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The Strike Zone

Dodgers seek a fix at first

The Dodgers need an upgrade at first base in part because James Loney has failed to build on his strong finish to last season. (US Presswire)

Over the weekend, the Dodgers agreed to a trade for the Astros' Carlos Lee, only to see it fall through, either because Lee vetoed it or because they grew impatient with his hesitancy to leave a rebuilding club for a contender. The Dodgers can't be too broken up over losing out on Lee, a former slugger whose new-found focus on making contact has led to a .285/.336/.407 line in a hitter-friendly park, albeit with just 17 strikeouts in 265 plate appearances. Still, their recent 2-11 slide — a stretch that included a seven-game losing streak that knocked them out of first place, five shutouts in six games, a 33-inning scoreless streak and 66 consecutive innings without a lead — underscores the urgency with which Los Angeles needs to upgrade its offense, and particularly first base, where James Loney, Juan Rivera and company have combined to hit just .238/.298/.334.

Loney and Rivera aren't entirely to blame for the Dodgers' slide. Since Matt Kemp went on the disabled list for the second time on May 30, the team is 12-18 thanks largely to an offense that has hit .218/.292/.291 — bad for the Deadball Era, let alone this higher-offense age — with six home runs over that span, including just one since June 12. During that time, they've averaged a meager 3.1 runs per game. The loss of Kemp has been exacerbated by injuries to Mark Ellis and Andre Ethier, not to mention inadequate production in leftfield (.274/.343/.360), third base (.224/.290/.323) and shortstop (.238/.291/.309) along with first base. Still, first is where they have the least excuse, in that Loney hasn't been an above-average producer at the position since his 96-game 2007 season, but even as his salary has increased, general manager Ned Colletti has remained committed to him to the point of absurdity. Last summer, he appeared to be a nontender candidate thanks to a .256/.301/.325 showing through the first two-thirds of last season; a red-hot .357/.416/.608 tear over the final two months — keyed by a reworked swing — saved himself from that fate. Colletti ultimately re-signed Loney to a $6.375 million deal, only to watch him revert to his weak-hitting ways; his .237/.302/.326 line has been worth −1.2 WARP, the second-lowest mark among first basemen. Lately, Loney has been relegated to a platoon with the similarly unproductive Rivera (.263/.304/.359).

So what options do the Dodgers have for upgrades? The market is limited thanks to the names on which they've already passed (Lee and Kevin Youkilis) as well as the expanded Wild Card format, which could lead a larger number of teams to fancy themselves as contenders. What's left looks like fairly slim pickings:

• Edwin Encarnacion. Though they're 40-39, the Blue Jays are running last in the AL East, and their rotation has been decimated by injuries, making a midsummer retooling for contention a sucker's bet. Encarnacion is a 29-year-old pending free agent who is batting a robust .291/.373/.572 — all career highs — with 22 homers, numbers that probably rated a mention when I ran down All-Star snubs. He's been slightly more productive than David Ortiz, which points to a fundamental problem: His best position is designated hitter. Encarnacion ("E5" to his detractors, for his woes at third base) has played 32 games at first base this year and 59 games there in his career; he's not a slick fielder, but his bat should easily offset his defense even if he cools off. Given his salary ($3.5 million) and status as perhaps the market's top hitter, he'll command a fairly high price.

• Justin Morneau. It's unclear whether the Twins are actively marketing Morneau, but at least one team, the Blue Jays, have called to inquire. It would make sense for the Twins to move the 31-year-old lefty given their 33-45 record and the long-term needs to clear salary (Morneau is owed about $7 million for the remainder of this season, plus $14 million for next year) and to open up the position for Joe Mauer, but Morneau hasn't been the same since his July 2010 concussion. He's hitting just .239/.307/.442 with 10 homers in 251 plate appearances, though at least that's a step up from last year's .227/.285/.333 amid a miserable, injury-riddled season. Given that his value is hardly at its highest, the Twins may hold out hope he can make a more emphatic recovery before they explore trading him.

• Mark Reynolds. The Orioles shopped Reynolds earlier this spring, but found no takers given his $7.5 million salary and the holes in his game, namely an average of 208 strikeouts per year from 2008-2011, and defense that pleases no one. Their position hasn't been strengthened by his .209/.333/.379 showing this year. While he has enjoyed a bit of an upswing since returning from the DL in late May (.227/.343/.420 in 105 plate appearances), the Orioles remain surprising contenders, so they would likely seek major league help in return rather than prospects.

Ty WiggintonThe Phillies signed this versatile 34-year-old with the intention of using him as part of their first base solution until Ryan Howard's return. Alas, he hasn't hit much; his .243/.312/.387 is slightly off the none-too-impressive .254/.313/.411 he hit from 2009-2011. Wigginton is an adequate lefty-masher (.271/.352/.461 career), but he's light against righties (.261/.312/.433 career), at least so long as he's occupying the first base slot.

• Derrek Lee. While the Dodgers awaited word on their deal with the Astros, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal raised the possibility that the team could be interested in the unrelated Derrek Lee. The 36-year-old hasn't played at all this year after hitting a modest .267/.325/.446 split between Baltimore and Pittsburgh last year. He would cost nothing in the way of prospects, but he would presumably need the equivalent of a spring training stint — at least a few weeks in the minors — to be ready. Given the underwhelming performances that proven hitters such as Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui have put up this year after missing spring training, it may be a stretch to expect Lee to do enough to help the Dodgers.

All told, that's not a particularly encouraging market, and that's without trying to pry loose forgotten former major leaguers such as Russell Branyan (.298/.442/.670 in 120 PA at the Yankees' Triple-A Empire State affiliate) and Brad Hawpe (.260/.382/.382 in 152 PA at the Rangers' Double-A Frisco affiliate). The team might do just as well to give farmhands Jerry Sands or Scott Van Slyke a shot at improving upon their current production. Sands, a 24-year-old righty, has endured a frustrating season, hitting .252/.335/.455 at Triple-A Albuquerque — a hitter's haven — after batting .253/.338/.389 in 227 plate appearances with the Dodgers last year. Van Slyke, a 25-year-old righty, has hit .326/.404/.576 at Albuquerque but is just 7-for-40 with the Dodgers; he was recalled the other day when Ethier strained his oblique. While they wait for a better deal to come along, the Dodgers could do worse than give either an extended try.

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