The Dodgers And “Too Many Outfielders”

If there’s any baseball story that’s just never going to end this winter — other than, “Jack Morris should/shouldn’t be in the Hall!” and “Alex Rodriguez fights with MLB!” — it’s almost certainly going to be “the Dodgers have too many outfielders, who will they trade?”

It’s been a slowly building narrative for more than a year now, and now that Yasiel Puig has proven himself to be a quality major league player and top prospect Joc Pederson is just about ready to join him, it’s deafening. That means Matt Kemp is going to the Blue Jays… or the Rangers… or the Mariners… or the Red Sox… unless Andre Ethier goes to the Mets or an unlikely Puig trade blows up the baseball world else first. It’s both a fun and frustrating time of year, where every report that one team may possibly have communicated with another about some player sends fans into a frenzy.

Having too many good players at a particular position is rarely a bad problem, but because of the salaries and often questionable health histories here, this is something of a complicated situation for the Dodgers. Let’s first look at what they actually have:

Player
2014 age
Contract
2013 PA
2013 WAR
2013 wOBA
2014 Steamer WAR
Crawford
32
4/82.5
469
2.9
.322
2.2
Ethier
32
4/69**
553
2.9
.340
2.3
Kemp
29
6/128
290
-0.4
.316
2.5
Pederson*
22
n/a
519
n/a
.398
n/a
Puig
23
5/26***
432
4.0
.398
4.6

*Double-A stats
**plus 2018 vesting option for $17.5m ($2.5m buyout) with 550 PA in 2017
***may opt into arbitration process after three years service time, likely after 2016

There’s a lot of talent there, but also a lot of committed dollars, north of $60 million for 2014 alone. So when attempting to figure out what the Dodgers ought to do, it’s the ultimate balancing act of finances vs. talent vs. return vs. risk.

Really, there’s six different options here, from trading any of them to trading none of them. Let’s look at the possible futures that Ned Colletti might create, counting down from least likely to most likely.

6. Trade Yasiel Puig.

I’m tempted to do the internet smart guy thing of “No.” and just stop there, but let’s actually dive into this. There’s no question that Puig is rough around the edges, and the reason you hear so much about his base-running gaffes and defensive miscues is because they’re true. Those are real things that happened, and they occasionally hurt his team. We can even see it in the stats; Puig is arguably one of the fastest men in the majors, yet he somehow compiled a lousy -4.2 BsR in two-thirds of a season.

So he’s clearly got a lot to work on (including some of the headaches his off-the-field behavior can bring — though he’s certainly attempting to rehab that image this winter), but even when you admit the negatives, it’s impossible to see them outweighing the positives. In four months, Puig was worth 4.0 WAR; if he’d played the full year at that pace and had 6.0 WAR, we’d be talking about a rookie season equaled by a very select few in the history of baseball.

Toss in the contract that looked questionable when no one had any idea who he was and now looks like an absolute steal, and Puig is suddenly one of the most valuable assets in baseball. When Dave Cameron ran the Trade Value Series over the summer, he ranked Puig #24, reasonably admitting that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of Puig after only six weeks. My guess is that if those rankings were done now, Puig’s combination of production and contract would rank him considerably higher.

Or, put another way, when Matt Vasgersian & Peter Gammons publicized the “trade Puig and more for Giancarlo Stanton” idea a few weeks ago, it was a non-starter in Los Angeles. Stanton’s great and nearly every team in baseball wants to pry him out of Miami; he’s also closer to free agency, more injury-prone, and coming off a less productive season. After the splash Puig made, it’s difficult to see the Dodgers antagonizing their fan base or finding a realistic return.

5. Trade Matt Kemp.

Speaking of antagonizing your fan base, Kemp remains extremely popular among the Dodger faithful, but his increasingly fragile nature might make it easier for them to swallow such a move. It couldn’t be simply a salary dump, however, and that’s what makes any Kemp move unlikely.

When Kemp’s 8/$160m extension was announced in the wake of his 2011 MVP quality season, it seemed like a good deal as others like Prince Fielder & Joey Votto were getting north of $200m. Since, he’s played only 179 games in two seasons amid a never-ending litany of injuries to his shoulder, hamstrings, and ankle. After a brutal start to 2013, Kemp did hit .333/.400/.630 from July 1 on… except that he did it in only 60 plate appearances interrupted by two different injuries.

The good news is that Kemp is only headed into his age-29 season,  and while a .290/.352/.482 line in 2012-13 is less than you’d expect from him, it’s hardly been a Josh Hamilton-level disaster. Still, it’s that sweet spot between “too talented to dump” and “too expensive to get much return on” that makes him tough to move, unless the Dodgers ate an obscene amount of money or did so in exchange for another big contract, like an Elvis Andrus.

4. Trade Carl Crawford.

This may be the most palatable for the Dodgers, because he’s arguably likely to be the least productive in 2014, but that, along with the money remaining, is exactly why a trade is problematic. It’s important to remember that Crawford’s 2013 has to be considered a success, of course, simply because coming off of two terrible years in Boston and August 2012 Tommy John surgery, no one had any idea if he’d be either healthy or useful.

Crawford did make it back for Opening Day, and despite missing weeks with a hamstring pull and some severely up-and-down performance, did manage to contribute 2.9 WAR — plus four homers in the playoffs.  He’s no longer the excellent defensive outfielder and base-stealer he was in Tampa Bay; he’s also not nearly as atrocious as the stink his Boston time put on him. He’s now a reasonably productive player who just so happens to have a contract that pays him like an elite one.

That’s a tough combination, and again, would require the Dodgers to eat a good deal of money and expect little in return. Would some team take him at, say, 4/$40m? Perhaps. Would they also trade valuable players to do so? That’s less likely.

3. Trade Joc Pederson.

Due to the roadblock ahead of him, this may be the simplest solution. With wOBA marks of .400 (Hi-A, 2012) and .398 (Double-A, 2013) over the last two years, along with 22 homers and 31 steals this year, Pederson has improved his stock from “potential fourth outfielder” to “probable solid starter” in the eyes of many. While he hasn’t yet seen Triple-A, he’s arguably ready right now or in the very near term. Since the Dodgers seem extremely unlikely to move highly-regarded infield prospect Corey Seager, Pederson (along with pitcher Zach Lee) is the best prospect trade chip they have available.

While Pederson isn’t untouchable, there’s not an obvious trade fit. The big hole at the major league level is at third base, and few teams have a quality option available to offer there. Chase Headley remains possible, though coming off a down year and with only a single season remaining before free agency, the Dodgers may consider Pederson too high a price to give up.

2. Trade no one.

The easiest way to refute the “too many outfielders” narrative is by making the very legitimate point that this is a scenario which has never actually been true. If you had too many quality outfielders, then the 2013 Dodgers wouldn’t have had to give 99 starts to a group of Scott Van SlykeSkip SchumakerJerry HairstonChili BussAlex Castellanos, and Elian Herrera, along with five more to Schumaker in the playoffs when neither Ethier or Kemp could answer the bell.

With the obvious caveat that Puig didn’t arrive until June 3, there were exactly two games all season in which the Dodgers had all four non-Pederson outfielders active and healthy. Part of the reason Puig got the call in the first place is that Kemp & Crawford were both hurt, so the first time all four were available was on July 5, when Crawford returned from a hamstring injury. “Too many outfielders” lasted all the way until… the third inning, when Kemp injured his shoulder and landed on the disabled list.

Two weeks later, Kemp returned for a July 21 game in Washington, and finished off a fantastic game — a homer, double, and single — by mangling his ankle in the ninth inning. When he finally returned from that in September, Ether was on the shelf with his own ankle injury. At no point did all four manage to stay intact at the same time for even one complete single game.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen in 2014, of course, but it’s easy to bet against it. Crawford & Kemp have built up considerable injury histories over the last few years, and while Puig stayed off the disabled list, his all-out style of play cost him some time in July after running full-speed into the Coors Field wall.

He also does things like this, which is like watching a semi hit a brick wall at full speed:

Much like Bryce Harper, there’s reason to worry that his intensity will either limit him or sideline him entirely, and so the odds of at least one of these guys being hurt at any given time seems high. Since Pederson hasn’t even seen Triple-A yet, it’s not unreasonable to let him tear up the PCL for a few months, then promote or trade him as needed.

Even if all four do remain healthy, it’s not as though Crawford & Kemp wouldn’t do well with some regular days off in an attempt to keep them whole, and since Crawford & Ethier are two of the absolute worst hitters in baseball against lefties, there’s some obvious platoon opportunities here. The fact that (in theory, at least), all three non-Crawford outfielders can fake it at all three spots gives added flexibility.

1. Trade Andre Ethier.

The most likely, and also the most discussed; Ethier reportedly came very close to being sent to Seattle last winter. The longtime Dodger had a very weird 2013, putting up only a .317 wOBA in the first half around getting benched by Don Mattingly, then busting out in the second half with a very good .381 mark while playing a surprisingly not-terrible center field. (And then, of course, missing most of September and October with the ankle injury.)

Ethier is an extremely flawed player, but a useful one if deployed correctly. First off, he absolutely, positively cannot hit lefty pitching; in more than 1200 career plate appearances, his line is .235/.294/.351. He makes up for that with a very good career line against righties, hitting .309/.388/.518. While the Dodgers have never been able to find him an appropriate platoon partner, the right team could easily accentuate his value — and while his 2011 Gold Glove was a joke, he has worked hard to improve his defense from “awful” to “acceptably decent”.

For many teams, the idea of paying Ethier approximately $17.5m per year for each of the next four seasons is a turnoff, though as a reliable two-to-three win player, the Dodgers shouldn’t have to eat an obnoxious amount of cash to make this reasonable. If they turned Ethier into, say, a 4/40 player, that’s valuable. That’s a range in which the Dodgers could get something good — not great, mind you, but usable — back. And that’s what makes him the most likely to go.



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


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