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.
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 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?
<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.
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.
Next up! Alex Castellanos!