Earlier this week, my esteemed colleague Jeff Sullivan took a look at major positional problem areas on contenders, and came up with several potential trouble spots. One of those ended up being second base for the Dodgers, and with good reason — they appear at the bottom of our second base projections, largely because no one has any idea what to make of Alexander Guerrero. As Jeff pointed out, Steamer has him down for only .220/.280/.330 and sees him as basically a replacement-level player, while ZiPS projects him at 2.5 WAR and .259/.324/.386. While Steamer and ZiPS are probably my two favorite projection systems, it’s so difficult to project incoming Cuban players that it’s probably not worth losing a lot of sleep over either line, and because of that questionable data Jeff says that this is a spot that “barely belongs” in his piece. He’s probably right, because we have no idea what Guerrero is going to turn out to be.
But while there’s obvious questions about how reliable the projections might be, the unavoidable truth is this: if Guerrero doesn’t work out or isn’t ready, the Dodgers have almost nowhere else they can turn, and so if this isn’t the worst situation for a contender in the bigs, it’s almost certainly the riskiest.
That goes beyond the normal risk of “it’s difficult to get solid info on Cuban players,” either, because Guerrero didn’t even play in the 2013 Cuban season, then missed several weeks of the Dominican Winter League after injuring his left hamstring. All told, he picked up only 38 plate appearances in 12 games before the Dodgers requested he no longer play in the league during the last week of December. Worse, he then didn’t receive an invite to the club’s Winter Development Program this week, not because the team doesn’t like him, but because he has visa issues that aren’t yet sorted out.
None of that means that he won’t be successful, nor does Peter Gammons’ less-than-stellar report of how scouts viewed Guerrero in October or questionable reports on his defense in the Dominican, because you could easily go back a year and find uncertain reports on fellow Dodgers Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu as well. Obviously, the Dodgers wouldn’t have given him $28 million guaranteed if they didn’t like what they saw, and they were hardly the only team interested in acquiring him. But even the mighty Puig — who had also missed a considerable amount of organized ball and suffered an injury (elbow infection) that interrupted his winter ball — had to spend two months in the minors, and it’s not at all reasonable to expect Guerrero to make a splash anything like what Puig did in camp, especially with all of these questions.
So while Guerrero will be given every opportunity to prove himself in camp, there’s a very real possibility that he might not be ready on Opening Day. And if he’s not, well, just take a look at everyone who touched the position for the team in the bigs in 2013, along with the top few players from a job share at Triple-A Albuquerque:
|’13 MLB 2B GP||’13 AAA 2B GP||’14 status|
Of the six men who suited up at second base last year, five are gone, and while Young could possibly return to fill out the bench, he’s clearly not suited to play the middle infield any longer. Even the top two Isotopes are gone, not that either was ever going to be an option at the big league level anyway. Since the top free agents at the position might be Justin Turner, who was non-tendered by the Mets, and Scott Sizemore, who has been completely unable to stay healthy after multiple knee injuries, the Dodgers are going to have to go with what they’ve got left internally.
That’s where things get a little sideways. Those three games from Gordon, who is the only man still on the 40-man roster to play second for the Dodgers last year? They represent his only three games at the position in the big leagues, and just 3.2 innings at that, as the failed shortstop has begun the process of attempting to add second base and center field to his utilityman toolbox. Even if he can handle the position defensively, he’s got another issue: of the 343 hitters to collect at least 600 plate appearances over the last three years, his .274 wOBA is better than only 12 other hitters. Even that might be overselling it, because Brandon Inge and Jason Bartlett aren’t particularly likely to be on big league rosters this year. While he’s shown some improvement in his walk rate in the minors and has been playing in both the Dominican (center field) and Puerto Rico (second base) this winter, he’s a project for a second-division team, not one expecting to contend for the World Series.
Beyond Gordon, it’s even thinner. Sellers got into 15 games at second in 2011-12; he’s also got a .199/.278/.301 (.261 wOBA) in parts of three seasons that makes Gordon look powerful by comparison. GM Ned Colletti actually named minor league shortstop Miguel Rojas as a contender earlier this offseason, but no amount of glove is going to make a .234/.302/.287 line in parts of eight minor league seasons — almost entirely below Triple-A — work in the bigs.
With trades unlikely — Brandon Phillips is a popular suggestion, though the Dodgers are unlikely to want to block Guerrero in that way or take on the overrated Phillips’ salary, and the Mariners aren’t letting go of Nick Franklin easily — the Dodgers may be forced to rely on Guerrero and Gordon, along with NRI Brendan Harris and whatever Harris-shaped filler Colletti can throw against the wall, and that’s a dangerous position to be in.
The thing is, the Dodgers had an in-house insurance policy at hand. Mark Ellis was no star, but he gave the Dodgers a little over 4 WAR in his two seasons in Los Angeles, mostly coming from a solid glove. Instead, they chose to decline Ellis’ $5.75m team option on October 31, and St. Louis decided it was worthwhile to give him $5.25m (plus a possible additional million in incentives) to hedge against their untested second baseman, Kolten Wong. Since Ellis is largely limited to second base, he might not be an ideal bench piece in Los Angeles if Guerrero took over, but his presence would have provided options — like the ability to start Guerrero in Triple-A, or find Ellis a new home in March.
Instead, the Dodgers may need to turn back to Gordon yet again if Guerrero needs some minor league acclimation time. It’s not exactly where a World Series contender wants to find themselves as spring training looms.