Taking early stock of the Isotopes

While Mike is on vacation, he asked me to offer up some thoughts about the Albuquerque Isotopes and how what amounts to the Dodgers’ reserve team is shaping up as the season begins. The ‘Topes have only been home for a total of eight days so far this season — they begin their fourth road series of the year tonight at New Orleans (Marlins) — so this is all a very, very preliminary analysis of the 25 players I have observed.

Catchers Tim Federowicz and Josh Bard

FedEx is the man on the spot, the lone Isotope ranked by Baseball America in the Dodgers’ top 10 prospects. While plenty of fans are still smarting about last year’s trade that sent Trayvon Robinson packing and brought Fed and two pitchers to the organization, so far the young backstop is showing promise. “He’s been a lot better this year, he’s a lot more patient,” manager Lorenzo Bundy said of Fed’s hitting (.292/.365/.477). The swing-first, pull-everything mentality from last season is all but gone. Defensively he has looked sharp, making strong throws to second, blocking the plate well and doing a good job of working with the pitching staff. As for Bard, as the Isotopes’ oldest player (34, which makes him the only player on the team older than me … yikes), he has not played much, but he has played well, batting .385 (10-for-26). “Obviously, Josh with his experience … it’s like having an extra coach floating around here,” Bundy said. “He takes the leadership role. He knows his role on this club and he’s ready at any time.”

First baseman Jeff Baisley

Jeff Baisley has been a good presence in the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes.)

The veteran slugger has played well so far, batting .313/.390/.531 with three homers and a team-leading 16 RBI. Though primarily a third baseman with Salt Lake (Angels) last season, he has handled first base well defensively and it clearly has not had an impact on his hitting. Personality-wise, he keeps it serious on the field and keeps it loose during batting practice and in the clubhouse. Though he is viewed as a leader, Baisley said he has not had to overly assert himself so far. He certainly continues the recent tradition of high-character veterans the Dodgers like to have in Albuquerque.

Second baseman Alex Castellanos

Though currently on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring (return date unknown), the converted outfielder has been solid so far at the plate (.366/.477/.746), while overcoming the defensive obstacles that come with returning to his old position. The big issue for Castellanos offensively lies with his ability to overcome his aggressive, swing-first mentality. In the field, throwing has been the biggest challenge, but after a week spent with Dodgers special instructors Juan Castro and Jody Reed (laugh about their hitting, but both were good in the field), Castellanos seems to be adapting quickly. Just calm down on the early promotion possibilities; Castellanos himself said he needs close to a full season playing every day at second base before he is ready for MLB.

Shortstop Luis Cruz

The wily veteran has been on “Cruz Control” since he arrived, smacking the ball around (.328/.343/.500) while making some sharp plays in the field. He is another veteran who keeps it loose; his imitation of teammate Trent Oeltjen‘s Australian accent is a sight to behold.

Third baseman Josh Fields

Nicknamed “QB” for obvious reasons, the former Oklahoma State football standout has gotten off to a quiet start (.289/.375/.526) when compared to his teammates. Nonetheless, he has been a solid contributor. This is no sign of the dreaded “jaded ex-big-leaguer stuck at Triple-A” disease that sometimes afflicts players. Much like Cruz, he seemed to be riding high off his strong spring that nearly saw him make the big-league roster. He has been a positive influence, playing good defense with (no surprise here) a very strong arm.

Utility man Elian Herrera

The versatile Elian Herrera has been a sparkplug atop the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Bundy said the Isotopes’ turnaround, from a 2-6 road trip to their current record of 11-9, has been thanks in part to the ultra-versatile Herrera. A pure contact hitter (.340/.357/.566), he is Albuquerque’s fastest player and has done well out of the leadoff spot. Defensively, he has looked especially sharp at second base and third base, while also seeing time at shortstop and the outfield. He would strictly be a bench player at the next level, but with Jerry Hairston and Adam Kennedy not getting any younger, the Dodgers could do worse.

Reserve infielders Joe Becker and Lance Zawadzki

Becker is a favorite of Bundy’s especially with his ability to deliver big hits in the clutch, often as a pinch hitter. He is also a capable defender at second, though he lacks the arm for third and has not played much shortstop. Zawadzki joined the team from extended spring on the last day of the homestand. While I have yet to see him play for the Isotopes, he was a solid defender and a streaky hitter last season with Omaha (Royals).

Outfielders Scott Van Slyke, Jerry Sands, Trent Oeltjen, Matt Angle

Van Slyke, the Dodgers’ No. 21 prospect, has been the hitting star out of this group (.364/.437/.610). He has fared well defensively in both outfield corners, with a strong arm and more mobility than you would expect from someone who is listed at 6-5, 250. He made one start at first base during the homestand, looking a little out of practice there, so hold off on the “he can replace Loney” talk. Oh, and I will sit him down to talk about his life growing up around baseball with his father. His stories are hilarious. Sands’ struggles at the plate (.192/.310/.315) have been well-documented so far. Oeltjen has played all three outfield spots, serving more as a fourth outfielder than anything else. As such, his hitting (.250/.328/.350) has yet to get into a groove with such sporadic playing time. Angle has been the lost one of the bunch, looking all out of sorts at the plate (.146/.255/.268) and now finding himself on the DL with a strained hamstring.

Starting pitchers Michael Antonini, John Ely, Stephen Fife, Fernando Nieve, Mike Parisi

John Ely has pitched well at home, not so well on the road. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Before his call-up to the big leagues, Antonini made one start in Albuquerque he would like to forget (3.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 HR allowed). Like many young pitchers, the 26-year-old lefty learned the hard way you have to keep the ball down in Albuquerque if you want to have a prayer of succeeding here. He certainly throws a lot of strikes, but he left too many up in that game. Despite being back for his third season with the Isotopes, Ely has remained upbeat and continues to work hard. He has been a completely different pitcher at home (13 IP, 4 ER) than on the road (7.1 IP, 11 ER). Fife has just plain struggled wherever he has pitched this year (1-2, 9.92 ERA). The big righty is a finesse pitcher and so far the PCL is chewing him up. Nieve went from horrible at Omaha (1.2 IP, 11 H, 9 ER) to solid at home (6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER) to then getting ejected in the third inning of his third start for hitting a batter. It has been a very bizarre season for the former Astro and Met, who throws hard but does not strike a lot of people out (8 total in 10.1 IP). Parisi has been the most consistent and effective starter to date. It should come as no surprise, since there always seems to be one veteran who puts together a solid campaign in ABQ (e.g. Dana Eveland last year).

Right-handed relievers Josh Wall, Ramon Troncoso, Will Savage, Francisco Felix

Wall has looked sharp while sharing closing duties. He throws in the mid-90s and looks like another potentially solid addition to LA’s young bullpen down the line. There is still some wildness (4 walks in 8.1 IP) that needs to be smoothed out. Troncoso has looked like a man determined to get back to the big leagues (1.08 ERA in 8.1 IP), while Savage has been lights out (4-0, 2.41) in the long relief/spot starter role, keeping the ball down and utilizing his cutter, fastball and curveball to their fullest extent. Felix, well, somebody has to take it on the chin, and so far he is doing just that (10.13 ERA in 13.1 IP). As the Dodger bullpen fluctuates, his head would seem to be the first on the chopping block down here.

Left-handed relievers Brent Leach, Wil Ledezma, Derrick Loop, Scott Rice, Cole St. Clair

Rice has been the star of the southpaw collective, sharing the team lead with four saves. He is at his most effective not when he is getting strikeouts, but rather when is able to get hitters to try and pounce on strikes, causing them to ground out and pop up early in the count. Leach (0-1, 6.57) has alternated between looking good and taking it on the chin; personality-wise he has not changed from his year in Japan, remaining the same funny, witty southerner who graced the clubhouse in 2009-10. St. Clair has been similar to Leach in terms of pitching, looking good one outing and struggling to throw strikes the next. Poor Ledezma was walloped in his first two home appearances (10 runs total), but has since settled down and regained his confidence. Loop has yet to appear in a game in Albuquerque.

Overall

This is a better team than it looked after losing six of eight on the opening road trip. The Isotopes pulled off their first four-game sweep since 2009 when they took Iowa apart. As long as the pitching stays at least somewhat consistent, the lineup is more than capable of scoring enough runs. What looked like a pack of spot starters, middle relievers and bench players actually has some players with enough talent (Van Slyke, Castellanos, Federowicz, in particular) to help the Dodgers out in the future. Rice and Wall can be both be part of a big-league bullpen, as well. This team may lack the star power when Gordon, Sands (the good version) and Robinson were here last year, but it is still a fun bunch to watch.

As always, you can find all the ‘Topes news and notes you can handle here and you can now follow me on Twitter as @TopesWriter for quick updates, anecdotes, breaking news and even some play-by-play during home games.

— Chris Jackson

Juan Rivera’s Success Is Entirely Dependent on Dee Gordon, Mark Ellis, and Matt Kemp


When we look back on Juan Rivera‘s 2012, how are we going to define success? Will it be WAR? wOBA? The team’s win/loss record? For me, it might be as simple as “is he going to get through the season without being DFA’d”, since I’ve been notably down on the idea of expecting him to be some sort of offensive force based on the one good month he had in 2011.

Don Mattingly knows, and he told Mark Whicker all about it, as recounted by Steve Dilbeck:

“The guy we had at the end is the guy we are going to need,” Mattingly said. “But then we needAndre [Ethier] to be healthy, we need Juan to be a run producer, more of a 80-90 RBI guy. We’re going to need all that for us to be in it.”

At first I thought: “He’s actually expecting Juan Uribe to hit up to 90 runs batted in?” It’s never happened in his 11-year career.

But recognizing that Mattingly might be manager-like optimistic but is also rational, I then realized he was talking about Juan Rivera.

Now, Rivera has never had 90 RBIs in a single season, either. His best two marks were  85 in 2006 and 88 in 2009, both for the Angels.

Of course, we know better than that, right? If Rivera ends up with 80-90 RBI, that’s not going to tell us anything about how productive he was this season. What that would do is tell us a whole lot about how productive the guys hitting directly ahead of him – likely to be Dee Gordon, Mark Ellis, Matt Kemp, and (sometimes) Andre Ethier – are, because that’s all RBI really is. It’s a measure of how often your teammates hook you up with runners to drive in, and little more.

Need some examples? In 1990, Joe Carter was 30 years old and playing his only season in San Diego. He hit an abysmal .232/.290/.391, good for an 85 OPS+. He was worth -1.4 rWAR. On both offense and defense, he was actively hurting the Padres for most of the season. Yet since he was hitting cleanup behind Bip Roberts (.375 OBP) and two Hall of Famers in Roberto Alomar (.340 OBP) & Tony Gwynn (.357 OBP) he collected 115 RBI, which even garnered him some downballot MVP support, despite doing little to put wins on the board.

Hell, Rivera has seen this up close. As a member of the 2004 Montreal Expos, he watched the execrable Tony Batista hit .241/.272/.455, good for a mere 80 OPS+ and 0.0 rWAR. Though Batista did hit 32 homers, he also had the pleasure of spending most of the year hitting behind Brad Wilkerson (.374 OBP) and Jose Vidro (.367 OBP). Despite the power numbers, Batista didn’t play in the bigs in 2005 and was out of baseball at 33 after being released by the Twins and Nationals. Rivera, on the other hand, had a very nice .304/.364/.465 line in the last season of baseball in Quebec, but had only 49 RBI because he spent his season batting behind… wait for it… Tony Batista.

So yeah, I hope Rivera gets his 90 RBI too. But that’s not because it’ll mean a damn thing about how Rivera is doing, it’s because if he does, that means Gordon & Ellis are doing their job and getting on base. If they do, and Kemp, Ethier, & Rivera have men on to drive in, this offense could actually show some life. If they don’t, we’re going to be seeing a lot of 2-1 losses, and Juan Rivera’s RBI total is going to be the least of our problems.

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Speaking of Rivera, he’s gone one less competitor for playing time, since Jerry Sands was officially sent to the minor-league camp today. This was a move we’d been expecting for some time, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Sands had been struggling so badly in camp that I can’t even really argue with this, especially since Sands himself has said that he’s had trouble keeping his rebuilt swing consistent. He’ll go to Triple-A, hopefully mash for a while, and then return at some point in May when Rivera gets hurt (or doesn’t have enough RBI, I suppose).

That means we’re down to Josh Fields, Justin Sellers, Trent Oeltjen, Cory Sullivan, and Luis Cruz for that final spot. (Fields started in place of Juan Uribe at third base today because of, well, this.) I refuse to believe that Cruz has a prayer, and Oeltjen & Sullivan seem unlikely as well. It really comes down to Fields or Sellers, and that probably depends on whether the club thinks that Jerry Hairston‘s throwing problems are behind him. I think the team would probably prefer to hang onto Fields, though Sellers has the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster.

In other roster news, Blake Hawksworth was moved to the 60-day DL to make room on the 40-man roster for Jamey Wright. Hawksworth has been having difficulty in his recovery from elbow surgery and hasn’t even begun throwing yet, so it’ll be quite some time before we see him back in Los Angeles.

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Don’t forget that this is a big, big week for the ownership process, with Frank McCourt due to name his selection by Sunday. MLB is currently conducting a call to approve the three remaining groups, with each expected to pass as little more than a formality. Once they do, McCourt will begin his selection process tomorrow, and we could really learn the winner at any point after that. This ESPN report notes that each of the bids (between $1.4b and $1.6b) do include the parking lots, which is fantastic, though note that just because they’re asking for them does not mean McCourt is obligated to include them.

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Last, but certainly not least, congratulations to Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA for getting approved to have a full media credential this year. Not only is it richly deserved on his part, but it’s also good to see the Dodgers being so forward-thinking as to even consider giving a blogger that sort of access.

The Dodgers May Need to Rework That Bench Group

Similar to the pitching staff, we’ve long known the identity of the bench to start the season, save for a tepid battle for the final spot. Matt Treanor will be the backup catcher, Adam Kennedy will see time at three of the four infield positions, Tony Gwynn is your main backup outfielder, and Jerry Hairston will play all over. That last spot is probably going to go to Jerry Sands, but there’s some possibility that he’ll start the year in the minors with Justin Sellers, Josh Fields, or someone else sneaking in the door. (It won’t, we can all agree, be a 13th pitcher.)

We haven’t exactly been thrilled with that prospect so far, because despite Gwynn’s excellent glove and Hairston’s positional flexibility, it’s a bench that offers little in the way of offensive punch – especially if Sands doesn’t make the club. Remember how the game always seemed to find Dioner Navarro in the bottom of the 9th last year? If you thought that was fun, just wait until we’re watching Treanor & Kennedy meekly ending games in big spots.

Lackluster though that may seem, it’s how the roster has been set up, so we haven’t really spent a whole lot of time discussing it, other than whether Sands would really hold on to that final spot. Steve Dilbeck writes today that Sands hasn’t been impressive so far, and while it’s early, it’s true. But whether or not Sands should make the team or not isn’t the most immediate issue; it’s the apparent lack of depth the Dodgers are facing at shortstop.

You see, Hairston made two errors playing shortstop today, as the Dodgers fell to Colorado 6-2. Now, I hardly need to remind you of the usual caveats about how one game – or even one week – in spring training usually doesn’t mean that much, and that’s still true. But with Juan Uribe expected to play third base exclusively, that leaves only Hairston, a soon-to-be 36-year-old who played in exactly one game at shortstop last year, for depth. While Dee Gordon (who made an error of his own today) is expected to play every day, questions about his durability remain, so it’s pretty easy to make the case that Sellers should make the club and Sands should head to ABQ, especially with the possibility that Scott Van Slyke & Alex Castellanos could be shifting around down there, as Christopher Jackson writes today.

Maybe it really is that simple, to keep Sellers & let Sands mash for a while in Triple-A. It probably will be. But that doesn’t mean it should be, because that would create something of a ripple effect. If you keep Sellers, he immediately becomes your top backup at shortstop and a more than capable defender behind Mark Ellis at second. Hairston becomes your primary backup at third base behind Uribe, where he played nearly everyday for Milwaukee last year, is a third option at second base, and can help Gwynn spot for Juan Rivera and Andre Ethier in the corners.

Considering that Rivera can shift to first on the few days that James Loney will get off, your defensive flexibility is pretty much spoken for, and the last spot should really be about offense. Maybe that’s Sands. Maybe that’s Fields, who has been impressive early in camp, and at least has a history of crushing Triple-A pitching aside from the 23 homers he put up for the White Sox in 2007. But really, it makes me wonder yet again, what exactly is Adam Kennedy‘s role here? It’s not for his bat, as I detailed in this ridiculous timeline that I’m all too eager to break out yet again:

Feb. 5, 2010: Coming off a decent 2009 with Oakland, signs a $1.25m guaranteed contract for 2010 with Washington.

2010: Hits just .249/.327/.327 for Washington, one of the worst years of his career.

Nov. 3, 2010: Nationals decline Kennedy’s $2m 2011 option.

Jan. 10, 2011: Mariners sign Kennedy to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training; he makes the roster when the Mariners decide Dustin Ackley needs more seasoning.

Jan 27, 2011: Arrested in Newport Beach for suspicion of DUI.

2011: Hits .234/.277/.355 for Seattle, a wOBA 25 points lower than his underwhelming 2010.

Nov. 30, 2011: After not being able to find a guaranteed contract in 2011 and having a horrible season… receives a guaranteed deal from the Dodgers.

It’s not for his glove, because as outlined in the scenario above, second and third base would be more than covered without him. I imagine the argument would be “because he’s lefty”, but who cares what side a guy swings from when he can’t hit at all? I’d much rather take my chances with Fields (or Sands, or Trent Oeltjen, or whomever) along with Sellers while simultaneously improving the defensive depth and offensive potential. Now I know that Kennedy has a guaranteed contract, so this scenario is never going to happen. Still, what’s more important – the $850k already wasted on him, or building the best bench you can?

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Ownership update, from Mike Ozanian of Forbes: Alan Casden is out, and Magic Johnson’s group has the current high bid at $1.6b. While that’s the highest bid thus far, it’s not that simple for two reasons. First, Steven Cohen’s bid, while only $1.4b, apparently has the highest percentage of straight cash involved, and the bidders have until Friday to rework their bids and submit final numbers. Expect the numbers to increase; sadly, all of the bids include provisions to lease the parking lots from Frank McCourt.

By the way: I’m not at all convinced this is going to go as smoothly as we hope. From Bill Shaikin’s piece on Casden:

McCourt has told people familiar with the sale process that he might introduce new bidders in the coming week. MLB has completed an expedited investigation of the current bidders and would probably ask the mediator to reject any new bidders at this late date, the people said.

McCourt has the ability to appeal any perceived wrongdoing on MLB’s part to a court-appointed mediator. Since when he has passed up the opportunity to litigate?

Update: Per Shaikin, MLB has also cut the Gold/Disney group and the Barrack/Hindery group. That makes your final four bidders Magic/Kasten, Cohen, Kroenke… and the Heisley/Ressler group, which I suppose we’re going to have to start paying more attention to.

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Big week for Dodger literature, it seems. A few days ago we learned about a new Dodger coffee table book, “Dodgers: From Coast to Coast”, and now Paul Haddad is publishing “A Fan’s History of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Glory Years (1977-1981)”. The book contains transcripts of classic calls from Vin Scully, Jerry Doggett, and Ross Porter – sounds like it’s worth checking out.

Differing Opinions On Jerry Sands in 2012


There’s been a lot of Jerry Sands talk around the internet in the last week, and while Sands hasn’t done anything particularly noteworthy, I suppose that’s an expected side effect of there being absolutely zero on-field Dodger news for at least another week. (Off-field, on the other hand…)

Last week, when I looked at Sands’ 2011 in review, I noted that he was a changed player in his return stint as a Dodger, which is hardly out of the ordinary. Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw each went back to the farm after making their initial debuts, and like Sands, Dee Gordon looked much more comfortable his second time around this year. (I also pointed out how terrifying his AAA home/road splits were and prayed that he could avoid the dreaded ABQ effect.)

ESPN’s Keith Law then fielded a question about Sands in his weekly chat last Thursday:

Robbie (Silver Spring, MD)
What’s a reasonable expectation from Jerry Sands next year? .260/.330/.430 sound about right?

Klaw
Maybe lower OBP, more SLG, with below-average defense. That’s not an everyday player.

Law’s outlook seems pessimistic, though I will admit that Law is someone I respect greatly and one of the rare ESPN analysts who manages to have a rational, informed viewpoint on the game and prospects in particular. Law seems to be ballparking .260/.320/.440 (ish) for Sands, and I’d like to think that he can do better – at least in the OBP department.

Today, Chad Moriyama digs deeper into the changes Sands made while back in ABQ, comparing swing mechanics from his two stints with the Dodgers, and concluding that Sands made noticable improvements in holding his hands higher, opening up his stance, and distributing his weight. It’s well worth a click to read the entire piece and see the swing comparisons, but here’s Chad’s takeaway:

I’m not at all familiar with whoever reconstructed the swing of Jerry Sands, but in my opinion, whoever did it knew exactly what they were doing and should take credit for it.

While I listed the advantages of the adjustments above, the changes themselves are not what impressed me, but rather it was what they fixed that was important.

I think what’s most important when making adjustments to the swing of a professional player is not trying to fit everybody’s swing into an ideal, but rather sculpting what they already have and making it efficient.

From what I’ve seen, that’s exactly what these changes do, as they ask Sands to learn to layoff fastballs up and then both allow him to expand on a strength (down) and create a solution for weaknesses (in, breaking balls).

To say I’m impressed by the changes that have taken place is an understatement.

That’s high praise. So what should we expect from Sands next year? I’ve never thought he’d be a star, but I do tend to agree with Chad, because the Sands we saw in September was noticably different than the one we saw in May. That said, we should know better to put too much stock into three weeks of play against expanded roster opponents, and I don’t love that Law doesn’t like him. (Roberto at Vin Scully is My Homeboy gets in on the Sands-mania with video of him playing winter ball in the Dominican, so you can get an even more recent look at his swing.)

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Sands really has to be ready. This is a team that’s probably going to be counting on James Loney again and doesn’t really have a left field solution, unless you’re really excited about bringing back Juan Rivera and Tony Gwynn. He doesn’t need to hit 30 homers – and he won’t – but is it unreasonable to ask for a .340 OBP, 15 homers, plenty of doubles, and average defense in left field? I’d like to think that it isn’t too much to ask, and for the Dodgers’ sake, it better not be.

MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Left Field

Ah, left field: where hope goes to die. No, really; over the last ten seasons (2002-2011), the Dodgers have had 47 different players make an appearance in left field, and it’s not like they were all token appearances – 34 of the 47 were out there at least ten times. Who can forget the 48 games and .661 OPS from Jason Grabowski in 2004-05? The continuing stream of busted veterans like Luis Gonzalez, Ricky Ledee, and Jose Cruz conspiring to keep superior young players out of the lineup in 2006-07? And dear lord, Garret Anderson and Scott Podsednik on the same roster (though, thankfully, not at the same time) last year? With the obvious exception of Manny Ramirez‘ monster performance in 2008 and parts of 2009, the only Dodger left fielder with any meaningful playing time to put up an OPS of even .800 (which isn’t exactly a top mark from a power position) over the last decade was Andre Ethier, who just barely topped the minimum at .803 while playing there for much of the first three years of his career.

With Manny finally gone after 2010, left field was an obvious problem spot all winter, one that never quite got filled. Jay Gibbons and Tony Gwynn arrived early, later joined by Marcus Thames to form the immortal “JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr.” trio that was absolutely never going to work – and, you know, didn’t – but much of the winter was marked by the Dodgers trying and failing to bring in others. Bill Hall was considered, but he went to Houston to play second base. (Fortunately for the Dodgers, as it turned out). Matt Diaz was sought, though he went to Pittsburgh. Brothers Scott Hairston and Jerry Hairston both appeared in rumors; neither arrived. With no upgrades available, the club eventually resigned themselves to wishing for the best from the Gwybbons Jr. trio, as we entertained ourselves by wondering if the team would break the record for most left fielders in a season while waiting for the day Trayvon Robinson would come save us. This, of course, would not do, as Dodger left fielders finished 23rd in MLB in OPS at .680, and Robinson, as you might have heard, was dealt to Seattle.

But remember, it could have been worse: in November, Ned Colletti actually picked up the team half of Podsednik’s mutual option, an offer that Podsednik foolishly (and disastrously) turned down in hopes of a bigger payday elsewhere. Podsednik ended up being injured for much of the year in AAA for Toronto and Philadelphia, and didn’t play a single MLB game. He was nearly the starting left fielder for the Dodgers. Good lord. Let’s get on with this hot mess.

(If you’re looking for Juan Rivera, he’ll appear in right field, even though he started more games as a left fielder, just to keep the left field pit of hell a little more manageable.)

Tony Gwynn (C)
.256/.308/.353 .660 2hr 22sb 1.1 WAR

Tony Gwynn might just be the blandest player to think about on the Dodgers. When Junior signed, we expected great fielding, some contribution on the basepaths, and just about nothing at the plate. And… well, that’s exactly what happened. Feel the excitement!

I wasn’t really sold on his signing – I wasn’t sure he was even better than Xavier Paul, though mostly I really had wanted a righty outfield bat – but after a solid spring, we were doing our best to talk ourselves into him:

It says a lot about the construction of this team that I just wrote about 900 words on why Tony Gwynn may be the best choice they’ve got, but it just might be true. The way things are currently configured, nothing could work out better for this team than for Gwynn to keep up his hot spring and grab the job.

He didn’t quite take over in the early going, sharing time with Marcus Thames and others, and hit a Gwynn-esque .264/.291/.377 through April, though he did pitch in with a game-saving catch. Then April turned into May, and… oh, that’s gonna leave a mark.

Split G GS PA H RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
May 26 4 32 2 1 1 2 7 .067 .125 .100 .225

Gwynn’s May was so bad that by the end of of the month, when we were wondering who might get DFA’d to make room for a returning Thames, the only reason it seemed worthwhile to keep Gwynn around was the lack of another option to help Matt Kemp out in center field. Gwynn survived the purge, and managed to pick up two hits in his first game of June despite not entering the game until the 8th inning. That was the start of a resurgence, because over June and July Gwynn picked up 40 hits, for a combined line of .305/.377/.389. That still shows absolutely no power whatsoever, but it doesn’t matter, because a player who can get on base at that rate along with good baserunning and excellent defense is quite valuable.

Of course, Gwynn followed up his nice stretch with a .245/.278/.367 run over August and September, which sounds about right from him. Overall, his .308 OBP is basically the same as his .304 mark with the Padres in 2010, but very troubling is the fact that his walk rate dropped from 10.6% and 12.1% the previous two years to just 6.8% with the Dodgers.

So what next? His plate performance is lousy, though his defense is rated excellent by most metrics and that absolutely passes the sniff test. Considering his utility on the bases, he’s a useful enough piece, and he wants to return. If I was running the team, I’d probably look to upgrade, but assuming he doesn’t get much more than ~$1m or so if he makes it to arbitration, that seems fair enough.

Jerry Sands (B-)
.253/.338/.389 .727 4hr 0.0 WAR

When camp started, we were all intrigued by the 2010 performance of Jerry Sands in the minors, and we hoped that if all went well, we might be lucky enough to see him in the bigs by September. By March 7, Sands was so impressive that I was creating polls to see how long people thought the Dodgers could really keep him down, especially considering the lack of production at his two primary positions, first base and left field. Even then, the majority of people figured “July or later”, so it was no surprise when he was sent back to minor league camp on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sands started off his AAA season by homering in each of his first four games, and as the Dodger offense struggled with injury and ineffectiveness, they shocked us all by recalled him on April 17, far sooner than anyone expected. The initial returns were promising, with fans giving standing ovations for his debut, and he repaid them with doubles in each of his first two games and in five of his first nine, as the Dodgers – to their credit – committed to the experiment, playing him nearly every day.

But despite the doubles, the excitement, and the promised plate discipline, something was missing. Sands wasn’t quite the savior we’d been looking for. There were some nice moments, of course, including his first homer on May 21 and a grand slam on May 24 in Rubby De La Rosa‘s debut, but they were few and far between. By the end of May, I was open to the idea that it should be Sands who went back down when Marcus Thames returned. Sands survived, with Jay Gibbons surprisingly getting the axe on the day that Dee Gordon arrived, but just over a week later it was Sands’ turn:

Numbers aren’t everything, of course. When Sands arrived, we heard a great deal about his maturity, ability to make adjustments, and command of the strike zone. From this vantage point, all of what we’ve heard has been true and then some. Before his recent slump, he’d shown an increased ability to pull the ball, rather than always going the other way, and even when the power wasn’t there he was seeing a lot of pitches and getting on base.

By sending him back down now, you hope that he goes down knowing he can play on this level, with a few adjustments. This is where the maturity comes into play; some rookies can’t handle a demotion well, but Sands sounds like the type who can. Ideally, he goes back down to ABQ, mashes Triple-A pitching for a while to get his confidence back up (also important, as you don’t want a string of oh-fers in the bigs to get him down), and then we’ll see back up later in the summer. I’d say “when rosters expand on Sept. 1″, but I think we all know that injuries will necessitate a recall sooner.

Sands is a big part of this team’s future, and it’s in his best interest to go back down and get his confidence back up. He’s not helping the team right now, and he’s not helping himself. He’ll be back, and he’ll be better for the experience.

That’s exactly what happened, because much like Gordon, the Sands we saw the second time around was far different from our initial look. When Sands was sent down, he was hitting .200/.294/.328 in 144 plate appearances; after his return on September 8 (with the arrival of Rivera and the resurgence of James Loney, he stayed down longer than I would have guessed), he hit .342/.415/.493, playing mostly right field with Andre Ethier injured, including a 14-game hitting streak and hits in 16 of 18 games. He ended up finishing fifth on the club in doubles, despite having just 227 plate appearances; the hot streak all but guaranteed himself a spot on next year’s club, though it remains to be seen what position he’ll play.

If there is one big red flag about Sands, it’s that his home/road splits with the Isotopes were beyond atrocious. Courtesy of Andrew Grant’s Minor League Central, we can see that he hit .347/.406/.709 with 18 homers at home, and just .186/.258/.401 with 9 homers on the road. I’m always driving the “ABQ stats mean little without checking the splits” train, so I can’t in good conscience tell you to completely ignore that here. However, when we talk about ABQ-inflated stats, we’re usually talking about a player who is either a semi-prospect with little to point to before reaching ABQ (think Justin Sellers), or an older Quad-A fringe type who could never stick in the bigs but who was lucky enough to land in the perfect place to pad his stats (like Trent Oeltjen recently, or Dee Brown or Hector Luna in previous years.) As a young player who comes with quality scouting reports, a solid track record in the minors before landing in New Mexico, and an excellent finish to his season in the bigs, Sands has a lot more going for him than the other names mentioned, so his splits aren’t cause to write him off – just something to note.

Marcus Thames (F)
.197/.243/.333 .576 2hr -0.7 WAR

Despite the fact that it didn’t even come close to working out, giving Marcus Thames a shot as a LF/1B bench bat wasn’t the worst idea in the world at the time:

So if you’ve come here looking to see if I hate the idea of Thames, then no, I don’t. I hate that this is the best the Dodgers are going to be able to do; I hate that with every passing day the idea that much is riding on Tony Gwynn hitting enough to win the CF job. I think there’s good arguments to be made for preferring Hairston or Milledge, yet I can’t complain too much about getting a guy who has an .820 OPS and 94 homers over the last five years (assuming the money is small).

Really, this is going to be determined by Thames’ usage. If he’s a lefty-killing specialist who is 80% off the bench and 20% in left field, that’s useful enough. If he’s penciled in to a strict platoon role where he gets a goodly amount of playing time in the field, that’s an enormous problem. Thames is one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, and as tenuous as the idea of a Jay Gibbons / Matt Kemp / Andre Ethier outfield might be, putting Thames in LF alongside Kemp and Ethier would be atrocious, to the point that it might be the worst fielding trio in the game. This is going to be another test for Don Mattingly, and we’ll have to see how he handles that.

We never found out. Thames was as poor as advertised in the field, but he was also surprisingly bad at the plate, albeit in just 70 plate appearances. I think some of that might be chalked up to his usage, because after starting five of his first eight games in left field, he was essentially reduced to pinch-hitting until he was injured in early May. For a player used to getting three and four at-bats per game as a designated hitter in the American League, the transition to pinch-hitting was a difficult one.

Thames landed on the disabled list on May 3 after injuring his left thigh and missed slightly more than a month. When he returned, Mattingly attempted to get him back in the mix by giving him eight starts in left field in June, but it didn’t work; Thames failed to hit and missed several more games with a calf strain. He pinch-hit twice in July and was finally DFA’d in favor of Juan Rivera over the All-Star break, eventually returning to the Yankees on a minor-league deal.

Like so many other Dodgers in 2011, Thames couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t do much to justify his existence when he was. Not exactly a memorable tenure from a short-term Dodger.

Jay Gibbons (D-)
.255/.323/.345 .668 1hr -0.5 WAR

Gibbons, as you probably remember, was a nice story at the end of 2010. As much as that made for some fun puff piece stories in the press, I was a bit concerned about what to really expect from him going into 2011:

You all know his story by now, as he went from “reasonably successful Oriole” in the early and middle part of the decade, to “blackballed Mitchell Report name who was largely out of baseball” in 2008-09, to “heartwarming success story for his hometown team” in 2010. Though he was certainly a nice boost for the team last year, I’ve always felt that his performance got a little more hype than it probably deserved. Coming on the heels of the Garret Anderson debacle, the bar was set pretty low, and Gibbons made a great first impression – he homered in his first start and put up a 1.102 OPS over his first 47 PA back in the bigs. That’s all well and good, except beyond his own defensive issues, 47 PA is hardly a large sample size, he ended the season in a 6-32 slide, and we’ve learned several times that people put far too much stock into first impressions. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been saying the exact same thing about Rod Barajas for months.

This isn’t to bash Gibbons, who made for a nice story in the dog days of a lost season. It’s just to point out that despite all the accolades, he’s still a 34-year-old who put up a .313 OBP in 80 PA, and can’t possibly be expected to sustain a .507 SLG. While all the stories read that he hadn’t played in MLB since 2007, it actually goes beyond that; due to injuries, he didn’t even get into 100 games in either 2006 or 2007.

I think I nailed the trepidation there pretty well, and Gibbons did little to change that in 62 plate appearances in May and early June. That said, while i don’t think he was ever likely to produce, you do have to feel bad for him in how it went down. Gibbons returned early from winter ball complaining of vision problems, and started the season on the disabled list with the same issue. When he returned in May, he made it to early June before getting a somewhat surprising DFA which landed him back in Albuquerque, where he underwent another eye surgery in hopes of restoring his vision.

On the season for the Isotopes, he hit an Albuquerque-fueled .305/.407/.463, which is nice, and if we’ve learned anything about Gibbons it’s that you can’t count him out. But he’ll be 35 next spring, didn’t get a September call-up, is a poor defender, and in 2012 it’ll have been nearly six years since he was last an effective big leaguer for more than a few weeks. If he wants a job in AAA I’m sure he can have one somewhere, but I wouldn’t expect to see him back with the Dodgers again, especially since he elected to become a free agent in early October.

Xaver Paul (inc.)
.273/.273/.273 .545 0hr -0.1 WAR

I don’t use this photo in Paul’s card to make fun of him, but mostly because it was one of the few photos of him playing for the Dodgers this year I could actually find.

That’ll happen when you get just 11 plate appearances before being shipped off to the place where all mediocre Dodgers go to die: Pittsburgh. (Here’s looking at you, Delwyn Young & Andy LaRoche.)

Paul had long been one of my favorites, but he never really seemed to get the chance he deserved based on his minor-league track record and strong throwing arm. It’s not that he ever looked like a future star or even more than a fourth outfielder – I can’t even say he did much in Pittsburgh in his first crack at semi-regular playing time – but the simple fact that he kept getting swept aside for over-the-hill veterans like Garret Anderson really burned me.

So long, Xavier. We’ll always have you as the answer to the trivia question, “who was DFA’d to get Jerry Sands on the roster?”

Jamie Hoffmann (inc.)
.000/.000/.000 .000 0hr -0.2 WAR

Hoffmann had four plate appearances over two April games, so obviously there’s not a lot of his MLB season to analyze. The greater question here is, who did he piss off? Hoffmann hit .297/.356/.497 in AAA this year, while backing up his reputation as an excellent defensive outfielder by breaking a 53-year-old PCL record for consecutive errorless games. While the standard ABQ disclaimers apply (dig that 200+ split in home/road OPS), you don’t hit 22 homers completely by accident, yet on a team that carried both Eugenio Velez and Trent Oeltjen for months, Hoffman didn’t warrant even a token September recall. That can’t bode well for his future with the team, though I still don’t see why he couldn’t be a useful backup.

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Next! It’s center field! You may know the guy who plays there! I hear he’s sorta good!