So here’s what we know, right now: Matt Kemp is not a center fielder, no matter how much he wants to be. Andre Ethier is not a center fielder, though he admirably did his best to make it work. Carl Crawford is not a center fielder, because he hasn’t played there in a decade, has a terrible arm, and actually has less experience there than Ethier does. Yasiel Puig is not a center fielder, probably, and although it may be interesting to see him try, it’s hard to see that actually happening. Scott Van Slyke is kind of a center fielder, surprisingly, but when he’s the best option out there, it truly shows the extent of the problem. I don’t mind him as a fill-in, but a team hoping to win a championship isn’t making him their starting center fielder down the stretch and into the playoffs. Dee Gordon isn’t a center fielder either, because he’s an All-Star second baseman; I don’t even want to include him in this conversation, but enough people keep asking me about the few games he played there in the winter league last year that I had to address it.
The Dodgers have “too many outfielders,” yet they don’t have enough outfielders. Irony!
We’ve been talking about this situation for months, since well before the start of the season, and for the most part the reaction has been, “it’s not a problem until it’s a problem.” Kemp, Crawford, Puig and Ethier were rarely healthy at the same time. Kemp was an acceptable, if still subpar, center fielder. Van Slyke seemed like a nice bench player and little more. Joc Pederson was 21 and hadn’t seen his first day of Triple-A. It seemed the problem would work itself out over time.
Well, that time has come. Everyone is healthy. Kemp and Ethier have tried and failed to be center fielders, with Ethier throwing in lousy offense and fewer homers than Billy Hamilton for good measure. Pederson has spent his half-season in Triple-A doing nothing but produce. The time is now.
The Pederson era is imminent
Well, not “now,” exactly. I’d hardly expect Pederson to be with the team tonight or tomorrow against the Padres. There’s no point in that with just two games remaining before the break, and you can live with Van Slyke there for another 18 innings. But I really do think that Don Mattingly has had enough, because despite his public assertions that Ethier was sitting with “soreness,” it’s all but certain that he’s decided he can no longer live without a capable center fielder. The excuses that Pederson hadn’t even played above Double-A are no longer valid. He’d probably be in the bigs on 80 percent of the other teams in baseball. It’s now on Ned Colletti to make it happen, and he’s going to need time to do so.
Because remember, you can’t just call up Pederson without a corresponding move, and I don’t just mean the logistics of finding him a spot. (With Clint Robinson DFA’d, there’s only 39 men on the 40-man roster, and even if Scott Elbert is ready soon, it’s easy enough to DFA Colt Hynes.) It’s that you’re already in a situation where your bench has Crawford and Ethier on it, and you don’t call up Pederson if he’s not playing every day. This is the one part of this where “too many outfielders” is a very real thing. You simply can’t have six active outfielders, even if Van Slyke can spell Adrian Gonzalez at first now and then.
As it’s always been, how to make that happen is the big problem. Puig obviously isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t think the Dodgers really want to trade Kemp, who has shown some life in his bat — he’s hitting just under his career average, but not by much — and would be difficult to move with approximately $117 million left on his contract anyway. I think we’d all agree they’d be thrilled to move Crawford (~$71m left) or Ethier (~$63m left), though of course the extremely minimal — negative, even — trade value each has is a huge problem.
No, they aren’t going to simply DFA one. I have some ideas about where, and for who. We’ll get to that over the next few days, but that’s really a separate conversation. For now, what’s becoming all too clear is that with what we’ve learned about the guys in the bigs and the guy in the minors, change is coming. It might not be easy or smooth or simple. But it is coming.
But please, please, when Pederson does arrive, let’s try to keep those expectations in check. He can’t be expected to be a repeat of 2013 Puig. His outstanding total line of .322/.443/.570 is absolutely inflated by his unreasonable numbers in Albuquerque, .386/.521/.677. His defense is best considered a work in progress; if that immediately makes him better than the rest of this league-worst center field defensive crew, that’s certainly a worthwhile upgrade, it just isn’t going to make him Carlos Gomez or Juan Lagares. I really am worried that too many Dodger fans consider him some kind of savior. It’s unfair, and it’s unrealistic. He is coming, though, most likely sooner than later. How exactly that happens should be among the most interesting stories of the next week.