When I wrote at FanGraphs, it became kind of a recurring thing that I’d write about the overstuffed Dodgers outfield. In November 2013, it was “The Dodgers and Too Many Outfielders,” about how they’d manage to wedge the up-and-coming Yasiel Puig & Joc Pederson into a group that had highly-paid veterans Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier. A year later, it was “The Dodgers Still Have Too Many Outfielders,” because they’d traded no one and found that Scott Van Slyke had become a very useful part.
They did, of course, end up trading Kemp, but now Enrique Hernandez is in the mix too, and the injured Van Slyke has been replaced by the similar Justin Ruggiano. Which is to say: The Dodgers still have a ton of outfielders. Except, as they prepare for NLDS Game 5 against Jacob deGrom, they might not have enough outfielders.
Starting the all-righty trio of Ruggiano, Hernandez, and Puig made sense against lefty Steven Matz. But as Don Mattingly tries to make out his lineup card for the all-important Game 5, there’s a whole lot more questions than answers. Just look at this group:
- Ethier. An obvious starter either in LF or RF. Think on that.
- Crawford. Generally underrated by Dodger fans who forget how useful he was in 2013-14, both in the regular season (.290/.333/.416, 113 wRC+) and the postseason (.305/.339/.542, 4 homers), Crawford was the right call to start in Game 1 against deGrom. But it hasn’t been a good 2015 for Crawford, and he’s looked atrocious in the NLDS, reaching base once in 11 plate appearances while making a ton of very weak contact.
- Puig. Clearly the most talented of the group, but what was lost in all the cries for him to be inserted into the lineup is how little he’s played in the last two months. Due to injury, he received only five regular season plate appearances after Aug. 27, and he’s 0-6 with three strikeouts in the NLDS, which isn’t unsurprising. Talent is great, but so is timing. He’s rusty, and it shows. That won’t change by tomorrow night.
- Pederson. His second-half slide has been well-documented, and he is hitless (with two walks, one intentional) in the NLDS, including drawing a Game 1 start against deGrom. His highest OPS in the final three months was .644; in September, he hit .203/.308/.329. I have very little faith that he can touch deGrom, though he is the team’s strongest defensive center fielder, which is more than can be said for…
- Hernandez. …who contributed some “interesting” routes that didn’t help in the Game 3 Mets rout. He has, however, been one of the few productive Dodger bats, reaching base six times, and he has started three consecutive games in center, against righties Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey, and lefty Matz. He does carry a pretty massive career platoon split (187 wRC+ v LH, 89 v RH).
- Ruggiano. A lefty-killer who made sense against Matz but shouldn’t be in the conversation to start against deGrom.
Which is to say… other than Ethier, this is a big confusing mess. Do you go with Puig’s pure talent, hoping it overcomes rust? Do you go with Hernandez’ October productivity, hoping it can overcome his questionable defense and platoon splits? Do you go with Pederson’s defense, hoping he can draw a walk and run into a pitch he can drive? Do you go with Crawford, knowing he’s done it on the October stage in this ballpark as recently as last year? Or do you just throw up your hands and admit that there might not be a right answer because of how dominant deGrom is?
I’m not sure I know the solution. There may not be one. But while the infield of Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner (pending his sore knee) seems pretty clear, the outfield is totally up in the air. It’s weird to think of Ethier as the constant, considering literally years of expecting him to be traded. It’s weird to think of this team as being short-handed in the outfield.