Shane Victorino was recently asked if he would return to the Dodgers in a part-time role next season. One of the many pieces the Dodgers added near the trade deadline, the former all-star centerfielder was adamant that he’ll seek regular playing time in his next deal. Given Victorino’s sentiments and the crowded Dodgers outfield, his return likely isn’t in the cards. However, the Dodgers may need someone like him over the next year or two as an insurance policy on Carl Crawford or a stopgap until Yasiel Puig is ready.
When the Dodgers acquired Crawford, along with Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez …and Nick Punto in last week’s megadeal, they put the finishing touches on a very expensive outfield for the foreseeable future.
The move didn’t come without consequences. In addition to the hefty contracts now on the books, the Dodgers created a positional logjam that may prove difficult to solve without eating salary or making subsequent trades.
As it currently stands, Crawford is set to play left field for another five years. He will make around $102 million over that span. Andre Ethier will man right field and just signed a five-year, $85 million extension through 2017. Matt Kemp is on the books at $160 million over eight years and has center field locked up. The Dodgers would have a difficult time moving any of these players if they were so inclined. Crawford, the likely odd man out of the bunch, wouldn’t bring back much either, even if the Dodgers paid most of his bill.
What complicates matters is twofold: Crawford’s health and the signing of Puig.
The Dodgers signed Puig to a seven-year, $42 million deal this season. He spent August between Rookie Ball and High-A, and produced a .433 wOBA at the latter. He is at least a year and a half away, but is being groomed for a corner outfield spot. Assuming his progress remains on track, the Dodgers will face an interesting dilemma.
The natural reaction to this type of logjam is to move one of the outfielders to a new position. The likeliest position to receive one of said outfielders is first base. The Dodgers just acquired Adrian Gonzalez. Ipso facto, none of those outfielders are moving to first base. They aren’t going to try and move Gonzalez to open up space because the entire point of that trade was to bring him in. They absorbed Crawford’s and Beckett’s contract specifically to replace James Loney with Gonzalez.
If Crawford were to return from Tommy John surgery on schedule and start producing again, the Dodgers may very well find suitors for his services. Crawford probably won’t return until May or June next season, and might not get his groove back until a few weeks later. Which means the Dodgers are spending almost $200 million next season yet won’t have an everyday left fielder until the midway point of the season. If Crawford experiences any setbacks, he would obviously miss even more time.
This puts the team in somewhat of an awkward position, because it’ll be tough to convince a worthwhile and established outfielder to sign up for a role that might not involve everyday play from June onward. They certainly aren’t going to platoon Crawford or limit his playing time either, especially with that contract. Yet the Dodgers can’t risk not getting production out of the position and their big-time prospect isn’t yet ready.
If everything works out, Crawford will return sometime in May, produce very well, and the Dodgers will have another 1.5-2 years to make a decision based on Puig’s readiness. They would only need a stopgap leftfielder for a month, maybe two, and could look to utilize, say, Juan Pierre in a role similar to his current one with the Phillies. He wouldn’t cost much, especially relative to what the Dodgers just spent, could produce in a small sample, and then get relegated to fourth outfielder and pinch-runner status.
If everything doesn’t work out and Crawford misses more time, the Dodgers would be left with a fourth outfielder in an everyday role, which isn’t very prudent for a team looking to make a big-time dent in the National League. The future of the Dodgers outfield is very much up in the air, even with almost $400 million committed to four outfielders over the next several seasons.
They have an important decision to make this offseason but an even more crucial decision to make over the next year or two. Having a surplus of talent is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem in need of a beneficial solution.