PHOENIX — Trayce Thompson is out of minor league options and is an outfielder vying for a roster spot on a team chock full of outfielders. He has an uphill battle ahead of him, but no matter what happens it will likely be a better year than 2017.
Thompson emerged as a weapon for the Dodgers in 2016, able to play all three outfield positions and with power in his bat. He was tied for second on the team with 13 home runs at the All-Star break, but that’s when things started going south. He broke his back and missed the remainder of the season, which in turn affected his preparation for last year.
“Health wise I was fine from day one. But baseball-wise definitely it hurt me, which is hard for me to admit. I’m an early worker and I like to do baseball work before a lot of guys, that’s just the way I am,” Thompson said of his 2017. “I like being able to work out. To not be able to do that until mid January definitely hurt.”
One year after leading the team with a whopping 29 games played and 78 plate appearances during spring training, Thompson played in just 11 games and had 37 PA in spring 2017 as the Dodgers were cautious after his back injury.
“I wanted to get my at-bats but they were guarding me against myself,” Thompson said.
Thompson didn’t make the opening day roster last season and though he was up briefly in April his start was disastrous. He was hitless in his first 38 at-bats between the Dodgers and Triple-A Oklahoma City, and after he snapped that with a single Thompson added another 0-for-17 skid immediately after. That’s a 1-for-56 start to his season.
“It was a terrible mix of everything,” Thompson recalled. “Getting sent down was heartbreaking to me. I always wanted to play in the big leagues, and didn’t care about anything else in life really. It was my number one goal. Going down there instead of having that mindset of getting my work in, going to play baseball and helping my team win I was just thinking about being up here with the guys.”
On the season Thompson appeared in just 27 games for the Dodgers in four different major league stints, going 6-for-49 (.122) with four extra-base hits. In the majors and minors combined in 2017 he hit just .201/.262/.351 in 424 plate appearances.
Trayce Thompson 2018 projections
“He’s probably one of the happiest to turn the page on 2017,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It was one of those things, everything that could go wrong went wrong for Trayce. This is a big year for him. He’s certainly on our radar and we expect him to stay healthy and perform.”
Thompson will get that chance this spring, now healthy again and after an offseason with no setbacks or distractions. He started in right field on Friday and was 2-for-3 with a stolen base, two runs scored and one batted in. He starts in right field again on Saturday, in one of the Dodgers’ split squad games, on the road against the Royals in Surprise.
He’s also fighting for playing time in an outfield that also includes Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Matt Kemp, Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles. it’s an uphill battle.
“We do have a lot of talented outfielders, I’d argue as many as anyone in baseball,” Roberts said. “We don’t know how it’s going to shake out on March 29 but I’m expecting him to play well.”
Complicating matters is that Thompson is out of options so if he doesn’t make the team he would have to be exposed to waivers. Then again after the season Thompson just had there’s a chance he could go unclaimed, too, and if that happens the Dodgers could send Thompson outright to the minors and keep him for depth, just off the 40-man roster.
General manager Farhan Zaidi said this week the Dodgers might carry six outfielders which could allow room for Thompson, though he acknowledged, “We may not have enough at-bats.”
This counts Hernandez and Taylor as outfielders though both can play the infield as well. That versatility is crucial especially if the Dodgers shorten their bench by using eight relief pitchers, something Roberts said Friday would likely be the baseline for his team for most of the season.
Thompson’s ability to play center field helps his cause, but no matter how you slice it, he needs to stand out among the crowd this spring to turn things around. The next five weeks will tell the story.
“I know when I’m healthy what I can do, and I think they know it,” Thompson said. “I just have to go out and prove it.”