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Dodgers still trying to sort out crowded outfield

Three former All-Stars, one superstar in the making and trying to find enough playing time to keep everybody happy in Los Angeles.

USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers have four well-compensated outfielders for three spots, and while the musical-chairs rotation should be a good problem for the team to have, the reality hasn't yet played out to a distinct advantage.

Through Monday, the Dodgers' outfield as a whole is hitting .233/.305/.417 and ranks in the middle of the pack in several categories: 12th in the majors in OPS (723), 12th in adjusted OPS+ (101), 13th in adjusted runs created (104) and 17th in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (1.1).

All four main outfielders are locked up long term. Carl Crawford is signed through 2017, Andre Ethier is signed through 2017 with a vesting option for 2018, Matt Kemp is inked through 2019, and Yasiel Puig is signed through 2018 and won't be eligible for free agency until after 2019. In 2014 alone, that quartet will make $58.75 million, more than the entire Opening Day payrolls for both the Houston Astros ($45 million) and Miami Marlins ($47 million).

"We're talking about four quality guys who have had quality careers," manager Don Mattingly said during the team's last homestand. "You can't just throw those aside. I assume every time they're not starting that they're not happy about it."

The most vocal of the four outfielders regarding the periodic benchings has been Kemp, who had most of 2012 and 2013 washed away by injuries. Kemp, having nearly won the National League MVP award in 2011, began 2012 by hitting 12 home runs in April and had an MLB-best active streak of 399 consecutive games played. Two years later, that streak seems like it must have belong to another player; since then, Kemp has made six trips to the disabled list for injuries to his hamstrings, left shoulder and left ankle. The latter two maladies required surgeries that caused him to miss exactly half (145 of 290) of the Dodgers' games through the end of 2013.

"I'm not a fourth outfielder, I'm not going to be a fourth outfielder. I'm here to help my team by playing every day," Kemp said during spring training. "None of us are fourth outfielders, and everyone wants to play every day. I won't accept that role, I can't accept that role."

Recovery from ankle surgery caused Kemp to open 2014 on the DL as well, but since his return on April 4 he leads the outfielders in home runs (four), doubles (seven) and slugging percentage (.500). As a result, he has started 17 of 21 games, more than any other Dodgers outfielder during that span.


But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for Kemp, who is also hitting just .221 with a .303 on-base percentage and a 30.3 percent strikeout rate, his highest since he was a  21-year-old rookie. He has also been shaky in center field, with three errors and at least three fly balls lost either in the sun or lights in the last 10 days. Kemp is already rated three runs below average defensively in center field by both Baseball Info Solutions and Ultimate Zone Rating, and has rated well below average in center field throughout his career by both metrics in addition to Baseball Prospectus Fielding Runs Above Average.

Kemp is not alone in his struggles.

Ethier is hitting just .211/.278/.296 with two home runs in 23 games, and even though he is the only Dodger in history with seven seasons of 30 or more doubles, he has yet to hit one this season. Crawford is hitting .206/.236/.294 in 21 games, and both left-handers have been essentially reduced to platoon players this season.

The Dodgers have faced a left-handed starting pitcher seven times since Kemp's activation from the disabled list. The left-handed Crawford has sat all seven times and the left-handed Ethier has sat six times, with fifth outfielder Scott Van Slyke, a right-handed batter, starting in six of those seven contests. He's hitting a robust .281/.378/.594, albeit in just 37 plate appearances.

Crawford, who hit .299/.340/.448 and averaged 50 stolen bases per season from 2003-2010 with the Tampa Bay Rays, has hit a combined .266/.303/.407 with 42 total steals in a little more than three seasons since signing a seven-year, $142 million contract. He is trying to make the best of his current situation.

"Personally as an older guy, maybe that day of rest helps me. But for a guy like Matt who likes to play every day, it might be different. For me, I use those days to rest my body, get ready to play, and try to think of the big picture," Crawford explained. "When you're young you want to play every day. I still don't want to take days off now, but I try to use that to my advantage."

The man who turned the Dodgers' outfield into a crowded house was Puig, who took the majors by storm upon his arrival in June 2013 and has had the most scrutinized learning curve in baseball ever since. Puig -- signed after defecting from Cuba to a seven-year, $42 million contract in 2012 -- hit .436/.467/.713 with seven home runs in his first month in the big leagues, with his 44 hits second only to Joe DiMaggio for hits in his first month in the majors.

After June, Puig was human, hitting .278/.366/.470 with 12 home runs in half a season, numbers just fine for a 22-year-old playing in his first big league campaign. The right fielder is doing more of the same in 2014, hitting .265/.351/.470 in 22 games. Though he is at times exasperating to watch due to mistakes in the field or on the bases, Puig has managed to be the most steady and most consistent Dodgers outfielder to date.

20140426_gav_sv5_031.jpg.0Photo credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This four-outfielder dilemma wasn't much of an issue in 2013 because after the arrival of Puig,  the Dodgers had all four outfielders healthy and available just twice in 107 games. In both contests -- July 5 in San Francisco and July 21 in Washington D.C. -- Kemp got hurt and was unable to finish the game.

Ethier -- in the second year of a five-year, $85 million deal -- has been the most amenable to change. With Kemp sidelined most of the last two years, Ethier transitioned to center field for the first time in his career (well, Ethier did start in center in the 2010 All-Star Game in Anaheim, two years before his major league debut at the position, but that's a story for another day) and started 70 games in center in 2013.

He reported to camp this year leaner than ever before, prepared for the constant running required in center field. It has helped him when playing the corners. Defensively he's been slightly above average on the whole so far this season as per Utlimate Zone Rating and Fielding Runs Above Average, after entering the year between 28 and 30 runs below average by those two metrics for his career.

"Managers these days aren't just looking for defined position players," Ethier said. "They're looking for guys who are able to adjust and play wherever they're asked to play that day."

In 2014 alone, the quartet will earn more than the entire Opening Day payrolls of the Houston Astros and the Miami Marlins.

The club prefers Crawford and his below-average arm to remain in left, and would rather keep the talented but raw Puig in right field because they aren't comfortable with his jumps in center field. Kemp gets to claim center by tenure when he plays. Mattingly has been willing to use Ethier all over, giving him 11 games in center field, six games in right field, and five more in left.

The further Kemp is removed from his October ankle surgery, the more consistent playing time he should receive. Puig is the most gifted of the bunch, and is right with Kemp in terms of a legitimate claim on playing time. Over time, those two should get the lion's share of the starts, with Ethier and Crawford splitting time for the bulk of the remainder. Getting one of the two left-handed batters to perform closer to their career norms would be a strong impetus for more playing time.

The fight for playing time could get even more intense as 22-year-old Joc Pederson continues to light up Triple-A. Pederson, rated somewhere in the range of the 34th- to 50th-best prospect in baseball before the 2014 season, is hitting .383/.491/.628 with five home runs in 25 games for Albuquerque and is the most ready prospect in the Dodgers' system.

"I'm just trying to do the best I can with it. There will come a day for me that I feel like this is our best club," Mattingly said. "They are going to tell me which way to go, more than anything. It doesn't matter what idea I have. I think it will work itself out."