The Los Angeles Dodgers have been known for having too many bodies for their outfield in the past few seasons. It is time they finally agree upon a lineup without randomly shuffling every day.
Most teams are exhausted after having to deal with one crowded positional battle, and for the Los Angeles Dodgers, that was their starting rotation. Now we turn our attention to another important logjam that needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later. Luckily for the Dodgers, spring training will help draw a clearer picture. As of right now, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Andre Ethier, Scott Van Slyke, Trayce Thompson, Andrew Toles, and of course, Yasiel Puig will be battling for three positions. However, with Joc entrenched in center field, it is six players for two spots.
There’s some quality in there, but it would be preferable if the Dodgers were able to settle on a consistent starting three. There is lots of potential in the outfield, especially with Yasiel Puig being there. However, platoons might be the most popular choice for manager Dave Roberts and the front office.
In addition to the seven names listed above, top prospect Cody Bellinger may be an eighth player and potential X-factor. He is the heir apparent to Adrian Gonzalez at first base but has the athleticism and glove to play all over the outfield. It would most likely be one of the corner outfield spots, as he is a lefty, thus making it impossible to platoon him with Pederson. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as Bellinger has only 12 plate appearances at Triple-A and a lot of names to beat out at the major league level. Here is the best way the Los Angeles Dodgers should assemble their outfield.
Left field, for the most part, was ultimately patrolled by Andrew Toles toward the end of the season, and rightfully so. In his 115 plate appearances he hit .314/.365/.505. He hit .364/.423/.455 in 26 postseason plate appearances. So yes, he definitely impressed. However, there is a legit reason to worry whether or not he will be as effective as he was last season.
First, he is a defensive liability. He may be athletic and have a solid arm, but his route-running, reads and even catching ability have been in question at times. More important, however, is the fact that he had a .385 BABIP while swinging at an above-average 38.7 percent of balls thrown outside of the strike zone. Both numbers are scarily high and show that he is headed for a large regression. Combined with the fact that he has only 115 plate appearances, and the worrying is warranted. Hopefully I’m wrong but chances are he won’t be the same.
Thus enter Trayce Thompson. He is dealing with recovery from a back injury at the moment so his return is unknown. For the most part, he impressed in the 80 games he played. His slash line isn’t pretty but the fact that he played through a back injury may explain why his numbers dipped right before his season ended. However, in his 262 plate-appearances he did hit 13 home runs with 11 doubles. He won’t hit for a high average, but he will offer good power and terrific athleticism on defense.
It’s no secret that the Dodgers struggled against southpaws last season, so Thompson (when healthy) will be a key player. He should be given more reps, as his bat will be more valuable than Toles’s. Thompson needs to continue to improve and be an important right-handed bat in a lefty-dominated lineup. In May of 2016, he played in 21 games and hit .270/.353/.603 to go along with six home runs. So yes, he has some talent, and that talent should be given a larger role.
Center Field: Joc Pederson with a sprinkle of Enrique Hernandez
This one was the easiest and most obvious one of the three. Joc has been a starter for two straight seasons, and there’s no reason why that should change going into this season. He is going into his age-25 season and offers tremendous upside with present production as well. Joc plays above-average defense while having a good batting-eye and tons of pop with the bat. He made the 2015 All-Star team as a rookie before absolutely collapsing in the second half of that season. Then last season he rebounded and showed off some improvements.
His strikeout rate dropped by almost 4 percent while his contact rate jumped by almost 10 percent. Although his outside-the-zone swinging rate increased by 1.0 percent, his contact outside the zone jumped up by 12 percent. You don’t want him to increase his chasing habit, but at least he made more of it. Oh, and he also hit one fewer home run in 91 fewer plate appearances while improving his batting average by 36 points.
Before he went down with a shoulder injury, he had a .804 OPS and was playing solid. However, in the 62 games after he came back, he went off for 12 home runs and a .900 OPS. He ended on a strong note while showing signs of the player he can ultimately be. Add the fact that he plays a good center field and you have a deserving starter. He isn’t uber-athletic or blazing fast, but he has great route-running ability for such a young player. Joc is also improving his reads on defense, which will help him become even better. He should be spared by Enrique Hernandez from time to time, especially against lefties. The next step in Joc’s development is improving versus southpaws.
This is the biggest question mark for everyone involved with the Los Angeles Dodgers and it’s because of Yasiel Puig. Which Puig are we going to get? Are we going to get the underachiever who can be a clubhouse cancer that the front office should have traded away? Or are we going to see the all-world talent of 2013 and early 2014 who will show why the front office held on to him? Fans and the franchise are hoping for the latter.
Puig was sent down to Triple-A last season, finally hitting his low point and his humbling moment. When he returned in September, he looked like the Yasiel Puig of old. In 50 at-bats he slugged .300/.362/.600 with four home runs and four doubles. He was and can still be a headcase but the talent is definitely there. He also plays good defense (when he wants) and possesses the best outfield arm next to Yoenis Cespedes. I expect Puig to finally put his baggage behind him and to truly break out this season, ultimately cementing himself as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ everyday right fielder.
His value is inflated a bit by the Dodgers’ not-so-subtle need for quality right-handed batters. If he can play to his ability, then he can almost be a saving grace for the lineup in a sense. However, do not expect Andre Ethier to bow down. I feel that his time is up (or at least as a starter for Los Angeles) but he can still be valuable depth. He is a proven clutch hitter who had a bounce-back season in 2015 (last healthy season) before missing most of 2016 with injury. He should be used in a platoon with Puig, but it should not be a full-out platoon, as Puig should get most of the reps.