About a month ago, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly left his home in Indiana to drop by the Dodgers' minicamp in Arizona. First, he diverted to Houston, where he started getting to know his new left fielder, Carl Crawford.
Afterward, Mattingly told reporters that Crawford would willingly bat leadoff for the Dodgers. In Boston, Crawford's spot in the order was a hot topic of debate, with a widely held suspicion that he's about as fond of batting leadoff as he is of paying taxes.
"He said he didn't know where that came from," Mattingly said. "He said he heard that on ESPN. He said he would do whatever we want him to do."
Maybe a better question is why would they want him to? Crawford was a dynamic player in Tampa Bay before injuries and two seasons of Boston turmoil slowed him down, but he has never been even remotely ideal as a leadoff guy. Just not his thing. He's a career .302 hitter in the No. 2 spot, almost 20 points better than as a leadoff hitter.
Hitting leadoff, a spot that demands plate discipline, just doesn't seem to be in his nature. Crawford isn't a particularly selective hitter. He has walked more than 50 times in a season only once, and his career swing rate is 52.9 percent. He swings at 31.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to Fangraphs, and has a career-high on-base percentage of .364 (in 2009 with Tampa Bay).
On the other hand, Crawford can be devastating as a No. 2 hitter. With a runner on base, pitchers are more likely to throw him fastballs. They're more likely to throw him strikes. In 2010 he had hits on 57 percent of his bunt attempts, so he can apparently handle the bat pretty well.
But here's the problem (and it's maybe the biggest challenge Mattingly and McGwire face this spring): Who is going to hit first in the order if Crawford doesn't? Nick Punto? Skip Schumaker? Do you really want those guys in your lineup every day? Mark Ellis? Maybe a bit, against lefties, but hardly an exciting prospect.
This is the point in the discussion where we may pause and ask, "Isn't Michael Bourn still available?" Well, yeah, he is -- and according to reports, he's looking for a five-year deal and his most ardent pursuers, the New York Mets, have been willing to guarantee only three. And if we've learned nothing else about the Dodgers this winter, it's that they have tended to solve problems by writing really big checks.
But it's complicated. To accommodate Bourn -- a Gold Glove center fielder -- the Dodgers would have to move two of their best players. They would have to move Andre Ethier out of town (and they insist they don't want to do that), and they would have to move Matt Kemp to right field (something he says he's not ready for). And while, for a minute, it's fun to imagine the defensive prowess of an outfield made up of Crawford, Bourn and Kemp, a quick glance at career stats tells us that Bourn will steal bases and score runs but not get on base regularly enough (career OBP of .339) to justify revamping the outfield to include him.
So for now, the leadoff quandary remains one of the central themes of the upcoming camp. Look at it this way: You've got to build some intrigue over six weeks of spring training or what's the point, right?