The Dodgers have a dilemma on their hands, though it is not necessarily something they will, or should, do anything about. Shortstop Dee Gordon is learning on the job, but is the cost of his growing pains too great for a contending team to endure?
Sunday's game provided a prime example of both ends of the Dee Gordon spectrum. He committed two errors in the third inning that led directly to two runs.
"Dee, you've got to do better. You better get it back," Gordon said to himself on the field.
Gordon did do better, as he collected a pair of hits and stole three bases. He scored a run, and drove in one as well with a groundout, utilizing his speed to reach base when first baseman Justin Turner bobbled the ball.
"The kid is tough. He's been through a lot, he's made a lot of mistakes. He's an exciting player," manager Don Mattingly said on Sunday. "For me he's got to keep getting better, but he is a tough kid and he keeps working."
There aren't many who question that Gordon will get better. He was rated the 46th best prospect in baseball before the 2010 season, then ranked 26th before 2011. Gordon's work ethic has been raved about by scouts, coaches, and just about everybody in the organization.
"If you go along with the premise that he has been rushed, that means we have to be patient," Mattingly said last weekend in Anaheim. "When you get a kid like that, you have to be patient. Then you have to be always teaching, and you have to teach in a way to not give him so much to overload him."
But just when will Gordon improve? And can the Dodgers afford to wait for him to do so at the major league level?
There are 202 players who have amassed at least 200 plate appearances this season. Gordon ranks 199th in slugging percentage (.279), but that's not entirely fair to Gordon since slugging isn't exactly his job. But as the leadoff man, getting on base is Gordon's job, and his .278 OBP ranks 187th. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) captures baserunning, a Gordon strength, but even with the speed bump Gordon's .259 wOBA ranks 196th.
Gordon has behind in the count 0-2 in 25.2% of his plate appearances, compared to the National League average of 19.4% (which includes pitchers). Being constantly behind certainly doesn't help Gordon, and as Clint Eastwood once said, "Dying ain't much of a living."
Gordon does lead the major leagues with 28 stolen bases, and has been generally good at scoring runs when he is on base. Gordon has scored a run 36.6% of the time he has been on base (via hit, walk, hit by pitch, or error, excluding home runs), which is right in line with the average major league leadoff hitter (36.3%) and better than the average major leaguer (29.1%).
But is the old adage goes, you can't steal first base. The problem for Gordon has been getting on base, as his .278 on-base percentage has led to just 35 runs scored in 75 games despite batting first for most of the season.
Gordon responded earlier in the season when he was benched for three games in May after his production dropped to a .200 average and .239 on-base percentage. He hit .308 with a .341 on-base percentage in 11 games batting eighth after his return to the lineup, but since regaining the leadoff spot on June 3 he is hitting .236/.300/.291 in 27 games, which is not too far off his numbers for the whole season.
Then there is the matter of his defense. He seems to the naked eye to have good range, and will make the occasional outstanding play, but he has been rated well below average by both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Total Zone Rating both this year and last year. He also leads the majors with 17 errors, including two last night.
"We thought he was going to make some great plays and that he might be erratic on the routine stuff, and he's been pretty much that," Mattingly said last weekend. "He has made some really good plays, then there have been some plays we think he should make. He's been okay."
Willing to let Gordon learn at the major league level was an easier choice when the Dodgers were 17 games over .500 with the best record in baseball and a seven and a half game lead in the division. But now, one game behind the Giants in the National League West and one game ahead of being out of the playoffs entirely, the Dodgers have no margin for error.
"We'll try to improve our club any way we can," Mattingly said on Saturday.
One way that has to be at least considered is a change at shortstop.
The Dodgers have a myriad of needs, especially in the infield where first base and third base are providing no production. I expect the Dodgers will acquire a corner infielder before even considering looking outside the organization for a shortstop, and that's fine.
Realistically, the in-house options for the Dodgers aren't all that special. Utility man Elian Herrera has played 40 games at shortstop in the minors and majors combined in the last two years, and has shown a better propensity to reach base than Gordon (both have 18 walks this season; Herrera in 169 plate appearances, Gordon in 318), but his recent slump (8-for-50 since his last walk) casts some doubt on his ability to be a full-time player.
Juan Uribe has played shortstop in the past, but he is no answer unless the question regards paying a player in 2013 who is no longer in the team. Justin Sellers is sidelined until at least late July with a back injury.
What about Luis Cruz? The 28-year old, not on the 40-man roster, is hitting .318/.348/.529 in Triple A Albuquerque and was in the mix for the final spot on the opening day roster, but how that PCL production translates to the majors remains to be seen. It seems the in-house options would be marginal upgrades over Gordon, at best.
There would be no shame in having Gordon continue the learning curve in Albuquerque, but unless the Dodgers make a trade for a shortstop their best option is to keep playing Gordon and hope he lives up to at least a portion of his potential this season.
Give Gordon a little more rope, and hopefully the returns of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Mark Ellis will provide more than enough slack. The Dodgers don't have much of a choice.
Tonight's Pitching Matchup
Chad Billingsley has a three-game losing streak and has allowed 14 runs (13 earned runs) in 17 innings during that span, but he also has 16 strikeouts against five walks in those three starts as well. Billingsley is looking for his first home win since April 11, as he has a 4.74 ERA in seven starts at Dodger Stadium since.
Homer Bailey starts tonight for the Cincinnati Reds, and he has lived up to his name with three long balls and 10 runs allowed in 9 1/3 innings in his last two starts and he had a 6.00 ERA, but four of his five starts came in the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. Bailey has six quality starts in seven road outings this year, and has allowed six runs in 30 innings over his last four starts outside of Cincinnati, with just two home runs allowed.
Game Time: 7:10 p.m.
TV: Prime Ticket