29 April 2007

Position Battles of the LA Dodgers: April 2007

Every team evaluates its options at each position during the season. Sometimes there is uncertainty in the current starters at a position. More often the starter at a position is known and not under review, while the backup and future starters at that position may be subject to competition and change. For example, Furcal is clearly and unquestionably the Dodgers starting shortstop, barring injury. But is the primary backup shortstop Valdez or Martinez? Is the shortstop of the future Chin-Lung Hu or Ivan DeJesus Jr., or a re-signed Furcal? And then sometimes everything about a postion is known. The Dodgers know exactly who their catcher ( Martin ), future catcher ( Martin ), and backup catcher ( Lieberthal ) is right now. There is no competition there.

The Dodgers are clearly set in their starters at second base, shortstop, and catcher, and they are probably set in center field and left field. But their starters at third base, first base and right field are all subject to varying degrees of competition. In the case of first base there may be no true competition, just talk among media and fans, while in the case of third base there is clearly no certainty at the moment.

I will note that it is a great boon to the Dodgers that they are so settled up the middle, especially at short, second, and catcher. It’s much easier to have quality competitions among good players at the corner spots than it is up the middle. The only way the Dodgers can lost in their position battles is if they stubbornly hold on to obviously weak players such as Valdez when there are better options available.

Third Baseman of the Now: Valdez v. Betemit

If we believe the report that the only reason Valdez started his second game in a row Saturday was because Betemit was ill, then Betemit may still have the upper hand in this battle. Betemit is younger and shown much more in previous seasons than Valdez has. The defense of both players has been excellent. Valdez’s superior batting average to date this season is the only advantage he has over Betemit.

2007 AVG -- OBP -- SLG:
Betemit -- 0.133 -- 0.300 -- 0.178
Valdez -- 0.282 -- 0.317 -- 0.385

The record of Betemit before this season is clearly superior, including last year.

2006 OPS:
Betemit -- NL -- 0.795
Valdez -- PCL -- 0.747

I think Betemit is barely hanging on to a majority of the starts at third base for the moment. His lack of power and lack of any hits has to be deeply discouraging to the Dodgers. He’s hurt them at the plate, only avoiding being a complete disaster with all his walks. Fair or not, a lot of his walks may be dismissed because he usually bats eighth in front of the pitcher.

Betemit’s strikeout after having a 3-0 count with the bases loaded in the last game of the Giants sweep of the Dodgers has become his defining moment. It’s human nature to remember one or two moments and allow them to stand in for a player’s complete body of work. A vivid description or memory of a single moment is more emotionally persuasive in argument than a bunch of numbers. Betemit’s strikeout against Russ Ortiz became a sort of confirmation of his uselessness among those who had already become convinced by his poor hitting that he was likely irredeemably useless.

It was an awful strikeout, to be sure. I will admit I did lose a bit of confidence in Betemit after that, much more than is logical from one at-bat. But it is after all just one at-bat. Even though many fans are letting this strikeout weigh heavy against Betemit, I hope the Grady and Ned do not.

I think if Betemit still has a batting average below 0.180 two weeks from now, he won’t be getting much playing time any more. I don’t think the Dodgers will carry a non-proven veteran who can’t bat 0.200 after more than a month of the season. I’m not saying this is right ... it’s just what I think will happen.

Third Baseman of the Future: Betemit v. LaRoche

LaRoche had a 0.950 OPS in half a season at Las Vegas last year, though he only has a 0.671 OPS in 74 AB there this season. He’s 23, two years younger than Wilson Betemit. It’s hard to compare the two, since they haven’t ever played at the same level at the same time yet. I think the only way to really know who should win this competition is after LaRoche is called up to the major leagues. Of course, that may not happen until after the Dodgers have given up on Betemit.

I’ve never really been sold on Betemit as the third baseman of the Dodgers future. He may be a fine player at some point, but LaRoche has been rated as a top prospect by many people.

What I would like is for LaRoche to be called up and Valdez released. Then Betemit and LaRoche could split the starts at third base for at least 6 weeks, and may the best man see his playing time increase at the expense of the other thereafter. I don’t think this will happen, though. More likely LaRoche will be called up sometime after the All-Star break, after Valdez has replaced Betemit and then proceeded to play at his true weak level.

Utility Infielder: Valdez v. Martinez

I don’t think the Dodgers should carry both of these guys, especially with LaRoche, Kemp, and Loney all deserving spots on the big league roster. Neither of these guys offers anything to the Dodgers in the future. They do need to carry one of them to have a backup at shortstop, of course.

I hope this is a competition that will become a reality, with a clear loser who is booted off the roster. I vote for Ramon to win, but I really don’t care, as long as one of them loses. I think it will have to happen eventually.

Right Fielder: Kemp v. Ethier

This is a competition that shouldn’t even happen. I want both of these guys in the starting lineup, or at least both starting 5 times a week. I’m not sure the past stats really tell us that much in this case. Both Kemp and Ethier has stretches of greatness last year, followed by stretches of weak hitting that knocked them out of the starting lineup.

The competition that should be happening is between Pierre and one of these guys, but it will take at least another two months of Pierre not hitting at all for that to have even a chance of happening, I fear.

I think Kemp is the likely winner of this competition. It seems that he’s finally figured out this curveball thing. He’s going to bash into way into the Dodgers starting lineup soon enough. My only complaint: that’s not soon enough.

Maximum Value Position for Nomar: First v. Third

Does all the pivoting Nomar have to do everytime he runs to first to field a throw an injury risk? He’s not left-handed, so he has to make a 180 degree turn every time he has to field a throw at first base. Isn’t that more of a strain than making a few extra throws from third base?

Nomar has an OPS of 0.793 right now at first base. That’s not really acceptable at this position, is it? ( Last year he was at 0.872, which is probably okay. ) Nomar’s offensive production would look better if he was playing third base. The real benefit of such a move would be to get Loney up to the big club and into the lineup. Between Loney, Betemit, and LaRoche, who is the best bet to produce offensively? I think the answer is Loney. He destroyed the PCL last year, is still doing better than LaRoche this year, and showed something in his second callup to LA last year. Free Loney!

Note: I will examine the pitching battles sometimes next week.

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