Don Mattingly sacrificing offense for defense with Justin Sellers at SS

USA TODAY Sports

The unexpected starting shortstop reflects on making his second consecutive opening day roster, and his manager recounts how the decision was made.

It had been eight days since Justin Sellers was optioned to the minor league side, and the final day of camp for major leaguers. With most regulars already on their way home, Sellers played that day in Peoria against the Mariners and was sitting in his hotel room with his fiancee and baby daughter when he got the call.

Director of team travel Scott Akasaki was on the other end, and told Sellers that manager Don Mattingly wanted him to come to Anaheim for the Freeway Series against the Angels. Five days later, the Huntington Beach native Sellers is starting at shortstop on opening day for the Dodgers.

"Last year was special to make the team, just being a part of it, but to actually be a starter on opening day, in front of my hometown, it's all starting to sink in now," Sellers said.

Sellers is starting in place of Hanley Ramirez, out until mid May after thumb surgery.

"I was ready. To get the opportunity like this, I just want to make the best of it," Sellers said. "Unfortunately Hanley had to go down. He's a big part of this club. But it was going through my mind that this might be the break that I needed, to show that I can play up here."

The Dodgers originally planned to move Luis Cruz from third base to shortstop to fill in for Ramirez, which would have left a three-man rotation at third base between Juan Uribe, Jerry Hairston Jr., and Nick Punto.

"We started meeting with all the coaches and the front office. Those meetings are great because everybody is throwing different ideas around about all different parts of your club," Mattingly said. "We started talking about Sells, and as we got into it, it just made the most sense. It solidifies us at short."

The Dodgers could have given Dee Gordon another shot at shortstop after he struggled badly in 2012, but the club decided instead to let him develop in the minors. Gordon was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque on Mar. 26, one day before Sellers got the call to Anaheim.

"It was strictly defensive. With Dee, it was a matter of staying with the plan, letting him develop and get everything together, rather than throw him back in there for a short period of time," Mattingly said. "We've always looked at Sells as kind of a safety valve at short, because we knew he'd catch it. Offensively Sells has not shown, at this point, he'll be a great offensive player, but he's still a guy we feel like could handle the bat, but his approach has to stay solid. We wanted to be able to catch it, and we were willing to sacrifice offense for it."

Mattingly said Sellers, who had lower back surgery on Aug. 23, would be the regular starter at shortstop, but would also occasionally get days off. On those days, Cruz would likely shift to shortstop and Juan Uribe would play third base.

"I want to use Luis over there too. Juan's had a good camp at third base, and swung the bat well," Mattingly said. "Justin's had some issues in the past with his back, so we have to give him a breather now and then too."

Sellers has hit just .204/.283/.323 in 189 major league plate appearances over the last two seasons. But he knows his role.

"I know what they expect out of me. They want me to have quality at-bats and compete at the plate, and just make the plays on defense," Sellers said. "That's why I'm here, the confidence that they had in my glove."

Sellers was asked if he would have a lot of family and friends in attendance to watch his first opening day start in person.

"I left seven tickets. I know it's opening day and stuff," Sellers said. "But it's on ESPN, they can watch on TV."

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