By Jay Jaffe
For all of their big spending and the rosy projections as favorites in the National League West, the Los Angeles Dodgers still have significant questions about the health of their starting outfield. With Opening Day less than two weeks away, the past few days have included significant steps forward for both Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, even as a lesser-known outfielder is stealing some of their thunder.
Kemp is coming off a disappointing follow-up to his MVP-caliber 2011 season, one in which he was limited to just 106 games due to a recurrent hamstring strain and a late-August collision with an outfield wall in Colorado that damaged his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Initial hopes were that he would just require minor repair to his labrum, requiring a six-week rehab, but when he underwent surgery on Oct. 5, the damage was found to be more extensive than expected. His labrum needed reattaching and his rotator cuff sustained damage as well, a set of injuries requiring a four-month rehab.
That left Kemp unable to swing a bat until January, and he was behind schedule as camp opened. Held out of the first week of exhibition games, he made his Cactus League debut on March 1, as a designated hitter, and not surprisingly, started slowly. He returned to centerfield as of March 5, but didn't collect his first hit of the spring until March 11, after an 0-for-15 start including an exhibition against Team Mexico and an incomplete rainout against the Giants. On Sunday, he reached another mini-milestone, collecting his first homer of the spring, a solo shot off Diamondbacks reliever Brad Zeigler.
That's a particularly positive sign given concerns about the extent to which the injury could sap the power of a slugger who hit 39 homers in 2011 (one for every 17.7 plate appearances) and 23 last year (one for every 19.5 plate appearances). In the wake of Kemp's surgery, teammate Adrian Gonzalez, who underwent a similar surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in October 2010, told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez of his own timeline, "I didn't have a lot of power in April , but I got hits and everything… Once May rolled around, I felt pretty good."
As Hernandez notes, Gonzalez played in just 11 games that spring, and hit only one homer in April, but wound up with 27 for the year. That's four fewer than he hit the previous season, but with the move from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly Fenway Park, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. His slugging percentage rose from .511 to .548, but his isolated power (slugging minus batting average) was virtually unchanged (.213 in 2010, .211 in 2011). Another Dodgers teammate, Hanley Ramirez, underwent labrum surgery in mid-September 2011 and went from 10 homers and a .136 ISO in an abbreviated season to 24 homers and a .180 ISO last year, numbers comparable to his healthy 2010 but blunted by a drop in batting average.
In any event, Kemp's progress suggests that barring a setback, he'll be in the lineup on Opening Day. It's still unclear if the same can be said about Crawford, who made his Cactus League debut on Sunday, going hitless in three at-bats of a split-squad game against the Brewers but making contact all three times; he followed that by collecting two hits on Monday. Limited to just 31 games last year -- first by offseason surgery on his left wrist and then by a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow -- Crawford underwent Tommy John surgery in late August, and two days later was part of the blockbuster trade with the Red Sox. His spring debut had been pushed back by nerve irritation in the elbow, caused by overwork, but after a week-long shutdown, he played in three straight minor league games last week leading up to Sunday's game.
Crawford will continue to DH as he works on building up his arm strength for playing leftfield. He's throwing 90 feet, the same distance he reached before being shut down, but has yet to be cleared for game activity in the field. Manager Don Mattingly didn't rule out the possibility of starting the season with him on the roster even if he's initially limited to pinch-hitting duty, which seems backward — better to get him game activity on a minor league rehab assignment and let Los Angeles put forth 25 able-bodied players.
One outfielder who won't be on the Opening Day roster despite an impressive spring is Yasiel Puig. The 22-year-old Cuban defector, whom the Dodgers signed to a seven-year, $42 million deal last June, went 3-for-3 with a homer against the Royals on Saturday, his second of the spring; the flood of hits raised his spring batting average to .452, not that the numbers actually mean anything given the small sample sizes and variable level of competition.
Viewed as a five-tool player with tremendous power, good speed and a strong arm, Puig was scouted by Mike Brito, the Panama hat-wearing fixture behind home plate who signed Fernando Valenzuela over 30 years ago. Coming into the year, Puig ranked 47th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, and 79th on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 list. Even so, he barely has any stateside experience. After being signed, he hit a sizzling .354/.442/.634 in 95 plate appearances at two low-minors stops despite being out of shape and not playing competitively in over 18 months (he missed the 2011-2012 season in Cuba due to disciplinary reasons). The Dodgers intended for him to follow that up with a stint in the Arizona Fall League, but a staph infection in his elbow required surgery, and he didn't hit well while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. He's in much better shape now, but despite his hot showing, the team has him earmarked for a stay in the minors, likely at the its Double-A Chattanooga or Triple-A Albuquerque outpost.
Mattingly has lavished praise on Puig. Over the weekend he even compared him to Bo Jackson for his combination of power and speed: "This is a Bo Jackson-type package you just don’t see." Even so, the manager is realistic about the idea of starting him in the majors, telling the True Blue LA blog:
"It's probably not the best thing for him. People probably don't want to hear that… I don't think our organization thinks it would be the best thing for a guy with as few at-bats as he's gotten...With Crawford signed through 2017 and Kemp and rightfielder Andre Ethier signed through 2018, figuring out how Puig will fit into the picture is general manager Ned Colletti's headache to be named later — particularly given that Gonzalez is signed through 2018 as well, precluding any of the others moving to first base. Barring another major injury, which is hardly out of the question among this fragile group, the Dodgers will be forced to eat significant salary to unload one of them, once it's clear they can no longer justify keeping Puig in the minors; Ethier, who has just begun a five-year, $85 million extension, is the least expensive, and he plays rightfield, Puig's natural position, so he could be the one to go. But until Puig starts showing off his tantalizing potential in games that matter, that's an abstract concept. The Dodgers have enough concerns about the reality of Opening Day to occupy themselves for the moment.
"He's played well. He did a lot of good things. We see a lot of things that tells us that he's still young and needs to keep working. But like we say with a lot of guys, they tell you when they're ready. If he is ready, wherever he ends up, then he'll tear it up. If he doesn't, that tells you he's maybe not quite ready."