It's possible the Los Angeles Dodgers will enter the season with four everyday outfielders and only three available spots.
It all depends on the health of center fielder Matt Kemp, who enters spring training at less than one-hundred percent following offseason ankle surgery to remove a bone spur and help accelerate the healing of a microfracture.
At this point, Kemp isn't even cleared to begin running, which according to manager Don Mattingly leaves him as highly questionable for their opening series in Australia next month.
"There's really no true schedule with Matt other than, when the ankle's healed, he gets to do more,'' manager Don Mattingly said. "He's able to hit, he's going to be able to do a lot of things, but included in a lot of things is not going to be running outside, and that's a pretty important part of what he does.''
Typically, the Dodgers outfield depth would put a big smile on the face of the manager, especially with a key player poised to miss the start of the regular season. But in this case it could prove to be a headache for Mattingly down the road. Kemp's likely absence early will open things up temporarily, but it's inevitable the Dodgers will have a log jam in their outfield. That's when the pressure goes to Mattingly to find a resolution that best serves the team while keeping the players content.
If Friday's comments from Kemp are any indication, finding a balance that keeps everyone happy will be not be an easy task.
"“I'm not a fourth outfielder. We can cut that question off right now. That's the last question you have to ask me. I'm not a fourth outfielder. I'm not going to be a fourth outfielder. I'm here to help my team win and play every day. We can stop right there.”
That sounds like a non-negotiable stance.
Naturally, there will be a period where Kemp is eased back into action. That much he should understand and cooperate with. But once he feels he's at or close to full strength, he won't be happy unless he's out there every day. It's probably safe to assume Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford will feel the same way, but at this point only Puig is a lock to achieve status every day.
“I don't know where you get this fourth outfielder talk from, man. You all love talking about four outfielders, man. That's like the question of the day every day. I think all four of us outfielders feel the same way. None of us are fourth outfielders. Everybody wants to play every day. I won't accept that role. I can't accept that role.”
The Dodgers' ideal solution may be doing exactly what Kemp won't accept, and that's making him their regular fourth outfielder. Granted, he would be an expensive bench piece. He's still owed $128 million through 2019. If not that role exactly, limiting his playing time all season would make sense considering he's missed 145 games over the past two seasons. Both Ethier and Crawford have had well-documented injury problems over the past few seasons as well, so there should be a rotation that makes sense for everybody.
In the end, it's going to come down to a compromise, another injury, or a tough decision being rendered by the Dodgers front office. The possibility of a trade is there, though those options may also be limited by Kemp's contract and concern over his health. But until a compromise can be reached or a trade can be made, the Dodgers and all four outfielders are going to field a ton of questions that all lead to the same programmed answers. Chances are that's going to get old very quickly.
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