When you sit down and think about it, the Dodgers head into 2013 with one of the odder outfield alignments in recent history. In theory, it could be wonderful; if Carl Crawford can overcome both Tommy John surgery and two atrocious years in Boston, if Matt Kemp can stay a lot healthier than he did this year, and if Andre Ethier can avoid his usual trip to the DL and/or giant slump, this could potentially be one of the best groups in the game. (And if you’d been told in 2009 that you’d get to watch an outfield of Crawford / Kemp / Ethier, you’d probably keel over from sheer joy.)
But wait, there’s more. With an overstuffed infield, Jerry Hairston may be viewed mainly as an outfielder, and of course the positive initial reports on Yasiel Puig make us all anxious to see what he can do. (He will be in major league camp in spring, but his limited experience plus the fact that he missed the AFL with an elbow infection make me all but certain he’ll spend most of the year in the minors, though a late-season appearance isn’t out of the question.) Then there’s Tony Gwynn, signed for 2013 (though not currently on the 40-man roster) and 40-man outfielders Alex Castellanos & Scott Van Slyke, who each received their first taste of major league experience in 2012.
And yet… the Dodgers may still need an outfielder this winter. It seems odd to say, given how deep the group may be, but there’s obvious concerns. Crawford’s goal is to be ready for Opening Day, and he may yet do so. But it’s also just as likely that he needs a few weeks into the season to return, and then it’s anyone’s guess as to whether we’ll see the Crawford that earned that giant contract or the one who has massively underperformed it so far. Even if he is back to form, he’s never been able to hit lefties, with a career mark of .263/.309/.379. That’s an obvious problem for Ethier too, one which Don Mattingly finally seemed to acknowledge in 2012, and that’s why you arguably need two righty outfielders; Hairston alone may not be enough. (While no such concerns exist for Kemp, his shoulder procedure wasn’t exactly trivial, so there’s concern there too.)
So this puts the Dodgers in an interesting position. With three highly-paid outfielders and Puig on the way, they’re clearly not in the market for a big-ticket, long-term Josh Hamilton / Michael Bourn type. They need someone who fits the following narrow conditions:
1) Can play for a few weeks at a time if needed without embarrassing himself
2) Is willing to sign a one-year deal, perhaps two (or one with an option) at most
3) Is a righty hitter and does well against lefty pitching
4) Understands that if everything goes right, he won’t be starting every day
It’s that last part which makes things difficult. If not for that, a player like Torii Hunter would be a perfect fit, given that he is a righty who can play all three spots, prefers to stay in Los Angeles, won’t expect a long-term deal at his age, and may not find room in a crowded Anaheim outfield. But coming off a very good year, would he really accept a deal that may have him out of the starting lineup by May? It’s hard to think so, and if so, he might just prefer to stay with the Angels. Now that I think about it, Shane Victorino would fit that role as well, despite how much we all dislike him, but it won’t matter because he’s clearly looking for an everyday job in 2013. You could say the same about Cody Ross, and Melky Cabrera or even Josh Willingham, who is rumored to be on the trading block. A player who wants to be the unquestioned starter isn’t going to fit here.
So it puts you in something of a tough spot, needing to find a player who fits the first three conditions and is good enough to make giving him a roster spot worthwhile, yet is not so good that the potential of not starting every day isn’t a deal-breaker. As you might expect, that’s going to lead to a collection of players who are all flawed in some way. Some potential options, with 2013 age in parentheses…
Jonny Gomes (32)
When I think “lefty masher”, I think Jonny Gomes. It’s just what he does, with huge platoon splits both in 2012 with Oakland (.974/.715) and over his career, dating back to 2003 with the Devil Rays (.894/.732). Gomes has hit 14 or more homers in seven of the last eight seasons, and he’s coming off the best year of his career with the magical A’s, putting up a .376 wOBA. The downside, of course, is that Gomes is a terrible fielder, and the A’s reacted accordingly, because of the 99 games he got into this year, only 28 were outfield starts, mostly in left field. That’s a concern for a National League team which won’t have the DH to stash him out – though it should be noted that with the new 15/15 AL/NL split, the Dodgers will need to fill the DH spot more than they’ve ever had to before – though it didn’t stop Gomes from playing in the NL with Cincinnati & Washington from 2009-11.
That lack of defensive ability is in large part what keeps Gomes affordable, making $1.75m with Cincinnati in 2011 and just $1m with the A’s last year. To be honest, I don’t think his poor fielding is as big of a problem with the Dodgers as it might be elsewhere. (Besides, we all lived through Bobby Abreu, didn’t we?) If Crawford isn’t ready to start the season, someone like Gwynn or Elian Herrera might stick on the roster and be available to take over for defense in late innings with a lead, in addition to Hairston. If Crawford is available, then he can certainly come in to games where Gomes has started against a lefty. When playing against AL teams, he’s an obvious designated hitter, and it’s not like Ethier doesn’t need support against lefties too.
It sounds like Gomes would like to return to Oakland, though that’s hardly the same thing as having it actually happen. The more I think about this, the more I like it.
Scott Hairston (33)
Whenever this topic comes up, Scott Hairston‘s name always seems to be mentioned. On the surface, a .299 OBP last year (not far off his .302 career mark) is far from appealing, though he did counterbalance that somewhat with a .504 SLG and 20 homers in his second season as a Met. Like Gomes, Hairston has a huge platoon split (.867/.739 this year, .825/.704 career), but unlike Gomes he brings some defensive utility, starting 86 games across all three outfield spots this year. He’s generally thought of as being average in left and slightly below in center & right, but it’s nice to have someone who can at least spot for Kemp now and then in center if needed, which at least alleviates the need for Gwynn.
Then, of course, there’s the obvious appeal of playing with his brother Jerry, which they did previously in 2010 with the Padres. Hairston has signed two $1.1m one-year deals with the Mets for each of the last two seasons, and it’s unlikely he’d be in line for a larger deal than that now. He’s not quite the lefty-basher Gomes is, but he’s much more usable in the field, so the choice between the two is what exact flavor of outfielder you’re looking for.
Reed Johnson (36)
We’ve been there and done that with Johnson, who hit .262 in 102 games with the 2010 Dodgers. Johnson went back to Chicago in 2011 and split last year between the Cubs & Braves, putting up a .798/.654 platoon split in 2012. (It’s .828/.703 for his career.) He saw time at all three outfield spots, but like Hairston was only graded as above-average in left. You can read about how we felt about Johnson’s time in Los Angeles here, but in retrospect the problem was largely that Joe Torre couldn’t manage to keep him as a platoon outfielder, giving him just as many plate appearances against righties as lefties. Johnson is likely to come cheap – perhaps even a minor-league deal – and wouldn’t be a terrible piece. He’s just not going to provide nearly as much offense as Gomes or Hairston, and somehow I doubt the difference between ~$500k and ~$1.5m is going to make the decision for this team.
Alex Castellanos (26)
What about staying internal? Castellanos tore up the PCL last season, impressively becoming one of the few guys there who actually hit better away from Albuquerque. Oddly, he’s shown something of a reverse split over the last two seasons (.961 vs LHP, .987 vs RHP) though it’s hard to say if that would continue in the majors. The main problem here is probably the continued uncertainty about his position. Castellanos spent most of the year in Triple-A trying to convert to second base before somewhat suddenly shifting to third base in August. In his limited time with the Dodgers, he exclusively played left & right field. To be honest, I’m not sure what the Dodgers have in store for him in 2013, though it would benefit his major league future greatly if he can make it work in the infield. I am intrigued by his bat, though I admit I don’t value him so highly that I’d be torn up about it if he was playing once or twice a week in the bigs rather than every day in Triple-A. It probably doesn’t matter; I doubt the Dodgers would give this role to him on Opening Day.
Of these options – and I’m just looking at free agent choices, though I suppose a trade could be made – Gomes is the clear favorite for me. Then again, the team could just decide that between Hairston, Gwynn, Van Slyke, & Castellanos, they have all the depth they need.
Who do you prefer? Are there other options? Let’s hear it.