How Many Dodger Left Fielders Will We See This Year?

In 2010, the Dodgers ran out nine different left fielders, humorously picking up more errors than assists, on top of some generally lousy offiense:

  Age G GS Inn Ch PO A E Fld%
Manny Ramirez 38 46 46 359.2 73 68 2 3 .959
Scott Podsednik 34 37 30 272.1 62 61 0 1 .984
Reed Johnson 33 62 24 264.2 65 65 0 0 1.000
Garret Anderson 38 27 20 189.0 30 27 1 2 .933
Xavier Paul 25 23 19 169.2 33 29 3 1 .970
Jay Gibbons 33 15 13 106.0 25 23 1 1 .960
Jamey Carroll 36 5 5 38.0 13 13 0 0 1.000
Trent Oeltjen 27 4 2 21.2 1 1 0 0 1.000
Russ Mitchell 25 3 3 20.2 2 2 0 0 1.000
League Average                 .985
Team Total   162 162 1441.2 304 289 7 8 .974
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/21/2011.

The top four on that list – Manny, Podsednik, Johnson & Anderson – have all moved on. Beyond that, Xavier Paul may be lost on waivers should he not make the Opening Day roster, Jamey Carroll ideally shouldn’t be seeing any time in left field, Trent Oeltjen is a minor-league lifer with no guarantees, and Russ Mitchell looks less like a major leaguer the more we see of him (not to mention he’s more of an infielder, anyway). Of the nine left fielders from last year, only Jay Gibbons seems certain to see time there again this year, and even still I’ve been spending half the spring wondering if he’s going to lose his roster spot.

But that hasn’t stopped me from wondering – might the Dodgers actually top last year’s left fielder count?

Let’s assume for the moment that Gibbons, Tony Gwynn, and Marcus Thames are all but certain to see some time in left. With the extra spots opened up by the injuries to Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla, I think Paul probably does spend the first week or two with the big club, though I’d be shocked if he survives through April. Also on the out-of-options train is Hector Gimenez, who’s doing everything possible to make the club, and who we learned today is supposedly going to see some left field time of his own this week.

Let’s say that both Paul & Gimenez make the roster and make token appearances in LF, even if both are gone by May. That’ll be five possibles, but it won’t stop there. We all think Jerry Sands makes his debut this season, and that might extend to Trayvon Robinson as well. For veteran stopgaps in Albuquerque, there’s Oeltjen and Jamie Hoffmann, and possibly utility guy Eugenio Velez. Then there’s the non-zero possibility that infielders Carroll and Blake make cameos, and you could possibly see Andre Ethier shifted over should Gwynn actually grab the CF job and slide Matt Kemp to RF. That’s without even considering what happens if JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr. fails completely before Sands is ready and the club is forced to go out and acquire someone new.

Despite losing the top four left fielders (in terms of playing time) from 2010, it’s not hard to see them trotting out double digits at the position this year. If so, then the real question is, can they break the all-time team record? That’s 15, set in 1985 and tied in 1987 (according to the wonderful Sam Miller of the Orange County Register). If there’s a bright side, the 1985 team won 95 games and went to the NLCS. (Of course, they also had Pedro Guerrero, a .320/.422/.577 beast at age 29, playing more LF than anyone else. Somehow I doubt that kind of production is getting replicated this year.)

Two Old Outfielders At Once: Dodgers To Sign Marcus Thames and Gabe Kapler

Finally, some news: Ken Gurnick of reports that the club is close to an agreement with free agent outfielder Marcus Thames. (Dylan Hernandez followed up by saying that the deal is done, and that Gabe Kapler will be signing a minor-league deal.) Gurnick also mentions Eric Chavez, though I’d have to think that signing Thames wouldn’t necessarily prevent signing Chavez as well.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard about Thames, of course; he’s been linked to the Dodgers for over a month now. Back in December, his name first came up along with Jerry Hairston and Scott Hairston. At the time, I preferred Thames:

Marcus Thames cannot be your everyday left fielder; his defense is just too poor. But let’s not pretend as though the team doesn’t have a need for right-handed bench power, especially in late innings against tough lefties. When the other side brings in their LOOGY, do you really want Tony Gwynn up there? Andre Ethier? You can’t bring Jay Gibbons off the bench for that, and Jamey Carroll‘s not a great option either. A righty with some power is a good option to have. Now, can Thames be that? I’d be willing to find out.

Since then, I’ve been swayed a bit more towards Scott Hairston, who offers plus defense but suffered through an absolutely terrible 2010, though I’ve still been clear about my preference for Lastings Milledge.

Interestingly enough, R.J. Anderson of Rays blog The Process Report just so happened to look at right-handed outfielders earlier today, and not only were Hairston, Thames, and Milledge included, so was Kapler, who at 34 had a .578 OPS in 140 injury-plagued Tampa plate appearances last year. (Please try to ignore the fifth name on his list.)

If the goal with Jones is to add an upside play, then the remaining options of right-handed corner outfielders who pound lefties will not spawn the same levels of attraction. In fact, the best option remaining might be an old friend by the name of Gabe. Kapler has easily outhit the remaining choices over the last three seasons versus lefties, with a few low-cost options in hot pursuit:

Gabe Kapler: .275/.348/.491
Scott Hairston: .280/.332/.507
Marcus Thames: .265/.332/.499
Lastings Milledge: .292/.357/.434
Andruw Jones: .219/.352/.428

(Jermaine Dye is not included since he’s really not much of an outfielder, even less so than Thames)

Unfortunately, Kapler might fall to the rare career-ending ankle sprain, which leaves Hairston, Thames, and Milledge out there for perusal. Of those, Hairston is the best and provides the most defensive flexibility. It is also worth noting that he produced those numbers while playing in San Diego and Oakland, where arctic conditions greet offensive expeditions. Thames spent last season with the Yankees and has some experience at first base (44 games worth, Jones has eight, for comparison) while Milledge was playing poor defense and running the bases unimpressively with the Pirates.

So it seems the Dodgers have come up with the #1 and #3 options on the list, based on performance vs. LHP over the last three years.

At this point, I think any arguing one way or the other is just nit-picking. Thames is coming off the best 2010. Hairston is the most complete package, yet was awful last year. Milledge probably has the most raw talent, yet hasn’t been able to put it all together and has had disciplinary issues. Kapler’s had the most success against LHP in recent years, yet was injured and lousy in 2010. It’s almost a toss-up as far as I’m concerned, because you just can’t be sure who’s going to give you what in 2011. If anything, we should at least be happy that they’ve brought in a righty outfielder… even if it was the team’s own odd roster management that put them in this situation.

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.

Oh, and one last thing: not that we didn’t already expect it, but this should basically seal Xavier Paul‘s departure from Los Angeles.

Let’s Toss Some More Names Into the LF Stew

Bill Hall‘s gone, Scott Podsednik‘s a sorry alternative, and no one really believes the Dodgers will just let Jay Gibbons, Xavier Paul, & Tony Gwynn handle left field, right? Ken Gurnick says that the club has at least reached out to a few of the remaining options on the dwindling free agent market, and there’s some new names here:

the Dodgers have been in contact with Marcus Thames and Scott and Jerry Hairston as possible free agent candidates for left field.

Thames is someone we’ve talked about a few times, and he’s really the only one of the three who brings any offense. He’s put up double-digit homers in six of the last seven years to go with a career .802 OPS; last year’s .288/.350/.491 performance was more or less his career year – his career OBP is just .311. Over his career he’s got a marked platoon split, as he’s put up an .838 OPS vs lefties, though that was oddly not the case last year.

The problem with Thames, of course, is that while he can play both left field and first base, he really shouldn’t be playing either. His fielding is so poor that his fWAR came in at only 0.6 last year, because his lousy glove took away so much of his value. If put in an outfield alongside Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the pitching staff Ned Colletti worked so hard to assemble may revolt.

Scott Hairston‘s had his moments, hitting double-digit homers four years in a row, but he’s coming off a particularly rough 2010. In 104 games for San Diego, he had a line of just .210/.295/.346. That’s the latest in a string of years with poor OBP. Like Thames, he’s stronger against LHP in his career, but last year’s disaster makes it hard to count on that. The former 2B grades out as average to above-average on defense.

Scott’s brother Jerry comes off a terrible year as well, with just a .652 OPS, and he turns 35 in May. He can play six different positions with varying degrees of skill, though as we talked about with Bill Hall, that versatility is nice but not really needed on this club.

So who do we like? Any? None? Let’s say right off the bat that Jerry Hairston is a terrible option; guys who were never great hitters to begin with and are coming off a terrible year at 34 aren’t exactly great options. Scott’s better, I suppose, though his horrendous 2010 makes me think he should be a non-roster invite at best.

And then there’s Thames. He’s got the best bat of the three yet can’t really be depended on to repeat his 2010, and his glove is absolutely atrocious.

I think it’s fair to say at this point that the Dodgers are not going to be able to pick up a starting left fielder off the free agent wire. That’s true whether it’s any of these guys, or Podsednik, or Austin Kearns, or whomever else. It’s unfortunate, but true. So any decision needs to be seen through the idea of “what fits on this team?”

Marcus Thames cannot be your everyday left fielder; his defense is just too poor. But let’s not pretend as though the team doesn’t have a need for right-handed bench power, especially in late innings against tough lefties. When the other side brings in their LOOGY, do you really want Tony Gwynn up there? Andre Ethier? You can’t bring Jay Gibbons off the bench for that, and Jamey Carroll‘s not a great option either. A righty with some power is a good option to have. Now, can Thames be that? I’d be willing to find out.