or a third baseman in Los Angeles long-term, and despite Cruz’ impressive contributions third base is continually an unsettled mess for the club. The original plan, it seemed, was to allow Ramirez to play short in Gordon’s absence and slide back to third when Dee returned. That would allow Jerry Hairston to get the majority of time at third base, Cruz to go back to the bench, and Juan Uribe to be fired into the sun. Believe me, the original plan was not for Cruz to play every day, because if it was, he’d still be at shortstop, where he is clearly a superior defender to Ramirez.
But now Ramirez is hitting and apparently happy at shortstop, and with Cruz hitting well (along with Hairston being injured again) he’s become an every day fixture at the hot corner, having started six of nine games there since Hairston went down (and one of the three he didn’t, he was at second base) along with 36 of the last 43 overall. So you have Ramirez crushing the ball, and Cruz playing well… and people are apparently wondering how the Dodgers are going to squeeze in an injured player who was ranked, by some measures, as a bottom-six defender and a bottom-six hitter this year. Combine those into fWAR and you get the third-worst player in baseball. (I will admit here that it warms my cold, jaded heart that the wildly overrated Michael Young & Jeff Francoeur are the two worse than him.)
This is not meant to bash Gordon, whom I still believe is talented enough to be the long-term solution at shortstop. Half a bad season from a raw guy who is still only 24 and who most of us would agree was rushed to the bigs in the first place isn’t enough to give up on him, at least for me, and I do see some people giving him the “June 2012 Chad Billingsley” treatment already, which is silly. There’s a really good discussion to be had about Gordon being back in the starting lineup in 2013, given his potential and the fact that we have no idea what to make of Cruz right now.
Yet as it always seems to lately, this question does go back to Cruz. Sure, I’m open to the idea that he’s the next Casey Blake or A.J. Ellis, not putting it together until their late 20s. It’s just that both of those guys had success in the minors, and I can’t shake Cruz’ .296 OBP across 12 seasons and not think that like we saw with Elian Herrera, Cindarella is turning back into a pumpkin at some point… or however that story goes. Now I’ll admit that it hasn’t happened yet, and Cruz has been excellent for this team. Obviously Ramirez isn’t sitting, and it’s hard to argue that Gordon is an upgrade on Cruz on either side of the ball right now. For a team in a tight playoff race, that’s not a switch you make.
Besides, from a purely logistical standpoint, I’m not sure the question really deserves the amount of thought it appears to be getting. Gordon has only just been cleared to begin baseball activities in the last few days and hasn’t even played in any rehab games yet. By the time he’s ready to return, it’ll be September, so there’s not going to be any roster issues, and it might not even be September 1 if Triple-A Albuquerque extends their season with a playoff run and it’s determined that regular playing time is best for him after a long layoff.
When he comes back, if Cruz is still producing, you have a killer pinch-running threat and occasional shortstop for September. (I shouldn’t have to say that you don’t even think about the playoff roster until the Dodgers actually make it there.) If Cruz falls apart, you still don’t necessarily put Gordon back in, if Hairston is healthy at that point.
I don’t want to say that Cruz has “taken” Gordon’s job, because I don’t think it would have happened if Gordon hadn’t hurt himself, and it’s foolish to think about 2013 right now. But as much as I like Gordon and his future, if you’re trying to win it all in 2012, there’s no reason to put him back in the lineup every day, not when the Dodgers are finally getting left-side production, and it’s not a question that really even needs answering right now.