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Handicapping the Dodgers' Hotly Contested Spring Training Position Battles

Nick Ostiller@@NickOstillerContributor IIFebruary 3, 2015

Jul 29, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Andre Ethier (16) in the dugout before the game against the Atlanta Braves at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

February is here, which means spring training is just around the corner for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the rest of Major League Baseball.

The Boys in Blue made waves this offseason with their flurry of moves at the winter meetings, trading away key players from last season's team that took home the National League West division title.

It remains to be seen whether this year's roster incarnation is superior, but most of the players on the 2015 Dodgers know their role heading into the new season. The starting rotation is set, along with the closer and infield.

Two positions that are still up for grabs, however, are catcher and center field.

Catcher

There were definite concerns within the organization following the struggles of A.J. Ellis last season. The Dodgers' incumbent backstop batted just .191 in 93 games as he battled through knee and ankle injuries.

But although his performance at the plate suffered, the new front office led by President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi realized his value in other areas of the game—namely his relationship with the pitching staff.

Sep 24, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis (17) walk off the field after the last out of the eighth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. T
USA TODAY Sports

"I don't know what I'm going to do if he's not back," Clayton Kershaw told reporters following the Dodgers' season-ending loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series last October, per Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "I think we'd be losing a lot if we let him go."

It's why the Dodgers ultimately decided to avoid arbitration with Ellis and brought him back on a one-year, $4.25 million deal, per Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.

"That’s been a part of our process, understanding the dynamics and the relationships and it’s clear he’s a big part of this team and a big part of the preparation and comfort level for the pitchers," Zaidi told Hernandez.

The Dodgers still made sure to proceed with a Plan B just in case Ellis falters for a second straight year. Los Angeles acquired switch-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal from the San Diego Padres in the blockbuster deal that sent fan favorite and franchise cornerstone Matt Kemp out of town.

Sep 9,2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Diego Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal before the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The former 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft will be tasked with living up to some lofty expectations in the eyes of most Dodgers fans simply because of who the team traded away in order to get him.

Grandal has batted just .224 since testing positive for testosterone in November 2012. His return to the field in 2013 was cut short by a season-ending knee injury, but he did hit 15 home runs while playing half of his games in spacious Petco Park last year.

What's more, Grandal batted .328 in 19 games in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, according to J.P. Hoornstra of InsideSocal.com.

Grandal recently described his knee as being "110 percent" improved compared to a year ago, per Hoornstra.

"It’s the reason I went to the Dominican Republic to make sure I was right," said Grandal. "I think I showed I was right and that’s why so many teams started calling in afterwards."

Ellis will likely be Kerhaw's personal catcher because of their close relationship on and off the field, while Grandal undoubtedly offers more pop in the lineup along with a fine .350 career on-base percentage and elite pitch-framing ability.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 10:  First baseman Yasmani Grandal #8 of the San Diego Padres throws to first on a sacrifice bunt by A.J. Ellis #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on September 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, Califo
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

According to Hoornstra, manager Don Mattingly held a meeting with both of his catchers but has yet to determine an arrangement for their playing time in 2015.

"A.J. couldn’t put it any better: Whatever it takes to win," said Grandal, per Hoornstra. "If that day A.J. is the man for the job behind the plate and we are going to get a win with A.J. behind the plate, that’s going to be him. At the end of the day, if we get a win, that’s a team win and we all get a ring."

Look for Mattingly to form a platoon based on matchups when it comes to his catcher on any given night.

Center Field

The battle to become the starting center fielder for the Dodgers this season will come down to a seasoned veteran and a highly touted prospect.

It's going to be to Andre Ethier vs. Joc Pederson.

Ethier was the odd man out last season, an unlucky victim of the team's outfield logjam. The eight-year veteran was banished to the bench in favor of Carl Crawford, who solidified himself as the everyday left fielder. Yasiel Puig patrolled center and Kemp played right.

With Kemp now out of the picture, the Dodgers plan to move Puig back to his natural position in right field, where the team can utilize his strong throwing arm to its maximum potential. Crawford will be back in left field, which means center field is wide open, and Ethier expects to reclaim a starting role, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times.

It was fun trying to win the way we did last year, but it didn’t prove any more successful than me playing every day or not playing every day. I’d rather play every day and help this team win -- or whatever team it is -- to the best of my ability. I feel I can, if given a role. As I stand here today, I’m preparing every day to be a starting outfielder for the Dodgers, until I’m told otherwise. I’m not changing my mind about that. It’s probably going to be a little less wanting to take the same role as I did last year.

The problem that Mattingly has with simply handing Ethier back his starting gig is multifaceted.

First of all, Ethier is coming off the worst season of his career, one that saw him bat .249 with just four home runs and 42 RBI in 341 at-bats.

"You put up the numbers, you play. It's pretty simple," Mattingly said, per Eric Stephen of True Blue LA. "You perform, you compete, and if you win the job, you're playing."

Ethier clearly didn't put up numbers worthy of everyday playing time a season ago. The argument can be made that he never was able to establish a rhythm at the plate with such sporadic at-bats, but maybe he is simply beginning his inevitable decline as a serviceable major league player. Ethier will turn 33 in April.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

It's a legitimate concern for Mattingly and the Dodgers, who must also accommodate the rise of Pederson, their top outfield prospect.

Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 with 135 hits and 78 RBI in 121 games at Triple-A before his September call-up last season. He became the Pacific Coast League's first player since 1934 to hit at least 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com.

Mattingly considers Pederson the "best defensive center fielder" on the Dodgers, per Dilbeck, and the rookie will have an opportunity to earn an everyday job at the position during spring training.

Friedman and Zaidi agree with this plan.

"I think we’ll take some time in spring training and assess that, get a feel for him in camp and how he’s handling things," Friedman told Dilbeck. "It’ll be a discussion we'll have with the staff and I’m sure it will be an ongoing discussion between now through the last game in March."

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Zaidi on CF: We really see it as a competition between those two guys (Pederson & Ethier) going into camp #Dodgers

If Pederson holds his own during spring training, which will comprise of more than the 39 plate appearances he made with the big club last September, the Dodgers will likely begin the season with the 22-year-old as their starting center fielder.

Ethier will presumably be unhappy starting the season on the bench yet again, but it will be difficult for Los Angeles to trade him without eating a significant portion of the $56 million he is owed through 2018. Moreover, the team may view Ethier as an above-average insurance policy in case the injury-prone Crawford feels a twinge somewhere along the way.

"I think Joc should have the opportunity to compete for the position. I don't think we should hand anything over," Mattingly said, per Stephen. "It's a spot where there will be competition."

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise linked/noted.

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