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Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson to battle for Dodgers' CF job

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Heading into spring training at Camelback Ranch, most of the Dodgers roster is pretty much set, outside of a few spots either on the bench or in the bullpen. The main focus will be on center field, where Andre Ethier and Joc Pederson will fight for a starting job.

Manager Don Mattingly met with reporters on Wednesday morning, in Los Angeles for part of the Dodgers' winter development program. He was asked about center field.

"We'll probably play a number of guys in spring training, figuring out a combination of guys at the position," Mattingly said.

He mentioned specifically Pederson, Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Chris Heisey, but the two main names fighting for a job are Pederson and Ethier, a sentiment echoed in an interview Wednesday by Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi on MLB Network Radio. Puig is going to play every day whether it's in right field or center, though the club prefers him in right field, where he has been a dynamic player.

"I feel like the sky's the limit with Yasiel. I think I've said this before, I think Yasiel's the only one that gets in his way. We know this guy can play, we know he's really, really good. We feel like he can get better and better," Mattingly said. "But you have to continue to work, continue to concentrate and focus to get better."

Heisey, acquired from the Reds on Dec. 2, is a reserve outfielder likely ticketed for a bench spot, an ideal candidate for his ability to play all three outfield positions and his history of and willingness to play off the bench.

"This league dictates [versatility]," Mattingly said. "You better have two or three players who can play multiple positions or you'll end up in trouble."

The addition of Heisey is one of several moves made by the Dodgers front office since taking over in November. Mattingly has a magnetic board in his office with players on the roster, and on Tuesday did some updating, his first time in his office since October.

"I moved all the guys who weren't here off to the side, and it was a pretty good long line."

Mattingly agreed with the assessment of president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman that the club has a more functional roster, and elaborated on what that means to him.

"I see it like putting a puzzle together and the pieces fit," Mattingly said. "When you have a guy that's not playing every day, you want him to be a guy who's not an everyday player."

In other words, it's less than ideal to have Ethier, should he lose out to Pederson, sitting on the bench when the veteran has expressed a desire to play every day after sitting for most of the second half of 2014. Mattingly said he understands Ethier's position, and that he will "absolutely" be a part of the competition in center field.

"You put up the numbers, you play. It's pretty simple," Mattingly said. "You perform, you compete, and if you win the job, you're playing."

Ethier had the worst season of his career in 2014, hitting .249/.322/.370 with four home runs in 130 games and 380 plate appearances. With three years and $56 million guaranteed remaining on his contract, Ethier is tough to trade without the Dodgers eating a substantial portion of the contract. With minimal return expected on such a trade, it makes sense to at least wait and make sure the club is ready to move forward with Pederson in center, not to mention keeping Ethier around as insurance just in case the not-exactly-durable Carl Crawford tweaks something in spring training.

For what it's worth, Mattingly said he doesn't think Ethier will be traded before spring training.

"I expect Andre to be in camp, that's for sure," Mattingly said.

Then again, neither Mattingly nor the Dodgers are going to say Ethier is definitely on the trade block. And Mattingly said in October he would be "surprised" if the Dodgers made any front office moves.

Pederson, who turns 23 in April, is the best defensive center fielder on the roster, and with his minor league track record - he will likely be a consensus top-20 prospect in baseball heading into the season - is the ideal long-term solution at the position. But it sounds like Pederson has some chores to do before dad hands over the keys.

"I think Joc should have the opportunity to compete for the position. I don't think we should hand anything over," Mattingly said. "It's a spot where there will be competition."

One thing is clear: if Pederson doesn't win the center field job in spring training, he'll be ticketed to Tripe-A Oklahoma City to start the season rather than sitting on the Dodgers bench and playing sporadically.

"To me in general, young guys don't do real well sitting on the bench," Mattingly said. "In my opinion, for Joc to be here he needs to be playing a lot."

Expect Pederson to be playing a lot in center field at some point in 2015. We just have to wait to see whether that will start as soon as April 6.