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Carl Crawford takes fly balls in CF, Don Mattingly defends outfield defense

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- No matter how you look at it, the Dodgers have been a disaster on defense in center field in 2014. But manager Don Mattingly before Saturday's game against the Padres defended his center fielders, a unit that may soon also include Carl Crawford.

"As we sit today, we're in the pennant race, either first or right there. We've been doing it all year, so I don't know why we can't continue to do it," Mattingly said. "We play in a lower scoring environment now. We have to continue to improve, as far as not giving extra outs and being as good as we can possibly be. The way we're constructed this is our team and we can be good enough to win it all like this."

The season has already seen one big change, with Matt Kemp essentially banished from the position in late May after the misplays and several extra-base hits he simply couldn't reach became too much.

On the season, Dodgers center fielders ranks dead last in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (per Baseball Info Solutions), at 18 runs below average. In Ultimate Zone Rating (per FanGraphs), the Dodgers rank 28th, 10.8 runs below average.

The current duo of Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke haven't fared much better defensively. All three of Kemp, Ethier and Van Slyke are well below average in UZR, with Van Slyke the only one to grade out as average via Defensive Runs Saved, though with just 109 innings it's hard to judge one way or another.

Ethier sat the last two games against right-handed pitchers, not because of a changing of the guard, but rather to give him rest from general soreness, Mattingly said. Ethier is back starting in center field on Saturday.

"He wasn't unplayable, I was just trying to get him a couple days of rest," Mattingly said.

With center fielder Joc Pederson looming in Albuquerque, easily the best choice defensively among major-league-ready outfielders in the organization, the only potential change in the near term may come in the form of a blast from the past.

Crawford began taking fly balls in center field on Friday, an avenue for more playing time. Crawford was activated from the disabled list on Thursday and Saturday marks his third game of three without a start. He did play four innings in left field on Friday night.

"He kind of went out there on his own. I know he played it in the minor leagues and they moved him in Tampa," Mattingly said. "With our situation there's nothing wrong with taking some fly balls. You never know what could happen. We have encouraged him to do a little work out there."

Crawford played 228 games in center field in the minors in the Rays organization from 1999-2002, but he has only played 54 games in the majors in center field, including 47 starts. He played one game in center field in 2008 and two games in 2006.

While fast, the knock on Crawford's defense has been his arm, though Mattingly downplayed that.

"How many guys do you see getting thrown out [from center field]. It's going to be more about range and getting to balls, and Carl still runs pretty well," Mattingly said. "He's a guy that will run the ball down for you.

"You use your speed in different ways. If you don't throw as well you get to the ball quicker. You use your speed to cut down that time, and you get rid of it quicker. There are a lot of different ways to make adjustments in the outfield. He may not be perfect, but he's got enough tools to be able to do some things."