Yes, at some point later this week, Carl Crawford is going to return to action. When he does, the Dodgers are going to finally find themselves in the situation that they’ve been waiting for all year long — having four healthy and expensive outfielders who all expect to be full-time players in Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, & Yasiel Puig. (Plus a fifth, Joc Pederson, well on the way after tearing up the Southern League.)
Obviously, Puig’s not going anywhere. Crawford, even if you wanted to move him, is probably untradeable due to his contract and health concerns, unless the Guggenheimers have suddenly bought another team. Kemp remains the face of the franchise and one of the best players in baseball when healthy, and even in the incredibly unlikely scenario that you actually did want to attempt to move him, his value isn’t exactly at its height right now.
That makes trading Ethier the obvious move, thanks to his disappointing performance, long-time platoon splits, and regular flare-ups with management. We’ve been hearing about Ethier trade rumors for quite some time, and personally I believe that he came closer to landing in Seattle last winter than most think. And hey, maybe that’ll be what happens. Maybe Ned Colletti will find some team who still believes in Ethier, or maybe he’ll just eat so much of his remaining contract that the Dodgers can get a half-decent return.
But let’s put this out there — that’s not a move the team should be desperate to make right now unless there’s a very compelling reason to do so.
Let’s start with the salary, which everyone seems to want to focus on. Yes, the idea of having players making tens of millions of dollars sitting on the bench — whether that’s Ethier, or Kemp, or Crawford on any given day — seems less than ideal. It also doesn’t really matter. Honestly, player salaries should never really matter to the general public in any way other than how they impact the rest of the roster. That is, if giving $20 million to a middle reliever prevents you from using that money on needed upgrades elsewhere, that’s a big problem. If your team doesn’t seem to care about money, as this Dodger club certainly seems not to, then it’s not really relevant. The money is a sunk cost, it’s not going to prevent them from making any other moves, and so it shouldn’t matter. It may lead to some annoying articles from outsiders, but the dollar value of anyone not playing on a certain day shouldn’t stand in the way of putting the best lineup on the field.
Now as far as what “the best lineup on the field” is, that’s something that can change daily based on the situation. Puig, obviously, needs to play every day, though I live in terror of him running full speed into a wall and not only hurting himself, but creating a thermonuclear chain reaction powerful enough to take out most of the West Coast. When healthy, Crawford showed he’s still effective, but there’s also little to indicate that he’s ever actually going to be 100% healthy, and regular time off may be best for him. Kemp obviously needs to play when he’s available, but he’s also missed something like 700 games over the last two seasons. Ethier, of course, simply can’t hit left handed pitching. You can use those strengths and weaknesses, and you can take advantage of them.
While Ethier wasn’t exactly “good” in center field, he was surprisingly passable, and that gives him surprising versatility. When Crawford needs a day off, he can play left. If Kemp needs a breather, you can get by in center for a day. If and when Puig ever takes a break, there’s your right fielder. It works the other way, too — against tough lefty pitching, suddenly Don Mattingly can roll out a lineup of Scott Van Slyke / Kemp / Puig, rather than suffering through Crawford & Ethier flailing away. (This assumes that Van Slyke is still on the team, because he’ll probably be optioned when Crawford returns. That’s not yet certain, though.)
That gives you a chain reaction down the roster, as well, because for years we’ve been watching this team try to skate by with terrible benches populated by the Garret Andersons and Mark Sweeneys of the world. Suddenly, Mattingly can bring Ethier off the bench in a big spot in the eighth inning, or bring in Crawford to hit or run when the game is tight. The more you see of those guys there, the less you see of the light-hitting Nick Punto or Skip Schumaker in big spots — and you drop outfield starts by Schumaker & Jerry Hairston to just about zero.
Again, if there’s somehow a good deal to be made for Ethier, I’m fine with that. I just don’t think there really is, at least not in the way that casual fans won’t think the Dodgers have been completely ripped off. This also isn’t a long-term solution, so if Ethier doesn’t get moved this season, I do think something has to be done in the winter, depending somewhat on what happens with Pederson. But while others would mock the situation — you paid how much to not start a guy? — know that every other team would do the same if money weren’t an issue. Why wouldn’t you want four starting quality outfielders on your roster, with Van Slyke as a decent fifth OF / first base type?
If you’re pointing out that this idea came up before the season and I was against it, that’s fair, but the situation has changed. We didn’t know what Puig would be then. We didn’t know how disappointing Ethier & Kemp would be (for very different reasons, of course), and we had absolutely no idea what to make of Crawford. We know a lot more about each of those guys now, and after months of seeing far too many starts from Hairston & Schumaker & Van Slyke, too much talent is preferable to too little talent — no matter what the paychecks read.