It’s really, really difficult to overstate just how bad the first base situation is in Los Angeles right now. Of the possibly dozens of different ways to describe how awful James Loney & Juan Rivera are, my favorite might be “Juan Uribe still exists, and even despite that third base isn’t the biggest problem on this club.” Loney (.252/.300/.328 & .265 wOBA entering Thursday) and Rivera (.243/.280/.355 & .271 wOBA) have combined to start 112 of the first 118 games at first base this year, and all the Dodgers have received for that time investment is a combined .268 wOBA, just a tick above Seattle for the worst in baseball. (If we go by WAR, which factors in Rivera’s below-average defense, they are dead last.) I’m not sure what’s more surprising – that Loney has just three homers this year, or that he hasn’t had an unintentional walk since June 23.
This couldn’t have come as any shock to the Dodgers, of course. Loney has been struggling (and mostly failing) to live up to his prospect reputation for years, and re-signing Rivera because of a few good weeks in Los Angeles after being DFA’d by Toronto last year never really made sense in the first place. As the Dodgers upgraded elsewhere with Shane Victorino & Hanley Ramirez this July, they attempted to find a solution at first as well – they were reportedly going after Adrian Gonzalez, and did agree to acquire Carlos Lee from Houston before Lee refused to waive his no-trade clause – but were unable to find a good fit.
Barring a surprising August waiver deal for someone like Justin Morneau, the first-place Dodgers are stuck making their playoff push with this atrocious duo. But does it need to be that way? Down at Triple-A Albuquerque, Jerry Sands is crushing the ball all around the PCL, and with every disappointing day from Rivera & Loney, it gets harder and harder for the Dodgers to justify keeping him there.
Sands has been more than up-and-down over the last two seasons. A 25th-round pick in 2008, he burst onto the scene in 2010 with 35 homers and a .981 OPS between Low-A and Double-A ball. Expected to spend most of 2011 in the minors, he was instead fast-tracked to the bigs before the end of April after a scorching spring training and the predictable failure of the Jay Gibbons / Marcus Thames / Tony Gwynn trio in left field. Mainly playing the outfield, Sands showed flashes but ultimately fizzled, hitting .200/.294/.328 over 144 plate appearances before being returned to Triple-A in June. Back to the bigs in September, Sands was one of the hottest Dodgers, hitting .342 /.415/.493 in 83 plate appearances.
Headed into 2012, Sands was not assured of a job, but it was hoped that he would be able to hit his way into one. It didn’t happen. Out of sorts due to constant tinkering with his swing, Sands was dropped from big-league camp before the final cuts and was a mess in the early part of the Triple-A season, bottoming out at .225/.316/.388 on May 12. A brief callup to the Dodgers later that month was more due to the onslaught of injuries tearing apart the big club than anything else, and he was back to the minors by the end of May.
In early July, Sands reverted to his old swing, and the results have been impressive. In July, he hit .317/.410/.584 with eight homers; so far in August, he’s at .477/.531/.886 with five homers, including three in his last five games and five in his last seven. Unlike so many other Isotopes, this can’t even be chalked up to a large home/road split, as on the year his home slugging (.560) is only slightly better than his road mark (.538).
None of this assures success, of course, and I hardly need to tell you what sort of BABIP goes into a .477 batting average – and it’s true that Sands has not found success in his brief big-league stints thus far. But he’s also not even 25 yet, and working on his fourth consecutive season with an OPS north of .924. Even if he doesn’t develop into a star, how much does it really take to be better than Loney & Rivera? Every day, it becomes more difficult for the Dodgers to avoid that question, and at the very least he’s assured of a callup when rosters expand in two weeks. If the incumbent duo are still struggling to hit their weight at the end of the month, it’s easy to see Sands getting some serious playing time – which might just make him the rare source of free power as fantasy leagues head into playoff season.