Looking at the Dodgers projected 2018 roster, most position spots seem accounted for. If fact, you could probably pencil in opening day starters now for every position expect one – left field.
Barring any major moves before spring, the Dodgers will go into next year with a nice mix of options to choose from to man left field. Those options include Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles, Alex Verdugo, Kike Hernandez, and as of this moment in time, possibly even Matt Kemp.
Realistically speaking, almost no one expects Kemp to be a Dodger come opening day. The move to acquire him was financially motivated and it’s likely the Dodgers will part ways with Kemp before the season starts, either via trade or out-right release.
Hernandez has a unique situation, where he’s the one player out of everyone listed who will definitely be part of the team’s plans next year, and will certainly get some playing time. But he’s also the one who’s probably the least likely to be the full-time left fielder. Hernandez is a great utility guy, but he’s more of a platoon player who specializes in hitting left-handed pitching. His numbers against righties last year (.159/.244/255) will probably continue to limit him to that role.
So, taking Kemp and Hernandez out of the equation leaves three other players who will be vying for at least a part time role in left field, if not a full-time one: Pederson, Toles, and Verdugo. Let’s examine each.
After opening the season as the Dodgers starting center-fielder for three straight years, Pederson enters this year with no full-time position guaranteed. The emergence of Chris Taylor last season, coupled with Pederson’s offensive struggles, led to his eventual relegation to the minors, and it leaves a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding his role going forward.
The problem with Pederson has been his inconsistency. He can go through great spurts like the one he had in the World Series, where he hit three homeruns and was perhaps the Dodgers best hitter over those seven games. But he can also go through slumps like the 3-51 skid he had last August, which prompted the Dodgers to send him down after the Curtis Granderson acquisition.
Pederson has been a streaky hitting since his rookie campaign in 2015, when he had a great first half which earned him an All-Star selection, and then a very poor second half, where he hit .178. And that streakiness hasn’t seemed to change over the course of Pederson’s career thus far.
He’s still young, and maybe Pederson’s offensive game is still evolving. His constant tinkering with his batting stance seems to indicate that he’s not very comfortable, and may still be looking to find something that works for him.
Another aspect of Pederson’s game that will hinder his chances to be an everyday player is his ineffectiveness against lefties. For his career, Joc has been abysmal vs LHP, hitting .184/.278/.321 with a .599 OPS.
If Pederson does earn outfield duties, it’s probably safe to say it’ll be in a platoon role, strictly playing against right handed pitching.
The one thing thats appears clear is center field doesn’t look to be Pederson’s job anymore. Not only has Pederson’s defense taken a step back, but Chris Taylor has earned that spot with his play last season. Taylor could eventually move back to 2nd base, but with Logan Forsythe there at the moment, the center field job appears to be Taylor’s for now.
If Pederson is going to play regularly, it’s going to be in left field. And to do that, he’ll need to find the consistency that’s eluded him thus far in his career.
Why the Dodgers may prefer Pederson in left-field: Maybe the Dodgers believe this is finally the year that he puts it all together and takes his game to the next level. Pederson also ended the year on a very high note with his World Series performance and perhaps they think he figured something out. There was a reason Pederson was one of the top ranked prospects in the game just a few years back. The potential is there and the Dodgers may not want to give up on that potential just yet.
Toles’ health will be the primary concern oming into next season. Although he’s expected to make a full recovery from his ACL surgery last year and be ready for the start of spring training, major injuries like that can be unpredictable.
With only 200 major league at-bats under his belt, we really don’t completely know what to expect from Toles. So far, he’s produced well when he plays, hitting .294/.341/.483 with 8 homeruns and a .824 OPS over the course of his brief career.
Unlike Pederson, Toles hasn’t shown the inability to hit left-handed pitching. He’s actually hit them pretty well, albeit in limited opportunities. Unfortunately, for him, he hasn’t had the chance to play against them on a regular basis and Dave Roberts still preferred to platoon him when facing southpaws. Going forward, it would appear that Toles, like Pederson, could be fighting for a part-time job.
Toles could very well be one of next year’s surprise players for the Dodgers. His bat seems legit, but he’ll certainly have to make the needed adjustments once major league pitchers see him a few times. Defensively, Toles still has some learning to do, but the skill set is there. He has a cannon for an arm and his speed in the outfield is another valuable asset.
Why the Dodgers may prefer Toles in left-field: Production. It’s really that simple. If Toles out-produces the others, he should get the majority of the playing time. If he has a good spring, the Dodgers may simply think he’s their best option. Pederson has been given ample opportunities to run away with a full-time spot, but hasn’t. Verdugo is still a young rookie. Toles could be the guy who has just enough experience to trust and enough unknown potential to be intrigued.
When many people mention the left field debate, Verdugo’s name is often omitted. He seems to be the forgotten man in this competition and it’s a little baffling as to why.
Sure, he’ll be coming into spring training as the young, inexperienced rookie, which means he’ll have to prove himself far more than anyone else will. Still, the kid should be given a shot this spring.
If there’s any fan base that should appreciate prospects and their potential, it should be Dodgers fans. In each of the last two years, fans have seen prized young prospects not only live up to their high expectations, but exceed them. Back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger were once in Alex Verdugo’s shoes, where they were nothing more than prospects who “hadn’t proven a thing.”
It’s certainly true that not every highly ranked prospect is going to pan out. With that said, the Dodgers have a history of developing young, talented players who turn out to be very good. That’s not only evident in their recent success with players like Seager and Bellinger, but in their MLB record 18 ROY winners for the franchise.
Verdugo is currently ranked as the Dodgers #2 prospect and #24 in all MLB. He’s 21 years old, the same age as Cody Bellinger was last year when he broke out. Verdugo has hit well at every level of the minor leagues, plays all over the outfield, and has shown the ability to hit lefties. He got his first taste of the majors with his September call-up last year, but didn’t have a chance to show much in his limited opportunity, getting only 23 at-bats.
Some might thing Verdugo could use an extra year down in AAA, especially given his youth and the other outfield options the Dodgers currently possess. However, Verdugo played all last season down in Oklahoma City and excelled, hitting .314/.389/.436 with 6 homeruns and 9 steals.
It’s uncertain how another year in the minors helps Verdugo. He seems to have proved himself there and looks to be ready for a shot at the next level. By comparison, Bellinger’s AAA experience was only 21 games total before he got a call up, and we all know how he fared.
Why the Dodgers may prefer Verdugo in left-field: Again, it will come down to production. If Verdugo is given a fair shot to earn the starting job come spring, he could win over Roberts and the Dodgers. The one thing he may have over the other options is upside. Whereas Pederson and Toles appear to be battling for a platoon role, Verdugo could be the player that has the potential to be a full-time player, although he’ll have to really impress to get that role this year.