Back at the beginning of Spring Training, I wrote a piece here called Trying to Solve the Alex Guerrero Problem. In that piece, I noted that the Dodgers were in a bit of a difficult position with Guerrero, as they didn’t really have a spot for him on their Major League roster, and his contract made it very difficult to trade him and impossible to send him to the minor leagues. So, after a pretty strong spring, the Dodgers just decided to carry him as a bench piece; there weren’t a lot of alternatives, and having him pinch-hit and draw the occasional start would give them a chance to get a better idea of what he was.
I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting this. After 24 plate appearances — seven of them coming as a pinch-hitter, a difficult job that most people struggle with — Guerrero is hitting .500 and slugging 1.273, which is the kind of offensive performance you need to rack up +1 WAR (which he already has) in roughly six games worth of at-bats. Guerrero has already been worth +8 offensive runs above an average hitter, placing him 8th on the leaderboard, in between a bunch of guys who have 50 or 60 more trips to the plate. And so now, the Dodgers have a different kind of Alex Guerrero problem.
He’s not going to keep this up, obviously, but the ability to launch seven extra base hits and strike out once in any random 24 plate appearance sample should be enough to earn you more playing time. That power/contact combination is pretty rare, and even over a tiny sample, this kind of performance already forces us to re-evaluate the pre-season forecasts: ZIPS has moved from a projected .316 wOBA to a .327, while Steamer has jumped from .297 to .318; the average of the two has Guerrero posting a 110 wRC+ going forward, making him a pretty solid hitter even after he stops with the Barry Bonds impression.
Guerrero is forcing the Dodgers to play him more often, and Don Mattingly acknowledged that he’s going to have to put this guy in the line-up more often going forward.
“When a guy’s swinging the bat, you’re going to find playing time for him,” Mattingly said. “That’s just the way this game is.”
Mattingly indicated Guerrero likely will get a start soon in left field at Carl Crawford’s expense. Crawford hasn’t yet settled in. He’s batting .229 and has a .245 on-base percentage.
That left-field start for Guerrero figures to come Tuesday, with Bumgarner pitching again, this time at Dodger Stadium.
Carl Crawford is indeed struggling, and you want as many right-handed bats in the line-up against Bumgarner as you can get, so yeah, starting him in left field on Tuesday makes plenty of sense. Except the Dodgers already have a right-handed platoon partner for Alex Guerrero, and Scott Van Slyke is making just as a strong a case for more playing time as Guerrero. In 23 plate appearances Van Slyke is hitting .421/.522/.737, and now owns a career .369 wOBA in 478 big league at-bats. While this piece is about Guerrero, it’s probably time for the Dodgers to give Van Slyke a chance to see what he can do with a larger role as well, and displacing Van Slyke with Guerrero as the right-handed left field option probably isn’t any kind of upgrade.
In the short-term, Yasiel Puig’s disabled list stint gives the team an easy solution, as they can start Van Slyke in right field and Guerrero in left field against lefties, but Puig isn’t expected to miss any team beyond the minimum 15 days, and when he comes back, he’ll take over right field again. So, while Guerrero can get some run in left field in the short-term, sticking him out there doesn’t seem like a long-term solution. The Dodgers already have too many outfielders, so adding Guerrero to that mix won’t solve anything.
So instead, the team will likely have to make a decision on offense versus defense at third base. Juan Uribe is a terrific defensive third baseman, racking up a career +19 UZR/150 in nearly 4,000 innings at the position. Uribe’s glove is a big asset for the team, and since he’s actually hit well the last couple of years, he’s been one of their more under-appreciated assets, putting up +8.6 WAR in just 840 plate appearances over the last two years. As a 36 year old with a mediocre offensive history, you expect much less than that going forward, but Uribe isn’t such an easy guy to just cast aside in favor of Guerrero, even if their 2015 numbers make that look like an easy decision.
Guerrero, of course, is not a great defender anywhere, and so not only would the Dodgers be taking an elite glove off the field, they’d potentially be inserting a significant negative into their defensive alignment. This is exactly the opposite of what the Dodgers spent their off-season doing, as they shipped out defensive liabilities and built their starting line-up around guys like Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, and Joc Pederson because they could hit and play defense, rather than just specializing in producing value at the plate. Andrew Friedman clearly puts a lot of value on defense, and so it’s unlikely that the Dodgers are going to see Guerrero’s bat as a clear upgrade over Uribe’s glove going forward.
In a lot of these situations, you end up with the offensive guy starting and the defensive guy coming in as a late-inning replacement, and the Dodgers could end up going that direction, but I’m actually not convinced that it’s the right way to use players with extreme skillsets, especially in the National League. Late-inning defensive replacements are a nice idea in theory, but with relievers becoming so dominant — the Dodgers bullpen has struck out 31.4% of the batters they’ve faced this year, for instance — I’m not so sure that it really makes sense to stick your best defenders behind pitchers who don’t allow much contact. There just aren’t that many late-inning balls in play anymore.
So maybe the Dodgers should think about flipping the job-share on its head, continuing to start Uribe so that he’s in the game along with the starting pitcher, then have Guerrero stay in the game at third base after he pinch-hits for the starting pitcher. That way you’d have the better defender in with the contact-oriented pitchers, and Guerrero in when a ball is least likely to find him. Glove early/bat late might make more sense than the historically-normal reverse setup.
But when a guy is hitting like Guerrero, it’s difficult to not put him in the line-up from the first pitch, so he’ll probably get more starts at third base going forward. Which is okay, except the Dodgers also just gave Hector Olivera a $63 million Major League contract, and expectations were that he was going to get some run at third base in the second half of the year. And again, we’ve gone this entire article without mentioning Justin Turner, who could probably start for half the teams in baseball at some infield position.
In reality, the Dodgers probably just need to make a trade. With Brandon McCarthy joining Hyun-Jin Ryu on the DL, the team’s pitching depth is getting strained while they bathe in a sea of useful infielders. But it’s still April, and no one really punts the season in April, or even May. In general, teams wait until after the draft to get serious about trading away their best veterans, and we’re six weeks away from that point. Besides the perpetually-available-for-a-price-no-one-wants-to-pay Cole Hamels and the perpetually-available-because-he’s-bad Dillon Gee, there probably just aren’t a lot of starting pitchers on the block at the moment.
So that resolution is probably at least a month off, as the Dodgers will have to wait for teams to officially give up on 2015. Until then, Guerrero is going to be part of a logjam, and there likely won’t be everyday at-bats for him in Los Angeles. And by the time pitchers actually hit the market and the Dodgers start inquiring about guys like Johnny Cueto, Olivera might be breathing down Guerrero’s neck.
As far as problems go, this is a pretty nice one to have, but it remains a bit of an issue without an obvious resolution. Starting Guerrero over Uribe may seem like the best option at the moment, but it may very well just put Guerrero in the game at a time when his defense is the biggest liability. Perhaps, for now, the Dodgers should mostly just stick with what’s working. Give Guerrero a few more starts than he has been getting at third base, and play him in the outfield against lefties until Puig gets healthy, but beyond that, let him pinch-hit and play the second half of a bunch of games at third base. It’s not a starting job, but it might be the best use of the Dodgers current roster.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.