In the name of expediency, let's tackle the entire outfield today and move on to the pitching staff with our next post.
It doesn't seem so long ago that 2/3 of the Dodgers outfield were Silver Slugger winners and the third part was Manny Ramirez.
But Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp both struggled in 2010, Kemp with accusations of a lack of passion, Ethier with a nagging finger injury that derailed what looked to be a magical year.
But 2011 is a new year. Kemp's biggest critics - Joe Torre, Larry Bowa, and Bob Schaeffer - are all history. He's broken off his relationship with pop star Rihanna, meaning we can all stop pretending that was what was distracting him. And with Donnie Baseball and Davey Lopes offering a new approach to managing the budding star, it looks like Kemp enters this season with an unobstructed path toward finally breaking into the echelon of baseball's elite players. Whether or not he makes it there appears to be all up to him.
Ethier also comes in to Spring Training hoping to return to a previous glory. He was the best hitter in the major leagues for the first two months of the year before a broken pinkie finger landed him on the disabled list. When he returned, Ethier's swing still looked hindered and his stats plummeted until the final stretch, where he managed to end on a high note. Despite his struggles, 2010 was still a productive year for Ethier, marking the fifth of five season in the majors where his OPS was above .800. Compare that to Dodger stars such as Steve Garvey, whose career began with five straight sub-.800 OPS seasons, or Eric Karros, who only had three such seasons ever. Ethier is as close to a sure thing in the middle of the order the Dodgers have had since Sheffield or Piazza. We only wonder what may have been if he hadn't gotten hurt taking extra hacks in batting practice last season. Ethier will either stabilize as a decent middle-of-the-order bat or continue the upward pace he was on before his injury.
Whether or not we get the Kemp and Ethier of '09, they're the foundation the team is built upon. As I wrote in the last post, their performances, along with the health of Rafael Furcal, are going to be what make or break this team.
The 2010 season also saw the Dodgers' left field situation downgrade from sure-thing Manny Ramirez to a gaping black hole. We may remember 2010 as the year Ned's love affair with awful washed-up vets came back to bite him, Messieurs Anderson and Podsednik being the poster-boys. Scotty Pods, evidently confident that his atrocious play down the stretch would be rewarded, turned down a $2 million option to come back to L.A. this year. The gamble didn't quite pay off, as he just signed a minor league deal with Toronto.
The rest of the season we saw a revolving door of outfielders try and make an impact in the lineup. Jay Gibbons was a pleasant surprise. Trent Oeltjen was unspectacular but managed to get on base. Mostly absent was Xavier Paul, whose few chances to make an impact at the major league level have been plagued by injury and being lower than Garret Anderson on the depth chart.
Paul is out of options and one would hope he could get a shot to make the big club before Colletti ships him off to Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay, but it looks like his fate is sealed. When Ned wasn't signing random right-handed relievers, he was picking up crappy outfielders. Oeltjen is back on a minor league deal. Gibbons is back on a major league deal and is expected to begin the season as the starter. More on him in a bit.
Former Giant Eugenio Velez is getting an invite to Spring Training and will be wearing the number 9 (shows how much anyone really cares about Russ Mitchell, I guess). All you need to know is that the Giants non-tendered Velez even though he wasn't arbitration eligible. That means he wasn't getting a raise and they could have paid him chump-change (if you can call $400,000 chump change) and they still got rid of him. Ned... it's because he sucks.
Gabe Kapler is also getting a trip to Camelback Ranch this spring. Colletti loves guys like Kapler who once did something good (hit for the cycle), have some sort of "gamer" personality (retired to manage in the minors but came back to play in the majors again), and aren't particularly good (hit .210 and .239 the past two years in TB). If anything he'll be the star in Albuquerque this summer and hope for Ethier to break another finger because Colletti would most certainly turn to someone with experience over someone with tangible skill.
Speaking of tangible skill, Tony Gwynn Jr. doesn't have any. The epitome of Major League nepotism, Gwynn got a major league contract this offseason, meaning he'll be the main backup to Kemp in center. He does play a good defensive center, but the hitting prowess that put his father in the hall of fame hasn't quite trickled down to Tony Jr. Like Kapler, he hit .210 last season and was so unimpressive that even the team that canonized his pops, the Padres, sent him on his way. While he's certainly no Eugenio Velez, Gwynn is fairly similar (if not inferior) to Xavier Paul. He's not costing much more though, so perhaps it all comes out in the wash. The word on the playground is that Gwynn will see playing time in CF with Kemp moving to a much more comfortable RF and Ethier shifting to LF. If Gwynn manages to hit well enough (he won't), Colletti would like that arrangement best.
Also coming to Spring Training (and wearing #62 and #63) are Trayvon Robinson and Jamie Hoffmann. Robinson is still at least a few months away from being able to make an impact on the major league club but Hoffmann, who you may remember from a brief stint with the Dodgers in '09 (and for being the #1 pick in the Rule 5 draft last year before being returned to L.A.), should be able to compete for some playing time. If Joe Torre were still manager, he'd automatically be lower than Kapler and Velez on the depth chart. Since we have to give Mattingly the benefit of the doubt, we can assume that Hoffmann, who plays a sparkling outfield and has shown glimpses of batting skill, will be given a fair shake.
The final piece of Colletti's puzzle is Marcus Thames, last year's Yankees DH who slugged .491 and has hit 50 homers in the past three seasons with New York and Detroit. While his bat is his best asset, Thames is laughably bad in the outfield and can only fit in otherwise at first base. Regardless, he looks to be Gibbons' (another scare on defense) platoon partner for the time being, netting starts against lefties.
As for Gibbons, watching him make it back to the majors and do well was a real pleasure. As he was the guy who replaced Garret Anderson, Gibbons could have played like a 12-year old and he still would have been an improvement. I think Gibbons, like catcher Rod Barajas, is probably being overrated because of one hot month in a Dodger uniform. I don't have much confidence in his ability to maintain a starting job, but I'm open to being surprised.
Colletti has to have his fingers crossed that this left-fielder by committee thing won't blow up in his face. I questioned his priorities a few months ago when he was handing out a three year deal to a 7th-inning reliever while there was still a gaping hole in the outfield. The situation reeks of the bumbling GM simply putting a Hello Kitty band-aid on a massive, bleeding wound. It wouldn't surprise me to see this get real ugly before it gets any better.
Still, if Kemp and Ethier manage to excel (or if they completely bomb), it won't really matter who plays Curly in their group of stooges.
Spring Training Predictions
Kemp - Starter CF
Ethier - Starter RF
Gibbons - Starter LF
Thames - Backup LF
Gwynn - Backup CF
Paul - Traded
Hoffmann - AAA
Robinson - AA or AAA
Oeltjen - AAA or released
Velez - AAA or released
Kapler - AAA or released
Predicted 25-Man so far:
C - Rod Barajas
1b - James Loney
2b - Juan Uribe
3b - Casey Blake
SS - Rafael Furcal
LF - Jay Gibbons
CF - Matt Kemp
RF - Andre Ethier
C - Dioner Navarro
OF - Tony Gwynn Jr.
OF - Marcus Thames
IF - Ivan De Jesus
UT - Jamey Caroll
Tomorrow - the starting staff.
Now playing: Elliott Smith - Coming Up Roses