Adrian Gonzalez homered in his seventh overall rehab game on Thursday night. It was his fifth game with the OKC Dodgers. It was his first homer in that time. He’s hitting .308/.235(!)/.538 with the Triple-A Dodgers and is getting closer to coming back, and the pressing question a lot of folks have been asking is: What happens when he does come back?
This is a good problem to have, as we’ve been saying for years. The Dodgers’ depth is unmatched, and this is just another example of that.
In Cody Bellinger‘s first couple weeks in the majors, I said that if Gonzalez had come back healthy, he’d go back to being the everyday first baseman. But, no one expected or predicted Bellinger would break out the way he has. So, Bellinger will continue to be the Dodgers’ regular first baseman, meaning he’ll draw all starts against lefties and a start or two a week against righties. Gonzalez should get starts 2-3 times a week at first base and none against left-handed pitching, because he cannot hit them effectively anymore. I can’t confirm that’s going to be the plan, but it makes the most sense.
Now that we have Gonzalez penciled back in for part-time work (with regular pinch-hitting duties), here’s how the dominoes fall.
Because Logan Forsythe has struggled as much as he has against right-handed pitching (.199/.316/.230, 59 wRC+), he might be the guy who loses the most playing time in this scenario. Due to Chris Taylor having an even more unlikely breakout, he needs to remain in the everyday lineup. That would mean him coming in to play second base when Gonzalez starts while Bellinger would start in left field.
Lineup 1 vs. RHP
Another option is to keep Forsythe in there (or start Chase Utley, which has been happening lately) against righties and moving either Bellinger or Taylor to center field (with the other playing left) and sending Pederson to the bench. This one doesn’t seem as likely because, despite Pederson’s recent struggles, he’s still hitting .230/.351/.466 with a 119 wRC+ against righties. The impact potential of Pederson in center field (who is the team’s best defender out there) outweighs that of Forsythe or Utley at second base, so Joc stays in center field.
Lineup 2 vs. RHP
Again, not bad. I think Lineup 1 is stronger, though.
Also, there may be occasional days off for Puig in right field (even though he’s better against RHP this season) that could see Bellinger slide out to that position with Gonzalez manning first. But everyone else is entrenched in their positions — as well they should be.
When Gonzalez comes back, he’s not just going to be the most expensive pinch-hitter in baseball. He’ll get some playing time, but more in a platoon role. Coming back from the neck/back injuries that have plagued him this season, that’s the right call. To expect him to be the 2015 or second-half 2016 version of himself is unrealistic at this point. The Dodger offense has been great without him, and if he’s any shell of his former self, he’ll only help matters.
Versatility is key here for the other position players. Because Bellinger can play the outfield well and because of Taylor’s willingness to take on a completely unfamiliar position to him before this season, the team has thrived. Taylor has taken off in left field defensively — 6 DRS, 21.8 UZR/150 — so keeping him there the majority of the time might be best. Bellinger has been worth 4 DRS, too, in left field. I’m interested to see if he gets any reps in center field, but seeing as the Dodgers are in the midst of an historic season, I’d bet against it. Still, the Dodgers have to get A-Gon back into the flow of things, and thankfully they have plenty of options to work him back in.
Oh, and should the Dodgers make it to the World Series, Gonzalez might be one of the better National League designated hitters in recent memory. Much better than trading for Jim Thome to be that guy and never getting to use him, eh?