Dee Gordon And Winning A Spring Battle

If it seems like we’ve written about the Dodgers second base competition a lot this offseason, it’s because we have. Two months ago, I looked into the questionable depth the team had at the position; a few weeks ago, Eno Sarris revisited the situation to see whether it would present a problem. Now, barely more than a week before the team kicks off the season in Australia, there appears to be a winner, at least if you believe this beat writer or that one or that one, and it’s not $28 million Cuban import Alexander Guerrero: it’s former shortstop Dee Gordon, who has 3.2 career innings at the position.

Yes, that Dee Gordon, the one who has been one of the worst players in baseball on both sides of the ball over the last three seasons, and the same one who essentially lost his job to Nick Punto last season when the team decided it could no longer stomach him at shortstop during Hanley Ramirez‘ semi-regular absences. Since the Dodgers have a payroll of something like $750 billion, and Gordon has been so inadequate in his career, the fact that this might be the best they can do at second base is obviously a bit shocking. Jeff Sullivan called it “incredible” in his chat yesterday; Dave Cameron had a similar reaction in his podcast appearance. I’ve talked about it some at my site. Now we share it with you.

Those reactions aren’t at all unfair, because despite how much was was made of Gordon’s work to bulk up his skinny frame this winter and his perfect eight-for-eight in stolen bases this spring, he’s still hit just .185/.267/.333 to date. He hasn’t hit at all in his career, which cost him a big league job; now he hasn’t hit at all in the spring, and he’s somehow winning a big league job, for a very good team. Though the defensive transition seems to be going nicely, this simple yet extremely important fact seems to go unnoticed by those praising him for his spring.

Now right there, the obvious reply is, “wait, you’re not really quoting spring stats, especially after just explaining away Sergio Romo‘s terrible ERA on Monday, right,” and you’d be absolutely correct. In fact, manager Don Mattingly agrees, as told to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register:

“Honestly, I don’t know when it started. But nobody used to even look at stats,” Mattingly said. “It was more about how a guy was swinging. Guys were coming to get ready. And there were guys who knew they had to impress right away. For the most part, spring in the past has been to get ready. So I’m trying to look at at-bats. I’m looking at bat speed, different things like that. I don’t even know who’s doing what stat-wise.”

While it’s maybe a bit hard to believe that a major league manager has absolutely no idea about the stats, it’s an admirable position. So then: what has he seen out of Gordon to believe in him? The steals have been great and the defense has been an improvement — not that it could have been as bad as it was at shortstop — but in 30 plate appearances, Gordon has only five hits and three walks, and just about none of them have come off of pitchers you’d consider top quality:

  • 2/28 (BB): Omar Poveda (eight-year MiLB vet; once traded for Jorge Cantu)
  • 3/1: Kevin Shackelford (split 2013 between Single-A & Double-A for Milwaukee)
  • 3/2: Kevin Quackenbush (reached Triple-A for San Diego in 2013)
  • 3/3: A.J. Griffin (solid Oakland starter)
  • 3/5 (BB): Jeff Francis (five straight seasons with an ERA north of 4.82; had allowed a grand slam to Guerrero earlier in the inning)
  • 3/7 (BB): Michael Kirkman (4.9 BB/9 in MiLB career; 5.17 ERA in 101 MLB innings)
  • 3/8: Andrew Carraway (27-year-old with 6.0 K/9 in 230 Triple-A innings)
  • 3/8: Blake Beavan (replacement-level in nearly 300 MLB innings; referred to by Michael Barr in FanGraphs+ as owning “one of the league’s saddest strikeout rates.”)

Griffin’s got a major league career, potentially a bright one if he can get his homer problem under control. Quackenbush might, if you really squint hard enough. But that’s it. The rest are either never-weres or probably-won’t-be’s, and so far those are the only ones Gordon’s been able to manage to get on base off of. Also of note: of the five hits, three made it to the outfield. One was an infield grounder that he beat out, and one was an admittedly very nice bunt single: 


So this seems like a problem. Not that 30 spring plate appearances are enough to base meaningful opinions on, but to date there isn’t much to refute what we previously knew about Gordon based on the 669 major league plate appearances he’s already had. We’re seeing a player who has rarely performed at the plate in the big leagues doing not a whole lot to change that perception.

What that means is that despite what’s being said, this is less about Gordon winning the job, and more about Guerrero needing some time. It’s a meaningful distinction, but an important one. Though it will be portrayed as a massive failure if and when Guerrero heads off to the minors, do remember that Yasiel Puig spent two months in the minors last year after having hardly played over the previous year, and he was far more impressive in spring training than Guerrero has been. In the history of the Dodgers, no position player has ever jumped straight to the bigs without some minor league time, and while Guerrero clearly isn’t your normal prospect, it was probably never realistic to expect him to have been the first.

So Gordon it is, which is probably preferable to Justin Turner or Chone Figgins (though not, most likely, to Mark Ellis, who had his option declined last fall.) And really, if any team can afford to do this, it probably is the Dodgers. Our current projections have them as a seven-game favorite over the Giants, who are dealing with their own second base issues in the sense that Marco Scutaro is 38 and hasn’t yet played this spring due to a sore back. PECOTA has the difference at a massive 11 wins. That doesn’t mean the Dodgers can simply start coasting in March, but it does mean that they’re likely to have enough breathing room to be able to spend a few weeks with Gordon at second base. If he flops badly, then replacement-fodder like Turner can step in until Guerrero is ready; it’s difficult to see the Dodgers letting Gordon hang on long enough to cost them more than 0.5 or 1.0 win if he’s really struggling.

Besides, if anything, people tend to put too much stock into what the 25-man roster is on Opening Day. Last year, Luis Cruz and Justin Sellers were in the Opening Day lineup for the Dodgers. Neither lasted long. Over the course of the season, 49 different players floated through the 25-man roster, and it worked out pretty well. This isn’t some sort of static construct that can never change. That Gordon appears to have won the job right now doesn’t at all mean that he’s won it for the season; he’ll need to keep on proving it, and it’s more than likely that at some point sooner than later, he won’t be the starting second baseman. Guerrero will.

If Gordon can play well enough to convince the team he’s worth keeping around as a utility player by that point, or to make himself mildly valuable as a trade asset, then that’s a win. If he can’t, then his career is stuck in the same holding pattern it’s been in. None of this is ideal for the Dodgers, who really should have planned ahead a little better here. They didn’t, so here they are. While the idea of “Dee Gordon, Starting Second Baseman On Baseball’s Most Expensive Team” sounds bad,  it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a less-than-optimal setup for a team in a particularly favorable situation to take that kind of hit. It’s better, anyway, than going into panic mode and trying to get Brandon Phillips out of Cincinnati.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or

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Just to play devil’s advocate: If you take Mattingly at his word, it doesn’t make sense to look at Gordon’s 5 hits without looking at his 3 walks and 22 outs – without looking at every PA, really. Ok, his hits aren’t that impressive. What if a bunch of his outs are hard hit balls? What if he has really been working the count well (as the three walks might suggest)?

I.e., if you’re focusing on the process, then look at the WHOLE process, not a selective sampling of the process.

And yes, I can’t believe I’m lining up with Mattingly as a process-over-results guy.