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The Dodgers’ Desperate Need for a Left Fielder

In the winter before the 2009 season it appeared as though the Dodgers were set in the outfield for the next two years. The team had just re-signed Manny Ramirez to a two-year deal, which put him alongside Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to form one of the better outfield groups in the league. There were concerns with Ramirez, of course, but the short-term nature of the deal helped mitigate most of them. But by the end the Dodgers traded Manny, basically eliminating any chance of a reunion. That leaves the Dodgers short a left fielder.

While he hasn’t played in a Dodger uniform since late August, Ramirez still holds some importance to the team. He was, at 1.4 WAR, the team’s most valuable left fielder in 2010. The Dodgers used eight players at the position, and none of them matched Manny’s production. That includes defense, which handicapped Ramirez considerably. In his limited time he cost his team 5.7 runs, per UZR. Yet he was worth more than twice as much as the next closest left fielder, which was Reed Johnson at 0.6 WAR. The only other Dodgers left fielder to produce more than 0 WAR was Jay Gibbons.

The Dodgers have made attempts already to fill the left field void, though neither of their suitors represents a high-quality option. Gibbons is back in the fold, though he still has to prove himself throughout an entire season. The Dodgers did exercise Scott Podsednik‘s 2011 option, only to have the player decline. That might actually be to their benefit, since it leaves them open to find a better player than Podsednik to play left field. They’ll need one if they’re going to improve on their 4.12 runs per game, which ranked 11th in the NL in 2010.

One of the two top outfield free agents could clearly help the Dodgers, but we haven’t heard many rumors connecting any of them. Both Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth help on both sides of the ball. Werth in particular appears to be an attractive candidate. He features a bit more power than Crawford, which would help the Dodgers improve on their sixth-worst .127 team ISO. He also has a history in LA, having spent a couple years there in the mid-00s. Last week David Young at True Blue LA examined the case for Werth, but came away with the obvious observation: “While a Werth return would make for a nice story, ultimately I believe that market forces, including Bostonian tradewinds, will price Werth into a range that is more than the Dodgers will want to commit to in both years and dollars, and that would hamstring the front office in completing the rest of the roster.”

Beyond Werth and Crawford the Dodgers might not find much that they like on the free agent market. They could perhaps turn to a veteran such as Magglio Ordonez, but other than that they’d probably have to compose a platoon in left. That doesn’t mean that they’re out of options. There is always the farm system, and it appears as though the Dodgers might have a player or two down there who is on his way up.

Xavier Paul had a few chances to prove himself in 2010, but ultimately flopped. What’s worse, he didn’t get a chance to redeem himself once the Dodgers fell out of the race, because the team shut him down following a neck injury. Paul has produced very good numbers during his three seasons in AAA, hitting .320/.380/.512, and saw an increase in power during his 250 AAA PA in 2010. But he’ll be 26 on Opening Day and is now out of options. As says Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness:

It’s hard to say that he forced his way into a roster spot with his play this year, but his performance in the minors has been so good that you can’t just let him be lost for nothing, either. He’ll be 26 in the spring – he’s only five months younger than Matt Kemp – and he’s already proven himself in AAA, so all he needs now is to stay healthy and get a chance in the bigs.

Chances are that if the Dodgers do hold onto him, he’ll be in a reserve role.

The other interesting name the Dodgers have on the farm is 23-year-old Trayvon Robinson. They got him in the 10th round of the 2005 draft, and he progressed, until recently, in a manner you’d expect from a 10th round draft choice. But in the last two seasons he’s improved his game. In 2010 he spent the season at AA and hit .300/.404/.438 while playing 120 games in center field. Prior to the season Baseball America ranked him the Dodgers’ ninth best prospect. They praised his newfound power — he had a .193 ISO in 2009 — but he slipped a bit in that regard, producing a .138 ISO in 2010. He did, however, improve his walk rate, something that ranked among BA’s concerns. In 2009 he improved his walk rate to 10 percent, and in 2010 that went to 14 percent. Before the season BA predicted that if he improved he’d “be knocking on the door of the major leagues in 2011.” That does appear to be the case.

Given the promise and production of both Robinson and Paul, I’d wager that the Dodgers will refrain from making a big splash in order to improve their left field situation. They could certainly use some more power, though a bounceback year from Matt Kemp could help provide that. They could also seek an upgrade at first base. In the outfield, the Dodgers don’t need a world beater to improve upon the combined 0 WAR they got from their left fielders. With perhaps a veteran supplement, they might have considerable improvements within their own system.