COMMENTARY | The Los Angeles Dodgers have played phenomenal baseball over the last couple of months to move into first place in the National League West and in the conversation for best team in baseball.
While just about everybody has gotten healthy, the starting pitching has been lights out, the bullpen has solidified, and the offense has begun clicking, there is still one area that needs improving: the bench.
Will the bench determine how far the team ultimately goes? Most likely not, but that doesn't mean that it can't be improved and become a larger asset to the club as the season winds down and the postseason begins.
Scott Van Slyke has picked up an insane amount of frequent flyer miles in 2013, as he's been recalled and optioned back to Triple-A Albuquerque around a half-dozen times already. He'll be recalled when rosters expand on September 1, but the Dodgers have made a big mistake in not keeping him around, especially with the litany of injuries Matt Kemp has had to deal with this season.
Without Kemp, the Dodgers have been in need of another power-hitting right-handed guy who can play the outfield; even without The Bison, the bench has been in dire need of power all season long.
SVS is absolutely demolishing Triple-A pitching this season and is slugging nearly .500 in the bigs in 2013. His .356 wOBA, 10.2 BB%, and ability to play three positions respectably is a major asset the Dodgers have underutilized thus far.
His power off of the bench or in a spot-start situation; ability to platoon with Andre Ethier when lefties are on the mound; and upside over a Jerry Hairston gives the Dodgers legitimate outfield depth. Considering Kemp has been hurt three times, Crawford multiple times, Puig plays a reckless style, and Andre's dealt with varied injuries over the last few years, his permanent presence on the 25-man roster is long overdue.
Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker Don't Have to Bat First or Second, and Shouldn't
Don Mattingly has seemingly operated under the notion -- for most of the season -- that your middle infielders must bat first or second, and if your small and "gritty" players are playing a different position that day, they should still bat atop the order.
This is a faulty notion, of course, and one that needs to be corrected going forward. Schumaker has by far been the lesser of the two, as he's been average offensively, at best, and a negative in the field and on the bases. Punto's offense has been worse (sub-.330 OBP and sub-100 wRC+), but he's countered that with good defense and baserunning.
Having one on the bench would be one thing, but carrying both is just a waste of a roster spot and poor roster construction to begin with. Add in that Jerry Hairston -- who's been poorer than both with a sub-.300 on-base percentage -- is on the squad as well, and it's simply overkill, to quote Colin Hay.
The Best Dodgers' Bench for the Postseason
Matt Kemp's impending return, as I recently wrote about, will give the Dodgers four ML-caliber outfielders. Thus, the bench will have one heck of a hitter coming off of it once the whole outfield is healthy.
Van Slyke should replace Hairston for the postseason when rosters condense. Should Crawford or Puig not be available or asked to leadoff, the patient A.J. Ellis can fill in, as can Kemp. That eliminates the horror of watching a guy like Punto or Schumaker, if they found themselves playing, from manning that lineup position. Batting first in 2013, Punto's OBP is .212 and Skip checks in at .246.
The Dodgers' bench has been very, very conventional in 2013, an old-school baseball dream. However, unconventional is acceptable if the results will improve. Adding Van Slyke, not carrying three gritty veteran middle infielders who are all basically the same player, and not batting them leadoff will improve the Dodgers' remaining weak spot as they eye the ultimate prize come October.
Greg Zakwin is the founder of Plaschke, Thy Sweater Is Argyle, a Dodgers' and sports card blog. He writes with an analytical tilt about The Blue Crew at ChadMoriyama.com. You can find and follow him on Twitter @ArgyledPlaschke. A graduate of UCLA in 2011 with a Bachelor's in History, he's been a follower of the Dodgers since birth and still mourns the loss of both Mike Piazza and Carlos Santana.
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