The Old Dodger and the top prospect who could be the Next Great Dodger hang out sometimes. They've hung out at the ballpark, they've gone to NBA games, they've been out to dinners. "Italian, always Italian, of course," said the prospect, Joc Pederson. It will be the Old Dodger, Tommy Lasorda, telling old baseball stories over plates of pasta. The other day, Lasorda was telling a story about the time Fernando Valenzuela came to him with what were supposed to be the hottest peppers on the face of the Earth. Lasorda, trying to prove how tough he was, ate one pepper and said, "No picante." He ate another ("No picante!"), then another ("No picante!!"), then another ("No picante!!!"), until he'd eaten half a dozen of them. Valenzuela couldn't believe it. As soon as his pitcher left the office, Lasorda screamed at the top of his lungs, emptied a can of milk into his mouth, and ran to the showers.
Of course, uncle Tommy has countless stories. Recently, Lasorda, who has taken Pederson under his wing, also had a lot of advice for the 22-year-old outfielder who is the Dodgers' top prospect and now one of the hottest prospects in all of baseball. Be patient, the Old Dodger will say. Just wait, your time will come.
Joc Pederson is waiting, and he's hitting a lot of home runs, too. The other day, Pederson, hitting third for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, ripped a ball over the 30-foot high batter's eye at the ballpark in Albuquerque, and the ball was still on its way up when it cleared the batter's eye. Earlier this season, he hit a ball so hard that he completely lost track of it. At first, he thought it was way out of play, then he realized it went somewhere to rightfield, so he started to sprint to first, then around the bases. He was the last person to realize the ball was long gone. "Shouldn't count if you don't even know it's a home run," the opposing catcher said as Pederson came home.
He has hit 14 home runs through this week, second most in the Pacific Coast League, and, with a swing that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has compared to Robinson Cano's, he's slicing up pitchers in the PCL, compiling a .351/.454/.638 line with 13 steals. The PCL is a hitter-friendly league, yes, but Pederson is also the fifth-youngest position player in the league, and he's dominating it.
But mostly, Pederson is waiting. He sees L.A.'s outfield situation — four players (Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier) for three spots — and realizes that there's no clear path for him, but he also knows that everything could quickly change. "Realistically, the way I see it, something has to happen where they have to make a move," he said. "They might have to make a deal. I know they have some problems with their infielders, who knows what they need. But they might make a deal.
"It's a strange situation. For Andre and CC to be splitting time, I feel bad for them. I want them all to do the best they can. I want to be on a winning team, playing in the playoffs. But of course, I also want to be there."
No player in the minors has seen his stock rise more since the start of the season than Pederson, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound left-handed hitter who offers an enthralling combination of power and speed. But because of the Dodgers' outfield logjam, and because L.A. will most certainly be looking to make a significant deal this summer to improve what's now being exposed as a flawed, inflexible roster, Pederson has also emerged into one of the most intriguing trade chips around, a prospect who could be the centerpiece for the summer blockbuster deal that rocks the league. He could be the key piece in a trade that brings David Price to L.A., joining Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in an all-world rotation. He could be the player that convinces the Rangers to punt on a lost season and deal Adrian Beltre.
The Dodgers are not yet an Ishtar-sized bomb just yet, but they are certainly a disappointment; at 25-23, L.A. is third in the NL West with that extraordinary $235 million payroll, by far the largest in baseball. The Dodgers are 9-11 in May, with a bullpen that has been bad (third to last in the league with a 4.25 ERA) and a defense has been awful. Kemp still doesn't look like Kemp. Crawford and Ethier are both posting career lows in OPS. Juan Uribe is on the DL with a strained right hamstring, and the infield looks like a mess again, now with Alex Guerrero, who was just starting to heat up in Albuquerque, out indefinitely after he lost a chunk of his ear in a fight with veteran catcher Miguel Olivo. Dee Gordon was phenomenal over the season's first month, but you'd have to be a deluded fantasy owner to believe he's going to keep it up.
If the Dodgers can somehow find room for Pederson on the major league roster, he could be an impact bat in the lineup. The knock against him has always been his struggles against lefthanders, but he's hitting .292/.378/.492 against them this season. "For starters, he's a lot more patient against them," said one scout who saw him this spring. "The change has been night and day."
Said Pederson, "Honestly, it really has been about being more patient. Not being intimidated by that sixth- and eighth-inning lefty specialist, and swinging at bad pitches to get ahead in the count. I'm waiting for my pitch and trusting myself."
Pederson has always been obsessed with his swing, ever since he was a kid who'd spend hours in the hitting cage behind his childhood home in Palo Alto. Last season, he would be up until five in the morning, restless and unable to sleep, watching YouTube clips of other players' swings, from Mike Trout to Jose Bautista to Cano. "I'd go through some days trying out a leg kick and it wouldn't work, or I'd go with a different timing device because I'd have an 0-for-3 day," he said. "This year, I'm getting better at accepting failure and not trying to be perfect with everything. I'm trusting myself more."
The California kid bleeds Dodgers blue. His father, Stu, was drafted by the organization out of USC in 1981, and played eight games for L.A. in '85; his brother Tyger, an infielder from the University of Pacific, was a 33rd-round draft pick by the organization just last year. Pederson loves Lasorda and his stories, and he loves the Dodgers.
"But I also know that there are 29 other teams out there," said the prospect who is about to become one of the most intriguing players of the summer. "My time will come. If it's with the Dodgers, it's with the Dodgers. If it's not, it's not."