Can the left side of the Los Angeles Dodgers' infield stay healthy?
Perhaps the better question is, how many magic tricks will manager Don Mattingly have to perform in order to keep third baseman Casey Blake and shortstop Rafael Furcal healthy? And how much of a disruption will those tricks have on the rest of the lineup?
More on that later. But first, the setup:
Blake, whose trademark beard is beginning to show flecks of gray, and Furcal, whose balky back cost him another month on the disabled list late last season, are entering what could be their final season with the Dodgers.
Each has a club option for 2012. Blake's is for $6 million, a price the Dodgers are unlikely to pay in a season in which Blake will turn 39. Furcal's option is for double that amount, and it will vest if he reaches 600 plate appearances. Although $12 million is a lot of money, especially if the apparently cash-strapped Frank McCourt is still in charge going into next season, the Dodgers will gladly take 600 plate appearances from Furcal in 2011, given how important he is at the top of their lineup.
Mattingly is likely to follow the lead of former manager Joe Torre, who attempted to keep Furcal healthy and fresh by resting him often. For the most part, it worked. Furcal did a pair of monthlong stints on the disabled list last year, but only the second one was because of a back injury, and he missed no significant time in 2009. Moreover, when Furcal was healthy last year, he was pretty good, hitting .300 and, perhaps more important for the switch-hitting leadoff man, posting a .366 on-base percentage.
Furcal can probably count on at least one game a week in which he doesn't start (day games after night games, games against starting pitchers who have given him trouble, etc.).
Which brings us to Blake, for whom Mattingly is expected to employ a strategy similar to that of Furcal, resting him one or two days a week. Torre sort of did that with Blake last year, with mixed results: He stayed healthy, missing just five games in June with back spasms, but had one of the worst seasons of his career offensively. He hit just .248, and his 17 home runs matched his career low for a full season.
Still, Blake was productive enough -- he had 28 doubles and drove in 64 runs -- that he remains a critical piece of the Dodgers' lineup, and he could end up hitting anywhere from fifth to seventh.
All of which leads to the question of what Mattingly will do when he wants to rest Furcal or Blake.
The Dodgers' roster, whatever its makeup at the end of spring training, isn't short on guys who can play shortstop and third base. Jamey Carroll can play at either, and he turned out to be a godsend in his first season with the Dodgers, batting .291 with a solid .379 OBP. A career backup, he came to the plate 414 times, the second-most in his nine big league seasons. He can expect a lot of playing time again.
Another option is Juan Uribe, the free agent the Dodgers signed essentially to be their everyday second baseman. One possibility is that Carroll would play second base whenever Furcal needs a rest, with Uribe sliding over to short.
Carroll has played more games at second base in his career (473) than at all other positions combined. Uribe has played more than 2½ times as many games at short (912) than at all other positions combined -- which is interesting when you consider that the Dodgers signed him to a three-year, $21 million contract to play second base.
On days when Uribe and Carroll are in the lineup and Furcal isn't, the Dodgers' best defensive alignment probably is Uribe at short and Carroll at second. On days when Blake is out, Mattingly could probably flip a coin. Carroll has more games at third than Uribe (225-154), Uribe has a higher fielding percentage there (.960-.945), and their range factors per nine innings there are almost identical (2.98 for Carroll, 2.97 for Uribe).
One guy who can play all four infield positions is veteran Juan Castro, who is coming to spring training on a minor league contract and likely would make the club if the Dodgers were to go with six pure infielders. It would be unusual to go with only five, but the current makeup of the Dodgers' 40-man roster certainly makes that a possibility.
Because the Dodgers have so many outfielders on major league contracts -- in addition to incumbents Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, there are Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons, and longtime prospect Xavier Paul is out of minor league options -- there might not be room for six infielders. Thames and Gibbons can play first base, so that flexibility could enable the Dodgers to go heavy on outfielders and light on infielders.
The absence of either Furcal or Blake on a given day will leave a hole in the Dodgers' lineup. But having to deal with the absence of one of them two or three days a week sure beats the sting of losing one of them for weeks, or even months, at a time. With that in mind, Mattingly will choose his spots, and he has plenty of options for how to do it.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.