Sometimes I think fans get tired of hearing the phrase, “It’s still very early in the season.” Yet as annoying as it may sound, it does have plenty of validity. The MLB schedule is certainly a long one, and the main strategy of a management crew is to have the best possible squad on the field peaking as one unit at the precise moment the playoffs roll around.
And while there’s plenty of time to experiment with different roster and lineup combinations over the course of the journey, there’s still the main premise of putting the best possible team on the field on any given day. And although we are still in April, there may be some roster changes coming soon, if only for the sake of seeing what may click for the club over the long haul.
Change works. Consider the promotions of Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor last April, while recalling the contract selection of Brandon Morrow last June. Not much thought was given to these moves at those times, but the entire trio ended up making huge impacts before the dust settled at the end of the year.
There’s plenty of enhancing to be done to the current 25-man roster, and one of the not-so-obvious areas of the big league squad that could see some fluctuations is the outfield. The spring training battle between Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles seemingly went down to the wire, and while many of the Toles supporters believe he was on the short end of the stick, it’s not hard to figure out why Pederson was ultimately chosen. While Tolesy may indeed have the better set of tools, at this point of their respective careers, Pederson is still the superior defender, which is probably what facilitated the decision for management. Besides, Toles was still considered in recovery from an ACL tear in 2017, and daily reps were believed to have been the best medicine to get him back to normalcy.
Regardless, despite setting the Pacific Coast League on fire for the first few weeks of the season, Toles is on the shelf with a hamstring injury that he suffered on April 14 against New Orleans, and he’ll likely not be taking part in any baseball activities for another week. Even when he feels comfortable running, it may take some time to get back to full speed and re-establish his timing. There’s no rush in the least, as Pederson, despite his lethargic .176/.300/.235 slash line, is capable enough to provide cover in the interim from a defensive standpoint.
Nevertheless, if defensive ability is a huge factor in all the decision making, 21-year-old Alex Verdugo may have the best tools in the whole organization, aside from Yasiel Puig. And the reason I bring this up is that during Puig’s off days, Matt Kemp has been providing cover in right field, obviously because of Pederson’s unfamiliarity with the spot. I’m about the biggest Kemp supporter out there, but while I do believe he’s adequate in either corner spot, there’s no question more runs could be saved defensively with Verdugo in the game.
While most fans already know that Verdugo can capably handle all three outfield spots, there aren’t many who realize the strength of his arm. In impressive fashion, he was tabbed as having the best outfield arm in the PCL by Baseball America for the 2017 season, which I think speaks volumes considering the amount of talent in Triple-A. While Joc may have more savvy and have a better understanding of the potential caroms and ricochets in the Dodger Stadium outfield, I think Verdugo makes up for it with better range and overall quickness.
In 273 AB during his 2017 campaign, Pederson hit .212/.331/.407, which is a few ticks below his career slash line of .222/.345/.435. Heading into spring training each year, there are discussions about how Joc has made new adjustments in his swing mechanics which would conceivably elevate his production. And although 2018 will be only his fourth full year, the final numbers are eerily similar by the end of each campaign. He was demoted at one point last year, and during his minor league stint slashed .167/.247/.306 in 81 plate appearances. He may even have been destined to start the 2018 season at OKC, but his offensive heroics during last year’s postseason, coupled with the strength of his glove, afforded him the benefit of the doubt.
As far as Verdugo goes, he hit an impressive .314/.389/.436 over 433 AB last year at OKC. In comparative conversations alongside Chris Taylor, many pundits view Verdugo as the Dodgers’ center fielder of the future, even though he doesn’t have much of an MLB track record aside from 15 games after rosters expanded last year. But while he doesn’t compare to Joc in the power department, Verdugo almost never strikes out, and has become known as an on-base machine—something that Los Angeles could certainly utilize in their sluggish lineup at the present juncture. He’s capable of stealing bases in the double-digits, and despite his lack of long balls, Verdugo has the strength to muscle a ball to the deep part of the yard, as made evident by his 27 doubles, four triples and six home runs for OKC last year. As far as his ascension goes, he’s accomplished about all there is at Triple-A, and although the daily reps don’t hurt, there’s by no means mandatory.
So, if the entire left-handed hitting trio is healthy, who’s the logical choice? All three have plenty of options on their contracts, so there’s really no issue there. If you ask me, Toles is clearly the top choice from an offensive standpoint, but his defense may be just a little too suspect to consider him as a legitimate, secondary platoon candidate with Taylor, Puig or Kemp. But if the management crew of the Dodgers is indeed weighing defense as it’s top priority—which is what many believe after seeing the many Pederson-for-Kemp late-game substitutions—I think I’d go with Verdugo over Pederson almost any day of the week.
As it stands right now, with a bench that’s already playing short because of an eight-man bullpen, it is really worth having Pederson occupying a valuable 25-man roster spot just to supplant Kemp as a late-inning defensive replacement?
(Follow Dennis on Twitter: @thinkbluepc)