While everything seems to be going wrong in Dodger land – Corey Seager’s elbow, Clayton Kershaw’s bicep, Hyun-jin Ryu’s groin an imploding bullpen – one thing that’s going relatively right is the outfield.
The combination of Matt Kemp, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Alex Verdugo and sometimes Kiké Hernandez have been productive this season. The amalgam has a 108 wRC+ and a 1.9 fWAR – both 11th-best in baseball. And that’s with Puig and Taylor struggling at the outset. But do you see where this is going?
The Dodgers have a ton of quality outfielders. All of whom need consistent playing time. With Taylor already having moved to shortstop to replace Seager, there’s still a looming logjam out there.
Yasiel Puig – he of the 42 wRC+ – is due back later this week. He should resume as the Dodgers’ starting right fielder if for nothing other than his plus-plus defense. But he’s stinging the ball with an average exit velocity of 92.5 MPH. That leaves four guys for two spots. We never expected Kemp to be this productive, but after a bit of a lull, he seems to be heating up again. Pederson got off to a dreadful start but is now producing at a 137 wRC+ level with an elite-level walk rate and reduced strikeout rate. The power is down, but he’s still productive. The Dodgers have all but given up on him against left-handed pitching, but he’ll need to play consistently against right-handers to remain effective. But because of Puig’s reverse platoon splits (dating back to last year), that creates a problem for consistent playing time for the two against lefties. The Dodgers have only so many Kiké Hernandezes.
Then we come to Verdugo. He’s one of the best position player prospects the Dodgers have and has been impressive in his brief MLB stint this season. He’s not the hulking, power-hitting prospect in the mold of a Pederson or Cody Bellinger, but his contact skills might be second-to-none (well, maybe Justin Turner) in the organization. He brings a different dimension to the lineup that is lacking. His ability to put the ball in play is needed to balance out the all-or-nothing approaches of Bellinger, Yasmani Grandal, Kemp, Pederson and Taylor – all of whom run contact rates of less than 75 percent. Verdugo’s contact rate is 84.9 percent. That would be 24th-best in baseball, if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Austin Barnes and Chase Utley are tied for the best contact rate on the team at 91.8 percent. The injured Logan Forsythe is at 89.9 percent, with Kyle Farmer at 85 percent.
What separates Verdugo from those guys is his hit tool is legitimately 60-grade with a chance to be much better. None of those guys have a 60-grade hit tool. Having a player who is a constant threat to put the ball in play puts extra pressure on the opposing defense. And he smokes the ball. Even though he grounded into a couple double plays last week, the recorded exit velocities on each was 107.3 MPH (off Zack Godley) and 110.4 MPH (off Jorge De La Rosa). Overall, his exit velo sits at 91.1 MPH – about 2 MPH better than the MLB average.
Basically, the Dodgers need to make room for Verdugo and give him everyday at-bats. That’s the only way he’s going to improve. If that means he must play center field full time, so be it. He’s best suited for a corner spot, but he can at least fake it a bit in center. Having a dynamic bat like his in the lineup could help some of the sluggish offensive production early this season.
If the Dodgers do the right (smart) thing and keep Verdugo in the lineup after Puig returns, then the team has to decide what to do in the corners against both-handed pitchers. Pederson should start every game against right-handed pitching. Since Puig hits righties better than lefties, he should start in right field. Against lefties, both of those guys could take a seat in favor of Kemp and Hernandez. In that scenario, Hernandez would likely start in center field and Verdugo in right. That would be fine, as long as Verdugo’s bat is in the lineup every day.
Since the Dodgers are struggling, it couldn’t hurt to give the young player a chance to shine. They’ve done it in the recent past (Seager in 2016, Bellinger in 2017) with great success. It might be considered tempting fate or going to the well one too many times, but with the team in need of some sort of infusion of excitement and potential, Verdugo just might be the guy to fill that role.