Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters in Pittsburgh Sunday that there will be “enough at-bats to go around,” for four outfielders when Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford have healthy hamstrings and come off the disabled list in a week or so.
Really? It’s kind of hard to imagine.
Maybe for a week or two, maybe three. But can they really keep Yasiel Puig in the everyday mix while finding enough playing time to keep the three extremely well-paid veterans happy and productive? Seems unlikely.
So, let’s examine some possibilities for how the Dodgers' outfield will look by the end of this month, presuming no further injuries (admittedly, a dicey proposition so far). Let’s start with the least-likely and work our way through them:
Puig gets sent down
Mattingly said it’s not going to happen and, obviously, it shouldn’t, at least not when the veterans first return. Puig is the 11th player since 1900 to have at least 23 hits in his first 13 career games. The only players with more are Bo Hart and Terry Pendleton, who had 24 each.
Let's not forget, though. Things change. In his next 13 at-bats for the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals, Hart batted a merely human .283 and, by the end of the year, he was hitting .277. His final year in the majors was 2004. Pendleton also maintained pretty well, batting .294 in his next 13 games and hitting .324 for the Cardinals in 1984. The only reason he finished seventh in Rookie of the Year balloting is because he didn’t come up until July.
This will be the last time we ever hear Puig’s name linked with Hart’s and, by all appearances, he is a more-talented player than Pendleton, though Pendleton was a Gold Glove third baseman who won an MVP award.
The point is, careers take odd twists and turns. While Puig hasn’t given any indications he might not stick, he could get cold enough that the Dodgers will be concerned about his confidence and send him down to Triple-A. It might make sense to keep their veteran guys in case of such an emergency.
Ethier becomes the fourth outfielder
Mattingly wouldn’t put it in those terms, but that has to be where this thing is headed barring a personnel change.
Puig is going to play every day. Kemp is going to play every day once he’s back and fully healthy, unless there is some physical limitation we haven’t learned about yet. Carl Crawford was the catalyst of the Dodgers’ offense before he got hurt. Remarkably, he still leads them with 32 runs scored.
Ethier is batting .221 against left-handers this year and .236 against them in his career. Crawford is hitting .311 off lefties this year and .264 for his career.
Which raises the question: Exactly when would it be the Dodgers’ best lineup for Ethier to play? Perhaps against a pitcher who has owned Kemp or Crawford, or on the rare nights Kemp or Puig needs a day of rest.
It just doesn’t seem tenable to have a player earning $13.5 million coming off the bench once or twice a week, pinch-hitting here or there or playing an inning or two of defense. It also might not make for the healthiest clubhouse.
Someone other than Ethier gets traded
Just spitballing here, but there is a 0 percent chance Puig gets traded. He’s too good, no one is even sure yet what his ceiling is and he is relatively inexpensive. That’s kind of the trifecta of untouchability.
There is a 2.5 percent chance Kemp gets traded. It’s not that it’s impossible. His contract doesn’t include a no-trade clause. There are probably a dozen or so teams who would be happy to take on the rest of his contract. But considering Kemp was the best player in the game just 13 months ago and the Dodgers are trying to win, they would be foolish to give up on him in the midst of a difficult time physically. It’s reasonable to assume it’s just a matter of time until Kemp is back to his old self, and the Dodgers still are committed to building around him.
There is a 4.5 percent chance Crawford gets traded. He has no-trade protection and the $95 million or so left on his deal will make most teams hang up the phone if Ned Colletti calls to talk about such a thing. If he were a power hitter, it might be different, but judging by Michael Bourn’s shorter-than-expected contract, teams aren’t paying premium dollars for 30-something leadoff guys any more.
Ethier gets traded
Assuming we reach this option without triggering one of the surprising possibilities above, there is a 75 percent chance Ethier gets traded in the next nine months. It's not as hard as it might seem.
At the end of this season, Ethier will have four years and $71.5 million left on his contract. Nick Swisher signed a four-year deal with the Cleveland Indians for $56 million, plus a fifth, vesting year that could bring the total value of his deal up to around $70 million. They’re not identical players, but they’re certainly similar players.
So, while people have speculated the Dodgers could have to swallow as much as half of Ethier’s contract to move him, that seems like an overshot. If they paid him this season and sent $15 million or so somebody’s way, there would be teams lining up. The Dodgers might even be able to get a decent prospect or two or a serviceable reliever in return.
The New York Mets seem to get the most mentions as a possible destination. Texas, Seattle, Kansas City and Baltimore have all been brought up.
It may not be imminent, but it certainly seems as if this is the direction things are lining up. In other words, the Dodgers might love for Ethier to get hot for the next month or so, for more reasons than one.