2012 Dodgers in Review #20: LF Jerry Sands

.174/.208/.261 24pa 0hr 0.0 fWAR (inc.)

2012 in brief: Turned terrible Triple-A first half into dominating second half as calls to install him at first base increased before being sent to Boston as player to be named in the big trade.

2013 status: Will fight for playing time with the Red Sox in the outfield corners.

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Usually, you see that a player received only 24 plate appearances and you figure, well, not a whole lot happened. I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t exactly what happened with Jerry Sands, right?

Sands had been very good in a September call-up in 2011, hitting .357 over 19 games, and so he was our greatest hope of avoiding the horror of “Juan Rivera, starting left fielder”, or at the very least able to offer a righty alternative to James Loney & Andre Ethier. But Sands was an absolute mess in camp, and not only did he not make the team, he didn’t even make it to the final cut. When he was sent to minor league camp on March 27, it wasn’t even worth an argument.

It got worse. Rather than going back to Albuquerque and repeating his success from the previous year, Sands continued to struggle through April, telling Chris Jackson that his mechanics just weren’t right. If there was any question of just how far he’d fallen, it came on May 10, when it wasn’t Sands (hitting 233/.324/.408) at the time) who was called up to replace the injured Rivera… it was Scott Van Slyke, who had clearly passed Sands on the depth chart.

Five days later, Matt Kemp went on the disabled list and Sands was called up anyway, and with three homers in the days preceding his callup, he’d at least arrived with some amount of positive momentum. But Sands was given just 21 plate appearances over eight games, and he was shipped back when Kemp returned on May 29th.

Sands returned to the Isotopes and continued to struggle in June (.772) before really turning it on in July, hitting eight homers with a .994 OPS. On August 6, Sands returned to the team when Tony Gwynn was shockingly DFA’d, and considering how sick we were of the atrocious Loney / Rivera combo, we were thrilled…

Sands, meanwhile, has been struggling much of the year in the minors but has been red-hot lately, leading the PCL “since the All-Star break with 9 HRs, .733 slugging% and 28 RBI (T-1st) in 23 games,” according to J.P. Hoornstra. The real question now is, what is his role? Will he really be given a chance to replace Juan Rivera & James Loney at first base every day? For both his sake and that of the team’s, I hope so.

…but then things very quickly got weird. He was in the lineup that night in right field against Colorado, but before he stepped to the plate we were already wondering just what was going on:

Over the last few hours, there’s been some worry about Sands’ role on the team thanks to some quotes by Don Mattingly passed along by Eric Stephen, indicating that Rivera & James Loney would continue to platoon at first base, with Sands serving as a backup and potentially even going back down to ABQ when Adam Kennedy is activated on Thursday. Though that is beyond troubling to think about, I’m also not sure how likely that really is. Beyond the fact that it makes no sense to jettison Gwynn right now just to then replace Sands in three days, Mattingly has clearly shown how beyond finished he is with Juan Uribe (15 days since his last start) and Loney (often sitting against righties now). If Sands hits, they’ll find a place for him to play. If he doesn’t, then he’s going to have a hard time making a case to stay anyway.

Sands went 0-3 that night… and that was it. We never saw him again. He didn’t start the next night while Loney did, and he didn’t start again the following night while Rivera did. The next day, we learned that Sands was going back down in order to activate Kennedy, of all people, and the entire sequence just seemed beyond comprehension:

On MondayTony Gwynn was DFA’d to bring up Sands. (Gwynn, it should be noted, will accept his trip to Albuquerque, as Stephen reports.) Sands started that night in right field against Drew Pomeranz, went 0-3 before being double-switched out in the seventh, and was never seen again for the rest of the series. So this was worth interrupting Sands’ hot streak and DFA’ing Gwynn… how, exactly?

<snip>Now, I’ll admit that if Sands isn’t going to play, I’d much rather him getting regular time in Albuquerque than riding the bench in Los Angeles. But what concerns me is that it’s hard not to look at this situation and not see signs of a larger problem. Ned Colletti refuses to free us of the scourge of Juan Uribe, and Don Mattingly responds by absolutely refusing to play him, with just one appearance as a defensive replacement in more than two weeks – and Mattingly is absolutely right to do so, even if it means playing the quickly-descending Cruz. Colletti cuts a popular if flawed player in Gwynn in order to get a potentially powerful bat in Sands up for a series with two lefty pitchers, and Mattingly barely plays him either, refusing to give up on the execrable Rivera. Are there signs that the front office and bench aren’t totally on the same page? I can’t say that I have any hard evidence to point to, but something smells weird here.

Sands went back to Albuquerque and continued his white-hot production, setting a team record with a 21-game hitting streak, at two different points hitting four homers in five games, and going 5-6 in a game against New Orleans. As Loney & Rivera continued to fail horribly, the calls for Sands to get a real chance increased, and on August 17 over at FanGraphs, I looked into just what it would take for him to get a shot at first base:

It’s really, really difficult to overstate just how bad the first base situation is in Los Angeles right now. Of the possibly dozens of different ways to describe how awful James Loney & Juan Rivera are, my favorite might be “Juan Uribe still exists, and even despite that third base isn’t the biggest problem on this club.” Loney (.252/.300/.328 & .265 wOBA entering Thursday) and Rivera (.243/.280/.355 & .271 wOBA) have combined to start 112 of the first 118 games at first base this year, and all the Dodgers have received for that time investment is a combined .268 wOBA, just a tick above Seattle for the worst in baseball. (If we go by WAR, which factors in Rivera’s below-average defense, they are dead last.) I’m not sure what’s more surprising – that Loney has just three homers this year, or that he hasn’t had an unintentional walk since June 23.

<snip>

In early July, Sands reverted to his old swing, and the results have been impressive. In July, he hit .317/.410/.584 with eight homers; so far in August, he’s at .477/.531/.886 with five homers, including three in his last five games and five in his last seven. Unlike so many other Isotopes, this can’t even be chalked up to a large home/road split, as on the year his home slugging (.560) is only slightly better than his road mark (.538).

None of this assures success, of course, and I hardly need to tell you what sort of BABIP goes into a .477 batting average – and it’s true that Sands has not found success in his brief big-league stints thus far. But he’s also not even 25 yet, and working on his fourth consecutive season with an OPS north of .924. Even if he doesn’t develop into a star, how much does it really take to be better than Loney & Rivera? Every day, it becomes more difficult for the Dodgers to avoid that question, and at the very least he’s assured of a callup when rosters expand in two weeks.

I still can’t quite explain why Sands never got a chance to fill the hole, but it ended up not mattering; a little more than a week later, Adrian Gonzalez was the new first baseman and Sands was widely-known to be one of the “players to be named later”, though he did continue playing for the Isotopes until their season ended in September. On October 4, he and Rubby de la Rosa officially joined Boston, where Sands is likely to get a chance to make a wide-open roster next season.

To  be honest, I’m pretty sad to see him go. While starting at first base isn’t a need any longer, we’ve discussed several times about how the Dodgers need a contingency plan for Carl Crawford in left, a righty alternative to Ethier in right, and even a backup first baseman if Gonzalez needs a day off. Sands would have fit that role wonderfully, though Don Mattingly never seemed to want to use him. Though it’ll make the trade look worse, I really do hope that Sands excels with the Red Sox.

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Next up! Alex Castellanos!

Jerry Sands Likely Headed to AAA As Roster Games Continue

Look, he can play first! (Brendan-C on flickr)

If this report from Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA is to be believed – and I say that not because I don’t trust Eric, who is wonderful, but just because it strikes me as odd that no other outlets have this news right now – Jerry Sands is going to be sent back to Albuquerque prior to the start of tomorrow’s road trip to make room for Adam Kennedy, who is returning from a short stay on the disabled list thanks to a strained groin.

This is, of course, tremendously disappointing, because it’ll mean that despite all of the furious roster moves we’ve seen over the last few weeks this is a club that will still have Kennedy and Juan Uribe and James Loney and Juan Rivera and Luis Cruz all on the roster at the same time. Beyond that – and I almost feel like I don’t have a whole lot more to offer on it, because I’m just as “WTF” as the rest of you – it would cap off a week of absolutely bizarre roster machinations.

On Monday, Tony Gwynn was DFA’d to bring up Sands. (Gwynn, it should be noted, will accept his trip to Albuquerque, as Stephen reports.) Sands started that night in right field against Drew Pomeranz, went 0-3 before being double-switched out in the seventh, and was never seen again for the rest of the series. So this was worth interrupting Sands’ hot streak and DFA’ing Gwynn… how, exactly?

The funny thing is, I didn’t even mind letting Gwynn go. I mentioned it even back on July 31, when we were trying to figure out who would get cut for Shane Victorino, that Gwynn no longer had a role on this team. Sure, he’s a plus defensive outfielder, but he is not a major league quality hitter, and “backup outfielder on a team with three set starting outfielders” isn’t a very large piece of the puzzle.

All I can think of is that they were planning to cut Gwynn all along – which, again, fine – and rather than wait until Kennedy returned to do it, they figured they might as well get the benefit of Sands for a few days first. That’s defensible logic in theory. Or at least it would have been, if Sands had been actually been allowed to play, particularly when the Rockies started lefty Jeff Francis last night. Juan Rivera went 0-4, now has one hit in his last 18 at-bats, and is not the solution to this or any other problem; it’s worth noting that his seasonal line now sits at .246/.282/.351, or worse than the .243/.305/.360 that got him DFA’d by Toronto last year.

Now, I’ll admit that if Sands isn’t going to play, I’d much rather him getting regular time in Albuquerque than riding the bench in Los Angeles. But what concerns me is that it’s hard not to look at this situation and not see signs of a larger problem. Ned Colletti refuses to free us of the scourge of Juan Uribe, and Don Mattingly responds by absolutely refusing to play him, with just one appearance as a defensive replacement in more than two weeks – and Mattingly is absolutely right to do so, even if it means playing the quickly-descending Cruz. Colletti cuts a popular if flawed player in Gwynn in order to get a potentially powerful bat in Sands up for a series with two lefty pitchers, and Mattingly barely plays him either, refusing to give up on the execrable Rivera. Are there signs that the front office and bench aren’t totally on the same page? I can’t say that I have any hard evidence to point to, but something smells weird here.

Perhaps worst of all, we’re talking about all of this rosterbation without confronting the main issue head-on, which is that Adam Kennedy is somehow a player who absolutely must be on the roster when he’s healthy, as though there’s no other possibility here. (I don’t want to hear about his “hot July”, as though 40 pre-injury plate appearances somehow carry more weight than months and years of ineptitude beforehand.) So now you’ve got two completely useless sides of a first base platoon, three backup infielders who range from “can’t hit” to “really can’t hit” to “will never get a chance to play again”, and I have absolutely no idea what to make of it all.

I am hopeful, at least, that seeing Gwynn & Bobby Abreu culled is the beginning of the new regime cutting bait on the bottom part of the roster. I suppose we can argue about what order these guys should have gone in, but if anything, it makes me realize how much more work remains. This roster is soft, and confusing roster choices and inexplicable dedication to far-over-the-hill veterans isn’t helping.

Dodgers DFA Tony Gwynn to Recall Jerry Sands, and That’s a Good Thing

Wow!

I am all but floored by the move, but thrilled about it nonetheless. Gwynn’s utility to the team ended the moment they picked up Shane Victorino (who could cover center if anything happened to Matt Kemp), but also when he continued to prove that he simply cannot hit at a major league level, having a year at the plate worse than his usual mediocre self.  With Victorino, Kemp, & Andre Ethier squarely set as the starting outfielders and Jerry Hairston, Sands, and several others able to spot in as needed, Gwynn’s role as a defensive replacement was tough to justify. What’s mostly shocking to me is that he was signed for 2013 as well and it’s rare for clubs to DFA guys like that; then again, I never liked giving him a two-year deal in the first place.

Sands, meanwhile, has been struggling much of the year in the minors but has been red-hot lately, leading the PCL “since the All-Star break with 9 HRs, .733 slugging% and 28 RBI (T-1st) in 23 games,” according to J.P. Hoornstra. The real question now is, what is his role? Will he really be given a chance to replace Juan Rivera & James Loney at first base every day? For both his sake and that of the team’s, I hope so.

If he is, that raises another question, which is why was it Gwynn that was jettisoned over Juan Uribe or Rivera. I still believe Uribe gets gone on Thursday when Adam Kennedy returns, so that might explain that, and in Gwynn or Rivera, your choice is between a plus defender who can’t hit and a poor defender who can sorta kinda not really hit. I suppose I’d rather have Rivera coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter than Gwynn, and if Sands fails again in the bigs, you’ll want to have more than just Loney as your first base option.

I’m very surprised by this, but I can’t really argue one word of complaint about it. Excited to see Sands back, and impressed that a backloaded two-year deal isn’t an impediment to roster improvement.

Matt Kemp Heads to DL, and That’s Not A Bad Thing

Following Monday’s 3-1 win over Arizona, Matt Kemp was placed on the disabled list thanks to soreness in his left hamstring, and as you can imagine, that’s leading to a lot of doom-and-gloom predictions for the surprising Dodgers around baseball. It’s not great, of course, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do: the Dodgers had been without Kemp for May anyway (.212/.341/.303), and this at least allows him to properly heal without rushing back and causing a long-term problem.

Jerry Sands is coming back up to take his place, and while his struggles this year have been well-documented, at least he’s been better lately, with three homers for Albuquerque this week. If anything, this is going to lead to some pretty interesting roster maneuvering for Don Mattingly, and I’m intrigued to see how he’ll handle it. He’s shown little inclination to use Scott Van Slyke this far, and now you’ve got Sands, a very similar player who had fallen behind Van Slyke, and Elian Herrera, who everyone knows little about.

Oh, and then there’s this

Gwynn will be the primary center fielder with Kemp on the shelf, which Mattingly doesn’t think will be more than 15 days. But Mattingly also wants to make sure Gwynn doesn’t get overused, and said he would use Andre Ethier in center field for “two or three games” with Kemp out.

I’ll place that under “I’ll believe it when I see it,” because, wow. Imagine a defensive alignment that features Bobby Abreu in right, Ethier in center, and let’s say Sands in right? Sands and Van Slyke are at least adequate at worst, but in general that might be the worst defensive outfield we’ve seen in years.

I doubt that happens too much, though, because if Gwynn’s great glove isn’t enough to overcome his lousy bat in left, it just might in center, and if Gwynn does get a day off, Herrera has experience there. Since Van Slyke has little experience at first, my guess is that we’ll see him – if we ever do – sharing time with Bobby Abreu in left, while Sands sees more time at first base than anywhere else.

And that’s not a bad thing, you know? Though I admit it’s hard to see Mattingly wanting to put in both young players at the same time, you could have both Abreu and James Loney out against tough lefties, and that immediately strengthens what had been shaping up to be a horrendous bench. (Herrera hits from both sides, increasing flexibility.)

We’ll miss Kemp, but I’m glad to see him get the time to heal properly, especially with the Dodgers enjoying such a cushion, and the spate of injuries suddenly gives Mattingly some fascinating new options. (And leaves Albuquerque with like, one outfielder.)

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.