There aren’t many question marks for the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers. The team, which was nine innings from its first World Series title in 29 years and barely lost anyone this offseason (with the exception of Yu Darvish), remains in very good position to get back to the Fall Classic.
However, there is one clear uncertainty for the club: left field.
In 2017, Chris Taylor started the most games in left with 46 and super-rookie Cody Bellinger followed with 37, according to Baseball-Reference. However, by season’s end, the two were firmly cemented as the full-time center fielder and first baseman, respectively.
After them, the list becomes significantly more bleak. Curtis Granderson had 23 starts in one of the most unsuccessful trade deadline experiments in recent memory, and current free agent Franklin Gutierrez underperformed in his 14 starts before suffering a season ending back injury, hitting .232/.317/.339.
Andrew Toles followed with 13 starts before his ACL tear, and Kiké Hernández had 12. Fan-favorite Andre Ethier had eight, somewhat forgotten Trayce Thompson had three, and Joc Pederson and Scott Van Slyke added two each.
Of those 10 players who made a single start, only four have any shot of playing in left next season. Taylor and Bellinger are more than locked-in at their respective positions, while Granderson, Gutierrez, Ethier, and Van Slyke are no longer Dodgers.
The most clear option figures to be Andrew Toles, but his future is uncertain at best. After an unlikely path to the majors, which included a brief stint working in a grocery store, Toles burst onto the scene in 2016 and was one of the Dodgers’ biggest break-out players.
After making his MLB debut July 8, he put up very respectable stats for the rest of 2016, hitting an .865 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) over 48 games. This success let Toles gain Dave Roberts’s trust enough to slot him in as a starter in many playoff games, and he even hit leadoff in the season-ending Game Six loss.
Toles was the Dodgers most frequent leadoff hitter at the beginning of last season, and was continuing to produce. However, tragedy struck: he tore his ACL in early May. He has reportedly made a full recovery since, and will be ready to go for Spring Training.
While Toles has the best chance to become the Dodgers’ every-day left fielder, no one knows how well he will respond after missing the better part of an entire season. It’s also entirely possible that his brief stint in the majors was a blip on the radar, and he will never produce at that rate again.
The second option is likely Hernández. The super-utility man has played left field plenty of times over the last few seasons, and has become a solid platoon option against left-handed pitching, with career splits of .270/.364/.518.
It’s his performance against right-handed pitching that holds him back from becoming an everyday player, as he’s hit only .207/.265/.324 off righties in his career. Those splits became even more drastic last year, as the difference between his OPS vs. RHP and LHP climbed to an astonishing .447.
Although Hernández is only 26 and could certainly go through adjustments that would improve his numbers against righties, it’s unlikely that he will be able to become an everyday player so quickly.
Pederson also has a shot. His case is quite interesting, as he had such a terrible regular season last year that he was sent down to OKC in August. However, his electric performance in the World Series has seemingly erased the struggles of the regular season from the memory of much of the fan base.
He slashed a dismal .212/.331/.407 with a -.04 WAR (wins above replacement) until October, and then in staggering comparison, clobbered three pivotal home runs while hitting .333/.400/.944 in the Fall Classic.
The fact of the matter is that the World Series is much too small of a sample size to claim that Joc has turned a corner, similar to how it’s unfair to judge Darvish by his two blowups against the Astros.
Pederson’s career has been marked by a number of adjustments to his swing, all of which have come with mediocre results. It’s reasonable to expect that he’ll have a new addition when he shows up to Camelback Ranch, and maybe he’ll return to the elite player he was during the first half of his rookie season.
But for now, it’s tough to predict that Joc will have a great spring and get slotted into left field everyday.
From there, the situation becomes even more complicated.
Somehow, Matt Kemp is a Dodger again in 2018. Re-acquired in the money-shedding trade that let the Dodgers clear the books on Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy, it was rumored that Kemp would just be released outright, but it appears as if the team is going to give him a shot in spring training.
It’s very unlikely that Kemp will break camp and still be on the 40-man roster. FanGraphs ranked him as the fifth worse defensive outfielder last season, and we can’t forget that he was one of the first pieces to be traded once Friedman’s regime took over because of his negative clubhouse presence.
Kemp’s somewhat redeeming quality is his hitting. Although he’s never returned to his 2009 to 2011 numbers, he is still a fairly productive major league hitter, as he managed to put up a .276/.318/.463 clip with 19 home runs in 115 games last season.
And who knows — considering how well the Dodgers research department does with shifting their players, maybe they will be able to turn Kemp into a serviceable everyday left fielder.
However, the odds of this happening, and the chance the organization forgets his terrible clubhouse behavior, are slim to none. But it appears he’ll at least be given a chance in Spring Training, unless Friedman can offload his massive salary to another team before then.
After Kemp comes Alex Verdugo, the Dodgers second-ranked prospect in 2018 by Baseball America. The lefty will come into camp with a chance to make the opening day roster, but it’s not likely. He struggled mightily in his September call-up last fall, and looked uncomfortable at the plate. OKC is the likely destination for Verdugo.
The last option is Thompson, who probably faces the biggest uphill climb back to the majors this season. After missing most of last season from an injury, he didn’t look much like the electrifying outfielder we saw in 2016 when he returned late in the season, hitting a dismal .122/.218/.265 in 27 games.
In the end, a platoon in left is the most plausible option. Friedman is notorious for favoring platoon matchups, and it’s somewhat unlikely that any of these candidates will emerge as an everyday player.
The most likely scenario is Hernández getting most starts against lefties, with some combination of Toles and Pederson facing off against right handers.
However, there will certainly be an interesting and exciting position battle during spring training, as each player will try to make their case to play every day. Maybe Matt Kemp will even surprise us all and return to his previous level of stardom in L.A.
No matter what, there will certainly be plenty of speculation over the next 40 days before Clayton Kershaw takes the mound on Opening Day.
Hank Snowdon CM ’21 is an economics major with a data science sequence from Columbus, Ohio. He has previously served as TSL’s editor-in-chief, managing editor and sports editor.