Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Dodgers' Pricey Outfield

I read something that blew my mind today. The Los Angeles Dodgers have upwards of $57 million committed to three outfielders this year: Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier. In other words, the Dodgers are giving those three guys close to what the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins paid their entire teams last year, not to mention more than the Astros and Marlins combined.

That wasn't what surprised me though. The Dodgers are the richest team in baseball by far and will spend around $250 million this season. They seem to have infinite money; with a roster that includes four players earning over $20 million apiece and another six set to earn more than 10, they were still able to dig deep and give Clayton Kershaw a $215 million contract extension, then make Masahiro Tanaka an offer. Theirs is a team built around expensive talent

No, what shocked me was that the Dodgers have so much money tied up in those three--about $300 million in future salary commitments if Ethier's vesting option kicks in--and none of them are very good anymore. Or at least they weren't last year, when they were worth about five bWAR put together. A few years ago, that outfield would have been a superb collection of talent. All have Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, All-Star appearances, and serious MVP consideration on their resumes. They all brought something different to the table: Crawford had ridiculous speed, Kemp blended speed with power, and Ethier got on base and hit for power.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, it's not 2010 anymore. Their star-studded outfield has deteriorated to the point that somebody will need to accept a reduced role so Yasiel Puig can play everyday. If LA had succeeded in trading Kemp, then this wouldn't be an issue, but nobody was too interested in potentially damaged goods who's still due $130 mil over the next six seasons.

So who's it going to be? Puig saw action at all three outfield positions last year but spent the lion's share of his time in right, which would seem to push former Gold Glover Andre Ethier out. But Ethier proved he could play a halfway decent center field while Kemp was on the mend and had the best offensive season of the three. Kemp, a two-time Gold Glove winner in center, will need to prove himself by showing he can stay healthy. Crawford's been a left fielder all his life, spending 1,429 of his 1,468 career games there and winning a Gold Glove in 2010, but his offense is no longer worthy of a corner outfield spot.

Let's take a closer look at each one to try to figure this out:

The youngest, most talented and most expensive of the group is Kemp, who's set to make $21 million this year. That salary comes from the eight-year, $160 million deal he signed after his monster 2011, when he showed just how awesome he could be. Kemp put it all together that year, finishing runner-up to Ryan Braun in the MVP race after falling one home run shy of 40/40 and piling up 8.1 bWAR.

But injuries have ravaged his career since then, limiting him to 106 games in 2012 and just 73 last year, during which his power was non-existent. Health is a big question mark for Kemp going forward, and it remains to be seen if he can recapture the form that made him one of the game's best all-around players before last season. He's too young to write off and has the most bounce back potential of the three.

Then there's Crawford, who's going to cost LA $20 million and some change. Crawford, you might recall, signed his seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox prior to their infamous 2011 disaster. Crawford struggled mightily that year and was hurt the next, causing Boston to dump him (along with Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto) on the Dodgers in late August. He got off to a hot start last year, only to miss five weeks with a hamstring injury and bat an uninspiring .270/.307/.361 after returning in early July.

Since landing his huge payday, Crawford has not proven himself to be anywhere near the excellent player he was with Tampa Bay. Various injuries have knocked him out of the lineup too often, causing him to miss an average of 70 games per season over the past three. To make matters worse, he hasn't been very productive when he does play, as his 97 OPS+ and 2.3 bWAR in that time can attest. He can still run a bit and hit a little--skills that play well in Dodger Stadium--but doesn't do nearly enough of either to justify his massive salary. That doesn't figure to change much as he prepares to turn 33 this summer. He sucked against southpaws last year, managing a meager .551 OPS against them, and could be the odd man out if he doesn't show signs of rebounding.

Last but not least we have Andre Ethier, who just completed the first year of his ill-advised five-year, $85 million contract extension and will collect $15.5 million this season. Ethier was the most valuable of the trio last year by sheer virtue of staying healthy enough to play 142 games. That looks like far too many for a player who can't hit lefties to save his life (.613 OPS against them last year, .644 for his career) and doesn't offer much power (averaging 14 homers and 68 RBI over his last three seasons).

That said, Ethier is still a comfortably above average offensive player even if his traditional numbers leave something to be desired. He gets on base at a good clip--.360 OBP last year, .362 for his career--and hits lots of doubles, much like Nick Markakis. His bat, which produced a 122 OPS+ last year, was worth close to three wins by itself. So even though Ethier doesn't offer much in the way of speed or defense, he still hits enough to merit a spot in the everyday lineup (with off days coming against lefthanders, of course). He'll be 32 in April, so some decline should be expected.

So to sum it up, Crawford should be the one to sit at first. If I were Don Mattingly I'd keep Puig in right, Kemp in center, and shift Ethier to left. If Kemp breaks down again, let Ethier cover for him (or maybe even give Puig a shot at the glory position) and slide Crawford back to left. It hurts to spend more than $20 million on a fourth outfielder, but that's what teams have been doing with Vernon Wells for years. And besides, if any team can afford to eat that kind of money, it's the Dodgers.

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