Well, the season is two games old, and already we have our first dilemma of the season here in Los Angeles! What makes this dilemma all the more intriguing is that it involves two very talented ballplayers and a little bit of front office strategy. Let me break this down a bit.
Yasiel Puig had one of the greatest Spring Trainings in recent memory. By that I mean the Cuban phenom was absolutely out-of-sight good. He hit .567 and mashed the ball with authority. He also played very good outfield defense. We all know his tool set. We also know what happened in Oakland last year when they brought in a player with a similar history, physical make-up and tool set, Yoenis Cespedes.
Carl Crawford on the other hand is an established major leaguer who put up several impressive seasons in Tampa Bay before signing a big contract in Boston where he struggled and later suffered an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery. Crawford played an abbreviated spring as he was still recovering from the Tommy John surgery and looked impressive in limited action. Crawford made an immediate impression on Opening Day, going 2-for-4 with a blistering infield single that hit off of Giants’ First Baseman Brandon Belt and then doubling down the left field line in the 8th inning to set up the Dodgers’ second run of the game.
Of course, some would say that this is the best possible “problem” that the Dodgers can have. They have a young potential super star in Puig who appears to be ready to come up and take the place of any of their 3 current starting outfielders if necessary.
It also creates another problem: Puig can’t be stashed in the Minor Leagues forever. At some point he has to be allowed to come up and show off his abilities. The Dodgers are, after all, paying him over $40 million over the course of a 7 year contract for his services, and it makes no sense for a $6 million a year player to be playing at Jacksonville or Albuquerque for any extended period of time.
So what do the Dodgers do? Well, despite the wishes of the fanbase, the Dodgers made a smart business decision by sending Puig down to start the season. By keeping Puig off the Major League roster for the first 2 weeks or so of the season, the Dodgers will avoid a situation where Puig would become an uncontrolled free agent after his contract runs out at the end of 2018. However, because of rules regarding players that teams develop in their farm system and the bargaining agreement structure of Major League Baseball, Puig remains under team control until the end of the 2019 season if he does not spend the full season on the roster. With the talent that the Dodgers have on the roster and with Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier all at least presumably healthy to start the season, it makes sense to give up at least two weeks of Yasiel Puig to gain an extra year of him in 2019. After all, this is what the Angels did last season with Mike Trout, and he went on to have one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of the game. There’s a chance that Yasiel Puig could bring the sort of energy to the Dodgers that Trout brought to the Angels by putting his debut off a few weeks.
So what is the best choice? It’s up to the reader to decide, but here’s a couple of points to consider.
The Case for Yasiel Puig.
The case for Puig can be summed up with two words: Yoenis Cespedes. Much like Puig’s signing with the Dodgers, Cespedes came to the A’s with a lot of hype and a lot uncertainty. He looked like a great raw talent, but until the season began last year, no one was really certain how he would adapt to the Major League game. Cespedes wound up being an impact bat in the middle of the A’s lineup and was a huge reason why the A’s overtook the Texas Rangers to win the American League West at the end of the season.
Puig has the potential to make the same impact on the Dodgers as Cespedes did on the A’s. The major difference between Puig and Cespedes is that Cespedes had to step into the lineup immediately and be The Impact Bat. He did quite well. Puig’s potential to do damage in the Dodger lineup is even greater this year because unlike Cespedes, he won’t immediately become the focal point. Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez are both top-tier hitters and sluggers who can carry their team and be the big impact guys in their lineup. If Puig has early struggles, he can at least relax with the knowledge that he is not being relied on to be the Dodgers’ major impact bat.
The Case for Carl Crawford.
A case can also be made for Carl Crawford staying with the Dodgers as their every day Left Fielder. Some have complained that Crawford has already needed a day off against a left-handed. A part of this is because Crawford is still playing himself back into shape after missing the better part of last season and a good chunk of spring training this season due to Tommy John surgery. I would expect that we will see Crawford platooning with other players over the first few weeks of the season as he plays his way into shape.
Crawford has the advantage of experience. He’s just 3 years removed from a great year in Tampa Bay where he hit .309 with 19 homers and 90 RBIs. His speed is still intact as we saw on Opening Day. And he did, of course, play his way to a huge contract by working his way up in Tampa and being a big part of the core that turned the Rays into a contender.
While he had a terrible time playing in Boston, this may be a case where a fresh start helps him find his stride. His past experience with making deep playoff runs with the Rays will help if the Dodgers manage to make the playoffs.
The Third Variable In The Equation: Andre Ethier.
Of course, there is a third player who naturally will come into the discussion, and that’s long-time right fielder Andre Ethier. Ethier has been with the Dodgers since a 2006 trade that brought him from Oakland in exchange for Milton Bradley in what was one of the best trades of Ned Colletti’s tenure as the Dodgers’ General Manager. Ethier is usually good for 20-30 home runs a season and usually puts up an average between .280-.310 throughout the season while playing adequate defense in Right Field. Ethier also signed a 5 year, $85 million extension last season with an option for a 6th year that would bring the contract into the $100 million range if it is exercised, so it would appear that the Dodgers have indicated to Ethier that he is in their long-term plans.
That said, it is possible the Dodgers will elect to keep both Puig and Crawford and move Ethier.
The Platoon Concept
There’s also a thought process and a sentiment shared by some fans and writers that the Dodgers could bring up Puig and sit down Crawford and Ethier (and occasionally Kemp) a collective 4-5 nights a week and give Puig status as a near-every game starter. In this way Puig would have regular playing time, the rest of the outfield would have opportunities to take rests and lower their injury risk, and in the event that one of the three main outfielders does go down with a significant injury, Puig can step in immediately to that player’s spot.
So what’s the right answer?
It’s hard for me to even reach a consensus with myself, if that’s possible. Obviously the Dodgers have a lot of outfield depth. That said, I’m personally a fan of the Platoon Concept. Carl Crawford is 31 and will spend at least a good portion of the earliest part of the season trying to play his way into full game shape and build up the stamina necessary to play ever day. Andre Ethier will turn 31 in a week. Matt Kemp is the youngest of the three at 28, but exerpienced some hamstring issues last year and hasn’t looked very comfortable chasing fastballs this season. Perhaps bringing in Puig and giving him regular playing time while working in off-days for the three veterans would be the best answer, keep everyone rested, and give the Dodgers a great bat off the bench every night whether it be Crawford, Kemp, Ethier or Puig who sits that particular evening.
Regardless of how the Dodgers opt to handle their outfield this year, there is no doubt that they have some great options. Hopefully their three veterans and their young phenom will each have plenty of opportunities to contribute to this season’s highlight reel.