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Who Will Be Odd Man out in Dodgers' Star-Studded Outfield Logjam?

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Who Will Be Odd Man out in Dodgers' Star-Studded Outfield Logjam?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Will one of these three Dodgers be the odd man out in what is a talent-laden, high-priced outfield?

Pretty much any story about the Los Angeles Dodgers these days is obligated to at least mention the club's never-ending financial funding and bottomless bank account. All that money has helped the Dodgers acquire the talent to put them in position as favorites in the National League West.

One thing all that money can't buy, though? A 10th starting position on the diamond—preferably in the outfield.

When it comes to their outfield, you see, the Dodgers have one of those, ahem, too-much-of-a-good-thing problems. In Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, the club has four outfielders who have shown they're worthy of starting every day. Alas, the rules of baseball allow a maximum of nine men on the field at once, three of which typically inhabit the large, expansive area covered in green grass.

What, then, are the Dodgers to do? Which of the four outfielders mentioned above might become the "odd man out" with the team due to start spring training in—get ready!—a little more than a week?

For a large portion of this offseason, there were all sorts of rumors that one of this quartet could get swapped as a way to help clear things up, as Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote in November.

The two names mentioned most frequently were Kemp and Ethier, as noted a month later by Buster Olney of ESPN.

David Goldman/Associated Press
A serious ankle injury cost Matt Kemp a chance to play in the postseason.

That speculation, though, has quieted down in recent weeks. At this stage, it's looking more and more likely that the Dodgers will go into the 2014 season—their "Opening Day" series against the Arizona Diamondbacks begins on March 22—with all four outfielders on the 25-man roster.

While that can be problematic in some cases, it's not necessarily a bad thing here. Sure, there are egos and (millions of) dollars on the line, but neither of those should be used to decide anything for a team that has World Series aspirations.

Dodgers Outfielders By 2014 Dollars
PLAYER 2014 SALARY
Matt Kemp $21 M
Carl Crawford $20.25 M
Andre Ethier $15.5 M
Yasiel Puig $2 M

Cot's Baseball Contracts

While Puig is clearly the least invested-in outfielder of the bunch (strictly monetarily speaking), there's no way he'll get shortchanged with playing time. Not when in only four months of action last year, the electrifying 23-year-old was easily the Dodgers' best, most productive outfielder—and arguably their top position player—in what was his first taste of the majors.

That leaves Kemp, Crawford and Ethier to divvy up two spots. That still might seem like overcrowding, but then again, maybe not.

Kemp, remember, hasn't been healthy for almost two full years by now. The 29-year-old has played just 106 and 73 games, respectively, in 2012 and 2013, while battling shoulder, hamstring and ankle problems.

Crawford, 32, has had injury issues himself, including elbow surgery in 2012 and a hamstring ailment last season. He made it into only 116 games in 2013 and a mere 31 in 2012.

The 31-year-old Ethier, on the other hand, has been rather durable, having managed 291 out of a possible 324 games the past two years.

Given this recent history, it seems highly probable that all four outfielders will be able to get their time in, even if that means it comes at the expense of one of the other three missing some action due to injury.

The other factor that helps this logjam? Kemp and Puig hit right-handed, while Crawford and Ethier bat from the left side. In theory, then, even when all four outfielders are healthy and playing well at the same time, manager Don Mattingly could find a way to rotate based on pitching matchups.

Dodgers Outfielders By Career OPS Against RHPs and LHPs
PLAYER CAREER OPS VERSUS RHPs CAREER OPS VERSUS LHPs
Matt Kemp .795 .976
Yasiel Puig .897 1.001
Andre Ethier .906 .644
Carl Crawford .809 .679

Baseball Reference

Crawford and Ethier continue to struggle against southpaws, posting OPS of .679 and .644 against lefties for their careers. It's a good thing, then, that Kemp (.976 career OPS) and Puig (1.001 career OPS) absolutely obliterate opposite-armed pitchers.

The same thing holds true in reverse. Where Kemp (.795 career OPS) and Puig (.897 career OPS) aren't quite as beastly against righties, Ethier (.906 career OPS) and Crawford (.809 career OPS) can pick up the slack, if need be.

Obviously, it's not advisable to stunt Puig's development while his career is still in its infancy by sitting him often against righties, but if he's slumping, this could be a savvy maneuver.

Where things admittedly get a little tricky in all this is with defensive positioning. None of these four is a true center fielder. Kemp, the starter there for each of the last five years, has become below-average with the glove recently, and who knows what to expect from him in the field after multiple major injuries?

Ethier, the starter in right since 2007, actually covered capably enough for Kemp last season, meaning he's likely the best option to back up at the spot in 2014. Plus, it works well that he and Kemp hit from opposite sides.

Ethier, though, should also see time in either corner, primarily as a way to give Crawford a day off in left, and occasionally, Puig in right.

Which grouping should be the Dodgers regular starting outfield?

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By filling in at all three positions without necessarily being considered the definitive starter at any one of them, Ethier would appear to be the "odd man out" of this foursome.

Thing is, between Kemp's and Crawford's injury issues the past two seasons, as well as what could be growing pains and cold spells for the streaky Puig in his first full big league season, Ethier still is in line to see plenty of time.

Essentially, look for the Dodgers to employ a rotation where one of the expected starters—Kemp, Puig and Crawford—gets a day off every four or five days, with Ethier shifting across the outfield while still playing three or four games in a row to keep him in a rhythm.

Calling the situation "a good problem to have," Mattingly told CBS Los Angeles in December about the potential plan heading into 2014:

I know somebody is not going to be happy the days that they don’t play. But also within that...we found out if we can give Carl an extra day off here or there, he seems to be even better. We think Matt will probably need the same type of thing, where you’re getting a day here and there. Andre, the same, days here and there.

These too-many-pieces "problems" do tend to work themselves out one way or another.

For evidence, just rewind to the start of Dodgers spring training last year. Heading into camp, Los Angeles had approximately 37 starting pitchers to fill its five-man rotation, and everyone was wondering how in the heck all of them would fit.

OK, really, it was more like eight rotation candidates: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly. Those first three worked out pretty darn well, but the other five? Well, there were injuries (Beckett, Billingsley, Lilly), inconsistent performances (Capuano) and trades (Harang) all within the first portion of the regular season.

Ben Margot/Associated Press
Despite starting 2013 with plenty of pitching, the Dodgers had to give the ball to—and take it away from—Matt Magill, who posted a 6.51 ERA in six starts.

Before the Dodgers knew it, what looked like a silly surplus turned into a severe shortage. Remember when they were forced to give starts to the likes of Stephen Fife and Matt Magill?

Point is, the Dodgers would be lucky to have an actual "odd man out" situation in the outfield in 2014, because that would mean all four prove productive and remain healthy for the entire season.

Even all that Dodgers money might not buy that kind of result.

 

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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