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Dodgers spring training battles: The outfield

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Potentially 17 outfielders enter camp looking to make an impression

NLCS - Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game One
Andre Ethier was limited to 26 plate appearances in 2016 after breaking his leg in spring training.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With spring training less than a week away, let’s take a look at another position group with plenty of possibilities for the Dodgers. Here is a look at the outfield heading into 2017.

Flexibility is key for the Dodgers, and having several players able to play multiple positions widens the array of available outfielders on the club. Heading into spring training, there are 10 players who could reasonably play the outfield, and seven more non-roster invitees.

How many spots are available depends on the construction of the rest of the bench, which is where the flexibility comes into play again — the more positions a player can play, the more likely he is to make the team.

Dodgers position players report to Camelback Ranch on Monday, Feb. 20, with the first full-squad workout scheduled the next day.

Here is a look at the outfielders in groups.

Central casting

Even though the Dodgers have quite a few outfield options, the only thing I would reasonably assume is a lock is that Joc Pederson will start in center field against right-handed pitching. Pederson changed his swing, improved his contact rate and was remarkably consistent in his sophomore season compared to his up-and-down 2015 rookie campaign.

Pederson rarely played against left-handers in 2016, going 8-for-64 (.125) against them, and has hit .178/.275/.324 against southpaws in his major league career. But he showed the ability to hit lefties in the minors and, given his aptitude at making adjustments probably deserves more of an opportunity to prove he can’t hit lefties.

The enigma

I think Yasiel Puig will be the regular right fielder, but the ball is in his court. Coming off a second straight relatively disappointing year, Puig was asked to slim down this offseason, just like last year.

Puig was sent to the minors for a month last season, and after his return was essentially limited to a platoon role. Counting the playoffs, in September and October Puig started 15 times against left-handed pitchers and just once against a right-hander.

The potential is still vast for Puig, and it behooves the organization to get the most out of him. If things don’t work out again in 2017, the Dodgers can actually send Puig to the minors again, even though he used options in 2012, 2013 and 2016. Because he used all three options before reaching five full years as a professional, he qualifies for a rare fourth option year.

The veteran

A broken right tibia nearly wiped out the entire 2016 season for Andre Ethier, who missed the first 140 games then was essentially limited to pinch-hitting duties the rest of the way. Ethier was a force against right-handed pitchers in 2015, hitting .306/.383/.517 against them, and was a likely leadoff option against righties for the Dodgers last year before fouling a ball off his leg.

Ethier is in the final season of his five-year contract, and turns 35 in April. With over 10 years of major league service, including (at least) the last five years with the Dodgers, Ethier can’t be traded without his consent, making him unique on the roster.

Out of options

The only outfielder on the roster who is out of options is Darin Ruf, who was acquired form the Phillies in November. He used options in 2013, 2014 and 2016 with Philadelphia. Ruf in his major league career has started 91 games in the outfield — 64 in right field, 27 in left — and 92 games at first base, making the right-handed Ruf a candidate to both spell Adrian Gonzalez at first base and make the occasional start in left.

Ruf, 30, is a career .299/.379/.542 hitter against left-handed pitchers, with a 151 wRC+.

Lefty M*A*S*Hers

Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers
Trayce Thompson was second on the Dodgers in home runs when he hurt his back in July.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

In addition to Ruf, the Dodgers have a trio of right-handers who were injured or struggled in 2016, contributing the Dodgers finishing last in baseball in hitting against left-handers. Trayce Thompson earned regular playing time in the first half of the season, but a broken back ended his year in July. Scott Van Slyke missed nearly a third of the season with a back injury, then another third with a right wrist injury that require surgery in September. Kiké Hernandez started out hot in April but struggled mightily the rest of the season, hitting just .190/.283/.324 on the year.

All three have solid career numbers against southpaws — Van Slyke has a 138 career wRC+ against lefties, Hernandez 133, and Thompson 127.

All three also have options. Thompson’s availability, at least in April, might depend on his readiness during spring training coming off his back injury. Hernandez gets a boost because he can also play in the infield, that flexibility thing again.

The spark plug

Andrew Toles came seemingly out of nowhere last year. Out of baseball in 2015 and starting 2016 in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, the speedy outfielder was in the majors by spring, and started in left field against right-handed pitchers in the playoffs.

Toles turns 25 in May, and hit .314/.365/.505 in his 115 major league plate appearances, so the team is understandably high on him. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a starting spot for the left-handed Toles, who between the majors and minors hit .208/.260/.292 against southpaws in 2016.

Toles has options remaining, but his superior defense could keep him around.

“This guy, he can fly. He has a bazooka. We could not have asked for anything more than what he gave us toward the end of the season,” coach George Lombard told Cary Osborne of Dodger Insider. “I’m expecting big things from him this season.”

Have options, will travel

With Ruf and Van Slyke as the hybrid corner men in the outfield and at first base, Rob Segedin is a little redundant, though Segedin also plays third so he brings a little more to the table.

The Dodgers added depth in January, acquiring Brett Eibner from the A’s in January, giving them a player who can play all three outfield positions and could be called up as needed from Triple-A.

Non-roster group

Though the Dodgers do have a lot of outfielders in camp, it will be interesting to see how much time top prospect Cody Bellinger sees in the outfield during spring in addition to first base.

Alex Verdugo is making his own noise on prospect lists this winter, and is in his first big league camp. Verdugo did make the trek over from the minor league side of camp to play in six games with the Dodgers, going 3-for-8 with a double.

O`Koyea Dickson is essentially this year’s Segedin, though without third base in his quiver. The 27-year-old (as of tomorrow) hit .328/.398/.596 with 49 extra-base hits in 101 games for Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2016, then followed that up with a home run barrage in the Mexican Winter League.

Darnell Sweeney, back with the Dodgers after coming over with Ruf in the Howie Kendrick trade, played much more infield than outfield in 2016, but his best path to the majors is likely as a jack of all trades utility man. Sweeney and Dickson were both non-roster invitees with the Dodgers in 2015 as well.

Henry Ramos signed with the Dodgers after seven years in the Red Sox system and, turning 25 in April he is the youngest of the three outfield non-roster invitees. Ramos hit .263/.306/.402 between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, and in November the switch-hitter was projected by FanGraphs as one of the top 15 hitters among minor league free agents.

Drafted by the Pirates as a right-handed pitcher in 2010, Stetson Allie switched to first base in 2012 and has played the outfield the past two years. Allie hit .247/.324/.444 with 16 home runs and 20 doubles in 101 games in Double-A Altoona, and turns 26 in March.

Tyler Holt is the only one of the non-roster outfielders to have played in the majors in 2016 (Sweeney did in 2015, with the Phillies). Holt hit .235/.327/.296 in 208 plate appearances for the Reds last year and played all three outfield positions. The right-handed Holt hit a combined .304/.398/.382 in 160 games in Triple-A in the Indians system in 2014-2015. He turns 28 in March.

Dodgers spring outfield roster

Right-handers Left-handers Switch-hitters
Right-handers Left-handers Switch-hitters
Puig Pederson Sweeney NRI
Thompson Ethier Ramos NRI
Van Slyke Toles
Ruf Bellinger NRI
Hernandez Verdugo NRI
Segedin
Eibner
Dickson NRI
Allie NRI
Holt NRI

Conclusion

If the Dodgers carry 12 pitchers, that leaves room for a five-man bench, with Austin Barnes or some other backup catcher taking up one of those five spots. Another spot will need to go to an infielder, preferably someone who can play shortstop — even with Corey Seager entrenched at the position, a backup shortstop is every manager’s security blanket.

That leaves potentially three spots for excess outfielders, perhaps four should Hernandez and his shortstop acumen win one of the jobs. So in theory the Dodgers could platoon in all three outfield spots if they wanted too.

With Ruf and Ethier the only ones of the group tough to move off the roster, there is flexibility and depth to maneuver, mix and match as needed. There is definitely competition to be had in spring training.