The Dodgers have become masters of using a flexible 40-man roster, shuffling players from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City or Los Angeles to the DL to maximize their available talent. This manipulation might be tested in 2018, as two talented fringe players are out of options.
Trayce Thompson and Wilmer Font are in similar positions. Both players are unproven and buried behind multiple players at their respective positions. Both players are also out of minor league options, meaning if they aren’t on the Dodgers 25-man roster or the disabled list, they’ll have to clear waivers in order to be demoted to the minors. However, both are on the right side of 30 and have showed enough promise that losing either with no return would sting.
A Bold Case For Font
Font went more than four years in between major league appearances. Prior to last season, Font hadn’t appeared in the majors since July 2013, when he made two mop-up appearances for the Texas Rangers. He split those four years between various minor league teams and the Canadian American Association, an independent league with teams in the northeastern United States and eastern part of Canada, before unceremoniously signing a minor-league deal with the Dodgers prior to the 2017 season.
Font broke camp at Triple A-Oklahoma City as a 26-year-old. He led the Pacific Coast League in ERA (3.42) and strikeouts (178) en route to being named the leagues’ Pitcher Of The Year. He was promoted in September and made three appearances in the big leagues. He allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings out of the bullpen.
Despite a rough showing in September, some outlets are high on Font. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote two pieces on Font this offseason. The first looked at Font as a prospect that other teams could purchase by taking on one of the Dodgers’ expensive contracts. The other, an explanation on why a team should do that.
I Should Explain This Wilmer Font Thing https://t.co/GS3gmrMuGq
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) February 2, 2018
The post above does a good job explaining why a 27-year-old prospect with more runs allowed than innings pitched in the majors is worth getting a little excited about. His dominance of the hitter-friendly PCL makes him an interesting piece moving forward, and the Dodgers could really use him.
The Dodgers accomplished the impossible this offseason, when they got under the luxury tax by offloading Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy on the Braves. While this trade offered them financial freedom, it did eat into their starting pitching depth. McCarthy made 16 starts last year and while Kazmir didn’t start a game last year, he was one of the shrinking number of Dodgers with starting experience heading into 2018.
With McCarthy and Kazmir gone (along with Yu Darvish and Trevor Oaks), the Dodgers’ once-deep pitching staff is a little more shallow headed into 2018. Dustin wrote about this a few weeks ago as well. Font may be sixth or seventh on the starter depth chart, but losing him for nothing would be less than ideal.
Barring injury, Font certainly won’t crack the rotation. However, stashing him in the bullpen as a long reliever would be a wise move. After Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers don’t have a starter who can consistently go six or seven innings. Having Font in the bullpen provides a guy in the bullpen who could go three or four innings if needed.
As Spring Training carries on, the picture has begun to clear up for the Dodgers’ roster.
Roberts: Jansen, Baez, Cingrani, Alexander, Stripling set for bullpen. Dodgers expect to use 8-man pen.
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) March 3, 2018
This came after news that Tom Koehler suffered a strained anterior capsule in his right shoulder, and will miss significant time. That injury opens up a third spot in the bullpen. If they prefer to take a third lefty, Adam Liberatore or Edward Paredes makes sense. Josh Fields and Yimi Garcia make sense from the right side, but Font would give them a second reliever that can give them some length, along with Ross Stripling.
The Risk Of Losing Thompson Without A Trayce
Thompson cracked the Opening Day roster in 2016, but hurt his back in late May. For the first two months of the season, Thompson had a triple slash line of .266/.333/.514 and posted a 128 wRC+. The league-average wRC+ for outfielders in 2016 was 100, so Thompson was playing quite well until he got hurt. Thompson continued to play for about a month with the injury, and posted a .189/.275/.370 triple slash with a 76 wRC+ before being shut down. In July, it was revealed that Thompson had fractured two vertebrates in his back and he was shut down for the season. 2017 wasn’t much better for Thompson, as he appeared in only 27 games and posted a .122/.218/.265 triple slash.
Over the last year and a half, Thompson watched as Yasiel Puig and Chris Taylor solidified themselves in the Dodger outfield. Joc Pederson lost his starting spot and his Major League roster spot last year, but put together a strong postseason to put him back in good graces. Enrique Hernandez bounced back last season and should be in the lineup against left-handed pitching. Matt Kemp, against all odds, is still around. Also, Andrew Toles is back from a torn ACL.
That’s seven viable outfield options, not even including Alex Verdugo, a top prospect who made his MLB debut in September. The 13-pitcher roster leaves room for four bench players, one of whom will undoubtedly be a catcher. Barring injury, Chase Utley will Veteran Presence his way onto the roster, which leaves the Dodgers with two bench slots and the starting left field slot to fill.
After Taylor and Puig, Hernandez is probably the biggest lock to make the roster. His versatility and ability against lefties gives him obvious value and makes him a shoo in. Conversely, Verdugo is the obvious choice to be left off the roster. He arguably has the highest upside of the group, but there’s no point in rostering Verdugo if he isn’t going to play every day. His September struggles last year also showed that a little more time in the minors wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, so it would be a surprise if he broke camp in the majors, despite a strong spring so far.
This leaves Pederson, Toles, Kemp and Thompson fighting for two spots. At least one of Pederson or Toles should make the roster, as all the other outfield options are right-handed. You can make a strong case for both of them to make the roster, as they’re arguably the most talented and have the highest upside of the four. However, both still have options remaining (Pederson has two, Toles with three), which might lead to at least one starting the season in the minors. Stacie wrote about Toles’ return over the weekend.
Assuming they take one of the two lefties, that leaves Kemp and Thompson fighting for the last spot. We all have our fond memories of Kemp, and Allan even touched on his growing chances of making the roster and contributing in 2018. If it came down to Kemp and Thompson, Thompson seems like the more logical option. He can play all three outfield positions, while Kemp can barely handle left field. Kemp is still the superior player offensively, but his best years are behind him. While Thompson is an unknown at the plate right now, his versatility and athleticism seems like something this organization wouldn’t be too keen to lose. This decision is becoming a little tougher every day, as Kemp is having an extremely strong spring at the plate.
There’s still plenty of time remaining before these decisions have to be made. If Font or Thompson struggle for the remainder of the spring, maybe it becomes a bit easier to stomach losing one of them. Other players, such as Jake Peter, have made their case for a roster spot with strong showings so far this spring as well. There’s also a chance that Thompson does clear waivers, but you have to think a team would take a flier on him.
Having too many quality players is a good problem to have, but it leads to some difficult decisions. At least one highly talented player won’t make the Opening Day roster, and if that’s Font or Thompson, they might be in another organization by then.