On Sunday afternoon, while the Dodgers were finishing up their tough 4 game series in San Francisco, two players were playing in their final minor league rehab starts before returning to Los Angeles to join the team. Yasmani Grandal caught six innings for Triple-A Oklahoma City, driving in a run with a sacrifice fly. Howie Kendrick played the entire game at second base for Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, doubling twice. Both are expected to be activated for the home opener on Tuesday afternoon against the Diamondbacks.
While there isn’t a single Dodgers fan that would argue that Grandal or Kendrick returning is a bad thing, it definitely complicates things. First and most obviously, adding two players to the roster requires that two players be sent to the minors. We already know who one of those players will be as the Dodgers announced today that infielder Micah Johnson was optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Johnson had been called up just a few days ago to replace Carl Crawford who was became the 11th Dodger of the season to land on the disabled list.
The bigger question becomes who the second player will be to get sent down. Looking at the roster, the most obvious choices would be Charlie Culberson or Austin Barnes. While Barnes shows more promise than Culberson, it is not very common for teams to carry three catchers on their roster. However, this could be a the unique situation where it makes sense. Grandal will be fresh off of the disabled list and the Dodgers have already shown that they are going to be extremely cautious in the early part of the season with injured players. It will be unlikely that Grandal will see playing time on a regular basis at first. It is more likely that the Dodgers will mix it up, giving Ellis and Barnes time in order to keep Grandal as healthy as possible. The other reason that Barnes could end up staying with the Dodgers is the fact that he can also play second and third base.
The next issue that arises with the return of Kendrick is what the Dodgers will do with Chase Utley. Even just a week ago I would have said that putting Kendrick right back into the starting second baseman role was a no-brainer. However, there are now multiple reasons to think that this may not be the case. At the very least, the Dodgers have a much more difficult decision on their hands.
Utley has been extremely hot to start the 2016 season. The 37-year-old has a slash line of .310/.394/.448 in the first 7 games of the season and has racked up 2 doubles and 1 triple. Even more important than the numbers is the fact that Utley has given the Dodgers the much needed leadoff man that they so desperately needed. He may not be a “true” leadoff man but he certainly has been a major reason why the Dodgers offense has been off to such a hot start. As one of the few remaining seasoned veterans in the clubhouse, he has truly been a leader and someone that the players can rally behind.
While it is unrealistic to expect Utley to keep up this pace all season, the Dodgers should most certainly take advantage while they can. If this means that Utley takes over as the starting second baseman for the mean time then so be it. While Kendrick does have some experience leading off, there is simply no reason to change what has been working. Also just like Grandal will be given plenty of rest, Kendrick can then ease back into things and the Dodgers can be sure that he is fully healed while Utley continues to start games off on the right foot.
Even if the Dodgers ultimately decide that Kendrick will be the starting second baseman once again, they should certainly find a way to keep Utley’s bat in the lineup on a regular basis. As Utley has aged, he has shown a willingness to play multiple infield positions, getting time at both first and third base as well. It would be very feasible, and likely beneficial, for the Dodgers to keep Utley’s bat in the lineup every night while giving players like Kendrick, Justin Turner, and Adrian Gonzalez time off early in the season. Not only would the Dodgers keep their leadoff man while he is hot, they would also ensure that the heart of the lineup stays healthy for the home stretch into October.