One of several highlights during Tuesday’s annual Cactus League media day occurred when GM Farhan Zaidi suggested that the Dodgers intend to find more days off for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez over the course of the regular season.
Recently, Gonzalez has been suffering from a minor injury in his right elbow which was eventually diagnosed as a mild form of tendinitis. Gonzo initially hoped to compete in the World Baseball Classic in March, but his participation is now in jeopardy pending another examination from team doctors in a few weeks. In the meantime, he’s prohibited from even swinging a bat.
Gonzalez appeared in a total of 156 contests in 2016, keeping alive a 11-year consecutive streak where he has appeared in 156 or more games each season.
The four-time Gold Glove Award winner may be losing a bit of quickness and range, but he more than makes up for it with his savvy and intellect on the infield. Offensively, Gonzo still had a fine season despite suffering a few minor setbacks with his health. After taking himself out of the lineup for two consecutive days last summer as a result of fatigue, Gonzalez hit .304/.361/.492 the rest of the way, with 20 doubles and 12 home runs in 78 games. He hit .297/.376/.469 with runners in scoring position, and ultimately ended the season tied for the team lead with 90 RBI. He also drove in 17.4% of runners on base, best among anyone on the team. At 34 years of age, Gonzo may be on a slight decline, but there’s no question he’s a valuable asset as a starter with both his glove and his bat in the middle of the Dodgers’ lineup.
“We looked over the last few years his performance coming out of a day off, and he always seems to have a hot streak coming out of that,” Zaidi explained. “It’s tough with him; he’s so good defensively, also. Even against a tough lefty, he’s the best option, but we’re going to try to figure a way to give him more days off.”
One idea that has already been mentioned by the Dodgers’ management crew is to have Chase Utley provide cover at first base. It could work in a reverse-split type of theory, but based on the way Andrew Friedman and his troops prefer to match-up with opposing pitchers offensively, a right-handed hitting backup for Gonzo would be much more desirable. If Utley is the only option as a substitute, however, it would almost make sense to give Gonzalez rest when right-handed pitchers are throwing because of Utley’s notorious struggles against southpaw pitching. In over 2300 plate appearances, Gonzo has a .272/.334/.424 career slash line against left-handed pitching.
The most practical solution for spelling Gonzalez at first could lie with the utilization of Scott Van Slyke. The 30-year-old utility man is more than capable with the glove at first base, in addition to having solid skills of manning all three outfield spots.
SVS recently said that he’s completely healthy after battling several different injury issues during the second half of last season. Nevertheless, he’s been on a steady decline since a productive 2014, when he hit .297/.386/.524 with 11 home runs in 246 plate appearances. Beyond his 2014 campaign, however, he’s hit a combined .235/.309/.361 and has become notoriously known as being injury prone.
Over the course of his career, though, Van Slyke has proven to be a solid platoon hitter against lefties with a career OPS of .845 and OPS+ of 124. Additionally, his defense in both corner outfield spots has been excellent. Since 2012, Van Slyke has been 16.4 runs above average in UZR, highlighting his defensive value to the Dodgers. SVS does have one option year left on his contract.
Including SVS on the Opening Day 25-man roster almost guarantees that rookie outfielder Andrew Toles begins the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City. In the same breath, Franklin Gutierrez was brought in for the sole purpose of providing a right-handed bat in the corner outfield spots, which would almost relegate Van Slyke to being a backup first baseman, in essence creating a wasted roster spot. The final decisions surrounding the 25-man are already borderline difficult, especially when noting that it may be almost impossible to carry eight arms in the bullpen instead of seven.
If Gutierrez even had a tiny spot of experience at first, it would seemingly solve the entire problem. Over the course of his 11-year major league career, though, he’s only played in the outfield and appeared as designated hitter.
In the end, Opening Day is quite some time away, but for now the safe bet may be to assume that with a productive spring, SVS makes the 25-man over Toles, allowing Tolesy to be ready for a call at the first sign of a major outfield slump or injury. Even though the inclusion of both Van Slyke and Gutierrez seems like overkill as far as outfield cover goes, it does solve the problem of having a bonafide backup at first, as well as having an extra right-handed bat on the pine.
Please feel free to check out our list of 25-man roster projections throughout Cactus League play, as we intend to use our judgement to visualize the eventual roster based on player performances, injuries and reports from the Dodgers’ management team.
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