When Yasiel Puig is ready for the majors, somebody's going to have to go. There won't be enough room on the corners of the Los Angeles Dodgers' outfield for him, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier.
The question is which veteran's going to be the one packing his bags: Crawford or Ethier?
We'll get to the answer in a bit. The first thing I want to note is that it's crazy-pants that we're even sitting here asking this question given what was being said after Puig first signed.
You'll remember that the response last summer to Puig's seven-year, $42 million deal wasn't universally positive. Ben Badler of Baseball America spoke to one executive who called the Cuban outfielder's contract "crazy." ESPN's Keith Law (Insider post) characterized the deal as "surprising" and "bizarre."
That was then. This is now.
In between then and now, Puig raked to the tune of a 1.076 OPS in 23 minor league games last year and has since gone on to rack up a .526/.508/.842 batting line in spring training. The Dodgers are excited, and their rivals are worried.
So says Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com. Rival executives are looking at the Puig situation and seeing an inevitable excuse for the Dodgers to ship off either Crawford or Ethier for prospects. Their contracts wouldn't get in the way, as the Dodgers are filthy-rich enough to eat any amount of money in order to make a deal work.
Nothing's imminent, mind you. Puig needs to be ready for the majors first, and the Dodgers decided this week that he's not there yet. He's been optioned to Double-A for the start of the season.
It was the right call. Spring stats are all well and good, but, well, they're spring stats. They are not to be trusted, especially not when they've been compiled against lesser competition.
That's the reality of Puig's spring stats. Baseball-Reference.com tracks the quality of the opponents hitters have faced during the spring, and the pitchers Puig has faced have been given an 8.5 out of 10 rating. That means Puig has faced less than major league-caliber pitching.
But it's cool, Dodgers fans. You guys can keep your high hopes for Puig, and you should be on board with the idea of the Dodgers dealing either Crawford or Ethier to make way for Puig when he's ready.
Sure, the Dodgers could always keep all three of them and go with platoons in left and/or right field, but Crawford or Ethier would be better served fetching the Dodgers prospects than sitting on the bench half (or more) of the time.
The Dodgers' farm system isn't overly strong now—Keith Law has it ranked as the No. 18 system in MLB—and it will be even weaker once Puig graduates to the majors. Rosenthal noted that it's going to be harder for the Dodgers to add to their farm system in the usual ways because of the new rules that restrict spending on amateur and international prospects.
Now that we've established that the idea has merit, we can return to our original question: Crawford or Ethier?
I'm going to side with Ethier, in large part because I'm willing to take a leap of faith with Crawford. I'm looking for him to bounce back in a big way this season.
It may take awhile for Crawford's left elbow to get up to speed after having Tommy John surgery on it, but his elbow was short of being 100 percent healthy in the games he played in last year, and he still managed to hit pretty well. His .306 OBP was ugly, yes, but at least he hit .282 with a .479 slugging percentage. When bat met ball, Crawford did just fine.
We're talking about a very small sample size, but Crawford has looked pretty good this spring too. He's compiled a .348/.400/.479 batting line against nearly MLB-caliber competition (9.4 out of 10 according Baseball-Reference.com). Not definitive, but a good sign.
There's also the matter of Crawford's comfort level, which should be far greater in Los Angeles than it ever was in Boston. Nobody's looking for Crawford to be the guy in the Dodgers' lineup. In fact, I'd characterize Crawford almost as an afterthought heading into the season, which is probably just fine with him knowing that pressure has gotten to him in the past.
Just as important, Crawford should be much more at home in Dodger Stadium than he was at Fenway Park. Fenway is a great park for lefties to hit in, but only if we're talking lefties with considerable power to the opposite field. That's not Crawford's cup of tea, as he owns just a .130 ISO (Isolated Power) on balls hit to left field (see FanGraphs).
Dodger Stadium's gaps fit Crawford better than Fenway Park's quirky dimensions, and it's certainly not the only ballpark in the NL West that has big gaps to offer. The others do too, meaning there's an open invitation out to Crawford to be a doubles and triples machine as long as he's a member of the Dodgers.
That would suit the Dodgers just fine, especially if Crawford were to be doing it all out of the leadoff spot. The Dodgers got next to nothing out of their leadoff men in 2012, as they combined to post a mere .226/.281/.302 slash line and score 84 runs. The Dodgers don't want to have to go through that again if they can help it.
And that there's a complication. Take Crawford out of the equation, and the leadoff spot in the Dodgers' batting order becomes a merry-go-round affair. Puig would work fine as a replacement for Crawford in left field in this theoretical scenario, but not so well as a replacement for Crawford atop the lineup.
Puig's raw power would play better lower in the order, which is where Ethier resides. Swapping out him for Puig would leave the Dodgers with a cluster of right-handed batters in the heart of the order, as Puig would be joining Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, but that's not necessarily an offensive death sentence. The St. Louis Cardinals had Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and David Freese bunched up for much of 2012, and I recall them doing all right offensively.
The Dodgers also wouldn't be missing Ethier that much in the field if they were to swap him out for Puig. Ethier may have won a Gold Glove in 2011, but the advanced metrics show that his defense in right field has been largely hit-or-miss. He's gotten better, but the 2012 season saw him post a minus-3.0 UZR and only two Defensive Runs Saved (see FanGraphs).
We don't talk about Puig's glove as much as we talk about his bat, but B/R's resident prospects expert Mike Rosenbaum is optimistic about Puig's outlook as an everyday right fielder. He has more than enough athleticism to handle the position, not to mention more than enough arm strength.
Because of how they fit on the club, I have every confidence in saying that the Dodgers would miss Crawford more than they'd miss Ethier. That alone is enough of a reason to swap Puig for Ethier when the time comes rather than Puig for Crawford.
Where things get a little more complicated is in the arena that I've thus far saved until now: trade value.
If Crawford bounces back in 2013, his trade value is going to go from being essentially nil to being, well, significantly better than nil. If the Dodgers were to eat a large portion of his deal, they could get a decent bucket of prospects for him.
Ethier, however, has a couple surefire advantages on Crawford when it comes to trade value.
One is contract length. Whereas Crawford's contract runs through 2017, Ethier's deal runs through 2017 with a club option for 2018 that could potentially become a vesting option. He's thus under club control for an extra season over Crawford, which is going to be important for any team looking to deal away legit prospects for a legit outfielder.
The other is the dollars. The Dodgers would have to eat a lot of money to make Crawford an attractive trade chip, as he's owed over $20 million every year from now until 2017. They'd have to eat less money by comparison to make Ethier an attractive trade chip, as his salary maxes out at $18 million.
Who would you deal to make way for Yasiel Puig?
Beyond these things, clubs could also be more willing to give up top prospects for Ethier because they'll believe his power will age better than Crawford's speed. Crawford's legs have been saved some wear and tear over the last two seasons, but it indeed is a generally foregone conclusion that speedy guys are going to slow down more and more as they advance into their 30s.
No specific deal comes to mind as a good precedent for a potential Ethier deal, which makes sense. Teams generally aren't in the habit of trading quality right fielders with six years of club control left.
But if I'm the Dodgers, I'm seeing that the New York Mets traded away half a season of a 34-year-old Carlos Beltran for Zack Wheeler in 2011. I'm seeing that the Philadelphia Phillies traded a season-and-a-half of 29-year-old Hunter Pence for Tommy Joseph in 2012. I'm seeing that the Cleveland Indians packaged one season of 30-year-old Shin-Soo Choo in a deal to get Trevor Bauer over the winter. These are the names of some quality prospects.
If I was Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, I'd be looking to do better than those deals in an Ethier trade. He's only going to be 31 this season, and his new team would get to keep him for the long haul.
Whether it's Crawford or Ethier in the end, it sounds like making a killing in a trade is exactly what rival executives expect the Dodgers to do when Puig is ready for The Show. And if they do, it's going to be hard to imagine any other team doing what they'll have just done.
First, they will have broken the bank for an unproven Cuban prospect. Then they will have turned this unproven Cuban prospect into a star. Then they will have paid a ton of money just to create a space for him in their lineup. But in the process, they will have provided their farm system with a much-needed boost.
If this is how it all goes down, somebody's going to have to check on Michael Lewis' availability. Dodgerball, methinks, would be a heck of a read.
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