Thursday, March 10, 2016

Uh-Oh: Aging & Injured Dodgers

Good ol' father time.
Aging players with nagging injuries must be a concern in the Dodger clubhouse. You won't hear manager Dave Roberts addressing this issue much in the early-going of spring training, but you can bet he and the front office are taking an extra long look at some of the up-and-coming minor-leaguers to hedge the team's bets this season. The Dodgers are definitely either old or injury-plagued at some key positions. 

How does Gonzalez play with a
bulging disk in his neck?
First Base: Adrian Gonzalez is amazingly consistent year in and year out, playing nearly every game with Gold Glove-caliber defense, a solid average, tons of doubles, a more-than-respectable amount of home runs, and usually a top-of-the-league ranking in RBIs. So what's the problem? Well, Gonzalez and the team revealed last week that he has been playing with a bulging disk in his neck for the past five years. It's down right crazy that he has only missed a handful of games and posted his great stats with an injury of this magnitude. Gonzalez told the L.A. Times that surgery is too risky and pain management is the only way to treat it. This is not good news. Gonzalez turns 34 in May, and it's hard to imagine the injury won't start to steadily effect his game. 

Will Cody get the call
this year?
(photo courtesy Cindy Murphy)
But luckily that's where the solid play so far of first base prospect Cody Bellinger comes into the picture. Bellinger has looked great in camp: not only has he opened some eyes with exceptional skill in the field, but he is hitting a sizzling .667 (6 for 9). Even more impressive might be his calm, professional clubhouse demeanor, very reminiscent of young Dodger shortstop, Corey Seager. Bellinger's father, Clay, played pro ball, and the time Cody spent around baseball with his dad is paying off. Bellinger's strong showing in the spring will surely stick with Roberts and the top brass if Gonzalez's neck becomes an issue. He's only 20 years old, but who knows, he might get the call sooner rather than later.

Utley = too old to count on.
(photo courtesy Cindy Murphy)
Second Base: In two out of the last three seasons, second baseman Howie Kendrick missed significant playing time (last year he only played 117 games) due to injury. Last season, it was a sore hamstring, and currently, he is dealing with a sore right groin. No MRI is scheduled, so it appears the team feels this is not a major problem, but the fact that they are limiting his spring work is revealing in itself. Kendrick turns 33 in July, and his main backup at the position, Chase Utley, just hit 37 and has been dealing with a multitude of injuries the past few years. Not only that, these two guys will be subbing for Justin Turner at third base as he takes a measured path back after microfracture knee surgery during the offseason. There's always Kiki Hernandez to help out at second or third base, right? Well, not exactly. Jack-of-all-trades Hernandez is expected to be the main fill-in at shortstop for Corey Seager if he falters and for Joc Pederson in centerfield against tough lefties, if need be (this guy is going to be busy). With the potential for injury so high with these older players, it seems likely the Dodgers will at least have to consider carrying another infielder on the roster with the most likely candidate being Micah Johnson. They picked up the 25-year-old rookie in the winter trade with the White Sox, and he is busy trying to make a case for himself in camp, hitting .286 in the early-going. 

Can't keep a good player like
Thompson down for long.
(photo courtesy Cindy Murphy)
Outfield: Provided he hits more like he did in the first half of last season when he clubbed 20 home runs, Pederson should have centerfield locked down. Same with Puig in left field IF his hamstrings hold up, a big problem for him last year. But left field is more uncertain with Andre Either turning 34 next month and Carl Crawford 35 this summer. Ouch. Especially, Crawford, who hasn't played a decent number of games in a season since 2011 when he appeared in 130 for Boston. Even if these two manage to avoid any major injuries, the nagging type creep into an older player's life and limit his time on the field. Sure, there's 29-year-old Scott Van Slyke that Roberts can pencil into the outfield, but he has also been tapped as the main backup for Gonzalez at first base. And his durability came into question last season when he fought wrist and back injuries. 

Five outfielders is about the limit a club can carry, but waiting in the wings will be Trayce Thompson, who also came in the winter trade with the White Sox. Thompson is an excellent athlete (his brother is NBA standout Klay) who can't be kept down long. In just 122 big league ABs last season he hit .295 with 8 doubles, 3 triples, 5 home runs and 16 RBIs. He's 25 years old and should be playing at the big-league level, but the Dodgers will have trouble finding a place for him. If Crawford ends the spring healthy but unproductive, could the team cut their huge losses with him ($20,750,00 this year, $21,000,000 in 2017) in favor of a young gun like Thompson? That is a BIG question, one that I am glad I don't actually have to answer. But if I did, I would say YES.

Father time may force the Dodgers to make some big decisions at the end of spring training.

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