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Andrew Toles could seize opportunity in left field

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Texas Rangers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — Andrew Toles starts in left field for the Dodgers on Saturday against the Athletics, something we might get used to, at least in the early part of the season.

Andre Ethier is meeting Saturday morning with back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins to determine a treatment plan going forward for the herniated disc in Ethier’s back. His timetable for return isn’t yet known, but he won’t be ready to start the season.

That opens up a spot on the opening day roster, and one that could come with a significant amount of playing time.

The left-handed Ethier was going to be the busier half of a platoon in left field with Franklin Gutierrez, who bats right-handed. Injuries have robbed Gutierrez of mobility and his former defensive prowess the last few years, but he has carved a role as a masher of left-handed pitching, hitting .293/.368/.548, a 151 wRC+, with 20 home runs in 329 plate appearances against southpaws in 2015-2016 combined.

Gutierrez’s role with the Dodgers is clear.

“We got him here to hit left-handed pitching,” manager Dave Roberts said. “There could be some career things that I haven’t looked in to, or a reverse-split pitcher. But for the most part, he’s here to hit left-handed pitching.”

Gutierrez started 89 times against left-handed pitchers in the last two seasons, and just 15 games against right-handers. The Dodgers faced a left-handed starter 46 times in 2016.

So who gets the bulk of those remaining starts in Ethier’s absence?

“Does it have to be [a left-handed batter]? No. You look at the roster, and that’s kind of what we envisioned. But by default it doesn’t necessarily have to be Andrew,” Roberts said. “There are guys having good camps and guys that fit on our roster who are major league players. Those are discussions we will keep having.”

Toles is the only feasible left-handed outfield option in camp to take that spot, and judging by his recent playing time he might be doing just that.

Including Saturday, Toles will have started six of the last eight games, and in one of those games he didn’t start he got four at-bats as a reserve. He’s 15-for-45 (.333) with three doubles and a triple so far this spring.

“He’s had a good camp. Early on there were some things on the baseball side of things that needed to get better, as far as base running and overthrowing cut off men. That’s been cleaned up,” Roberts said. “We all like the bat, but we are continuing to challenge him as a player.”

This is essentially how the Dodgers ended last season, with Toles starting 10 times in September, including six times in the club’s final seven games against right-handed starters, then starting all eight postseason games against right-handed pitchers.

But there could be other factors to consider, especially if Ethier’s expected absence is relatively short.

The Dodgers on their bench need a backup shortstop and a backup center fielder. Kiké Hernandez fills both roles, but struggled at the plate last season. Chris Taylor has had a fantastic spring, but though he has dabbled in center field this spring to add to his versatility he profiles more as an infielder than outfielder.

If Taylor were to beat out Hernandez for the utility role, the Dodgers could theoretically go with Trayce Thompson over Toles, giving them a right-handed bat who could fill in when Joc Pederson gets rest day in center field. Then, the non-Gutierrez starts in left field could be split among Thompson and whoever wins the backup corner man spot between Scott Van Slyke and Rob Segedin. Those are all right-handed bats, which make this less than ideal, but could be at least workable in the short term.

But in all likelihood, Toles has the inside track to fill in in left field. We’ll see how it plays out over the final week of camp.