Just as the Dodgers' crowded outfield situation appeared to be coming to a head, another injury has let manager Don Mattingly off the hook. With Carl Crawford now sidelined by an ankle sprain suffered in Tuesday night's game against the Reds, leftfield in Los Angeles could belong to former starting centerfielder Matt Kemp, who has been buried on the bench for most of the past week due to his declining defense.
Kemp has been the odd man out for the Dodgers in the last five games, with Mattingly turning to Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig in the outfield. Ethier powered L.A. to a 6-3 victory over Cincinnati on Tuesday by driving in four runs with a solo homer and a bases-loaded triple, but Crawford was forced to leave the game in the eighth inning after spraining his left ankle chasing down a Chris Heisey double. But for the mid-inning position change, Mattingly chose to insert Scott Van Slyke into left and wound up using Kemp as a pinch-hitter for pitcher J.P. Howell in the bottom of the inning; in just his second plate appearance since May 22, he struck out.
Crawford is bound for the disabled list; he entered the Dodgers' clubhouse last night in a wheelchair and was later put in a protective boot, telling reporters, "I think it's going to take awhile." That's an ominous sign for a player who spent nearly 200 days on the DL from 2011-13. Crawford's absence clears the way for Kemp to start in leftfield for the first time since June 2006, when he started seven of his first 21 major league games there. But he hasn't manned the position since and will apparently have to demonstrate to Mattingly that he's comfortable enough with the move in order get back into the lineup. Even then, Kemp may have to compete for time with the lefty-mashing Van Slyke, who has hit .259/.368/.586 in 68 plate appearances. And if Kemp fails to find a comfort level in left, the team may recall 22-year-old top prospect Joc Pederson for a look.
The question of which of the four high-paid outfielders — all signed through at least 2017 — Mattingly would play has lingered ever since Puig burst on the major league scene last June. Until recently, it had largely been an abstract one, as injuries limited the quartet's simultaneous availability to a handful of innings last season. Most of those injuries belonged to Kemp, who served three separate stints on the disabled list for hamstring, shoulder and ankle injuries, and wasn't available for the postseason either. In October, he underwent an AC debridement in his left shoulder and had surgery to remove loose bodies and a bone spur from his left ankle; he didn't make a single Cactus League appearance this spring, and began the regular season on the disabled list, not debuting until the L.A.'s sixth game.
Since Kemp's return, Mattingly has been forced into a juggling act. Puig has more or less been a constant in rightfield, starting 45 of the team's 53 games and hitting a sizzling .346/.445/.615 with 10 homers. His batting average, on-base percentage and 197 OPS+ all rank second in the NL, his slugging percentage is third and since being benched in the first week of April for showing up late to the ballpark, his disciplinary problems have receded into the background while his plate discipline has matured. Simply put, he's now the most indispensable Dodgers position player, and quite possibly the game's most exciting player, period.
As for the other three, Crawford has started 35 times in leftfield, none of them against left-handed pitchers; even so, he has hit just .267/.293/.400, though he's been hot in May (.333/.358/.513 in 81 PA) after a frigid April. Fellow lefty Ethier, now hitting .277/.335/.411, until recently appeared to be the odd man out. He has started six times in left, 19 in center and eight in right; his season has been bookended by two five-game stints in center during Kemp's unavailability, in between which he started just 24 of 43 games, one as the designated hitter.
Kemp has made 34 starts, all in center, hitting .262/.325/.450, but Mattingly has shown increasing dissatisfaction with his defense. Kemp's most recent start came last Thursday, and on Saturday Mattingly told him in a closed-door meeting that he would begin working out in leftfield. Underlying this is that the manager — and apparently the team brass — isn't convinced that Kemp is fully healthy. Via InsideSoCal's J.P. Hoornstra, here's what Mattingly said prior to Monday's game, which found Kemp sitting despite strong small-sample numbers (6-for-12 with two homers) against Reds starter Johnny Cueto:
“We’ve still got to go back to him getting to 100 percent,” Mattingly said. “We don’t feel like he’s moving the way he did a couple years ago. We still feel like maybe physically he is back because he isn’t on the medical report but you see the steps sometimes, he doesn’t really want to stop hard. Maybe that’s getting over that little fear of the ankle where it’s at. This gives him more time to be able to get to where we feel he’s 100 percent, continue him to work in center but also work in left field which we feel is best for the ballclub at this moment.”
Kemp took fly balls in leftfield on Tuesday, but Mattingly doesn't appear convinced that he's ready; again via Hoornstra:
Asked what his plan for Kemp is, Mattingly said “just really to get comfortable. He was doing early work today. I thought he looked really good, honestly. I think Davey (Lopes, the Dodgers’ first base coach) and (third base coach Lorenzo) Bundy felt the same way. It’s just a matter of him saying ‘hey I feel comfortable, I’m ready to go.’ From there we just put our guys in the lineup, how we do it.”
So Kemp hasn’t said that he’s comfortable?
“We haven’t even — this is the first day he’s really had a true workout there.”
Mattingly added that Kemp hasn't played much in the past two years (a total of 179 games in 2012-13) and didn't see much outfield time in the spring. Kemp is understandably frustrated by the situation, telling Hoornstra, “I’m here to play baseball, I’m here to try to help my team win any way possible… I’m healthy, man. I feel good. I just want to play.”
The defensive metrics paint a brutal picture of Kemp's play in centerfield; he's 11 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved and 7.5 below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating. While this year's sample is small, the red ink isn't an aberration; via DRS, Kemp was a whopping 37 runs below average in 2010, and 24 runs below average in the ensuing three seasons. Per 1,200 innings (roughly 135 games, B-Ref's per-season metric), he's 12 runs below average in center for his career.
While Ethier won a Gold Glove in 2011 thanks to errorless play, he came into this season 17 runs below average in right according to DRS, or −3 per 1,200 innings. Prior to Kemp's injuries last year, Ethier had played just one major league game in centerfield, but he did a solid job in Kemp's absence, finishing at −3 DRS and −1.8 UZR. Given his limited number of starts at any position this year, his numbers aren't even worth citation, but with neither Crawford nor Puig comfortable in the middle pasture, it's fair to conclude that he's now the Dodgers' best centerfield option. That's at least until the team can find room for Pederson, currently hitting a sizzling .347/.454/.642 with 15 homers at hitter-friendly Triple A Albuquerque.
Even with Crawford sidelined, this isn't a problem that's going away soon. Ethier is making $15.5 million this year and is owed $56 million more through 2017, including a buyout of his 2018 club option. Crawford is making $20.25 million this year and is owed an additional $62.25 million through 2017. Kemp is making $21 million this year and is owed another $107 million through 2019. Puig is making $2 million this year and is owed another $24 million through 2018, though he can opt for arbitration once he reaches three years of service time, which would happen after the 2016 season; via the info on Cot's Contracts, it doesn't appear as though Super Two eligibility is grounds for opting out.
Puig would obviously be the easiest to trade, but even with his disciplinary problems, that's about as likely as the Angels trading Mike Trout; enamored by his talent, Mattingly and those above him have demonstrated that they're in for the long haul. Trading any one of the other three would involve eating a significant chunk of change, and while the Dodgers' ownership has jacked up payroll to $229.3 million, only Andruw Jones' $3.2 million is heading toward a player not on the roster. Taking on perhaps 10 times that amount — or more — isn't in the cards at the moment, but if the Dodgers wind up with four healthy outfielders come July, it's likely that they'll make a deal, particularly if they continue to contend and show a clear need at another position. For the moment, Crawford's injury provides some cover, but the last round of this battle of talent and egos has yet to be fought.