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Don Mattingly high on Joc Pederson, but preaches patience

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- One of the more successful aspects of the Dodgers' season, and reportedly one of the main reasons manager Don Mattingly is expected to retain his job after an early playoff exit, was the handling of the outfield situation. The emergence of Joc Pederson adds a new wrinkle to the shuffle.

Mattingly juggled four egos, with four starting-level players, each an All-Star at one point, for three outfield spots, and ultimately coaxed very good production. Dodgers outfielders hit .285/.354/.463, leading the majors in OPS (.817), second in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and third in batting average. The Dodgers outfield was also first in both wOBA (.359) and wRC+ (133).

Even more amazing is that the most productive offensive outfielder, at least on a per-plate-appearance basis, was lefty masher Scott Van Slyke, who excelled in a platoon role in 2014. Mattingly most of the year was quick to point out it wasn't four outfielders for three spots, it was five outfielders.

"But now five turns into six, with the kid," Mattingly said on Thursday.

That would be Pederson, who shared the Branch Rickey Dodgers minor league player of the year award this year with Corey Seager, the second time in three years Pederson captured the honor.

Pederson was the Pacific Coast League MVP in 2014 with Triple-A Albuquerque, hitting .303/.435/.582 with 33 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 100 walks. He was the first 30-30 player in the PCL in 80 years, and earned his first major league call-up when rosters expanded in September.

He played in 18 of the Dodgers' 25 games in September, starting three games in center field. He was just 4-for-28 (.143) at the plate with 11 strikeouts, but also walked nine times and put up a .351 on-base percentage.

"Do I think he can play in the big leagues?" Mattingly rhetorically asked on Thursday. "Yeah I think he can play in the big leagues."

The praise for Pederson is nothing new from Mattingly, who for over a year has been comparing the left-hander's swing to Robinson Cano and Carlos Gonzalez.

But Mattingly preached caution when asked if Pederson, who turns 23 in April, was ready for an every day position.

"That always remains to be seen. The one thing I don't like doing, because I've seen it backfire, is just anointing somebody. It's not fair. They don’t get to be a kid. They don’t get to be a rookie," Mattingly explained. "They walk in with this expectation and it’s just not fair because there’s going to be mistakes, there’s going to be struggles, for everyone. But I think he can play in the big leagues, that’s for sure."

Mattingly likened his experience with Pederson to that of Nick Johnson when Mattingly was coaching with the Yankees, and thankfully Mattingly wasn't referring to health or ability to remain on the field.

"I said if given 500 at-bats would Johnson be able to hit in the big leagues, yes he would," Mattingly said. "But if you ask 'Is he going to hit right away?' I don't know the answer to that."

Johnson in his age 22-23 seasons hit .236/.341/.389, a 94 OPS+, in 2001-2002. From 2003-2009 Johnson hit .282/.414/.459, a 131 OPS+, even though those seasons were hampered by various injuries, limiting him to just 618 games played in seven years.

The Dodgers, who steadfastly refused to consider Pederson in any trades this season, expect him to be productive. Even if it's not from the get-go on April 6, 2015.

But there needs to be room for Pederson on the roster, too. The most likely avenue is likely a trade of one or both of Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, each with three seasons and a load of money left on their respective contracts.

A trade is likely anyway, because while Ethier is to be commended for accepting a bench role — he started 10 times and accumulated 74 plate appearances in the final 60 games of the season — it's unlikely the $56 million remaining on his deal will be enough to convince Ethier to continue to sit.

What will be interesting is if the Dodgers only jettison one outfielder this winter. Let's say Ethier is dealt. It would be unlikely the Dodgers would stray, at least to start 2015, from the outfield alignment of Crawford in left field, Yasiel Puig in center, and Matt Kemp in right that played so well down the stretch.

Might Pederson — the best defensive center fielder in the organization — then claim a bench spot, with the idea that 200 major league plate appearances might do more for his development than 550 PA at Triple-A, now in Oklahoma City, where Pederson doesn't have much more to prove.

But there is an entire offseason to figure out what to do with the outfield, on the to-do list for Ned Colletti, or whoever might replace him.

Part of that offseason for Pederson will be spend playing winter ball for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Republic. He spent last winter playing for Cardenales de Lara in Venzuela.

"Clearly I have to keep working," Pederson told Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes. "It's why I go to winter ball, and then I'll have time to rest."