Commentary

Roberts: Figuring out the Dodgers' crowded outfield

Updated: April 11, 2008, 4:12 PM ET
By Brendan Roberts | ESPN.com

"[Juan Pierre] has a plan at the plate and stays within himself." -- Joe Torre, Dodgers manager.

Sounds like a pretty routine quote for a manager, but that was Torre's reasoning for starting Pierre over Matt Kemp Monday against tough Arizona starter Dan Haren, as told to my colleague Jason Grey.

Juan Pierre
James Guillory/US PresswireJuan Pierre has started slow at the plate, but he's already a favorite of Joe Torre.
And that's all you need to know. Pierre, who reportedly lost the Dodgers' left field job -- Andruw Jones starts in center -- didn't start three of the Dodgers' first four games, but he has started four of five games since then, and the latter is a trend that'll continue. Kemp and Andre Ethier started the season in the corner outfield spots, but it'll be Pierre who ends up with more at-bats -- and more value -- than either of them in 5x5 leagues.

Fantasy owners hate this, of course. We see the untapped potential of Kemp and envision a .315-30-110-20 season down the road. This year alone, we had him projected for .314-16-63-16, which is pretty darn good. Has Kemp shown he can do this in the majors? Well, no, but he showed us a lot with his .342-10-42-10 line in 292 at-bats last season, and his youth (he's 23) and upside have us seeing stars. But is it fair to expect big numbers and consistency as an everyday player this soon? Is there a reason outside of what he did in limited time last season for the high expectations right away?

Ethier climbed through the A's and Dodgers systems as a highly regarded prospect thanks to his pure swing. He was labeled an "old-fashioned ballplayer," a legit .300 hitter with gap power but also 20-homer potential. He hit .308 while playing regularly in 2006, so he was given plenty of at-bats in 2007 ... and his batting average fell 24 points, he didn't steal a base and posted a mediocre .715 OPS against lefties. (His HR/AB numbers were also down, but he showed enough "gap power" by hitting doubles to keep his slugging percentage respectable.) But is Ethier really that great an asset for a team? He's not going to win any Gold Glove awards, he's not an OBP machine, and he doesn't have exceptional power. Was there really any reason for us to expect him to play everyday?

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Just last season, Bernie Williams was still a free agent as spring training wore on, and he expressed his interest to play for the Yankees and nobody else. Meanwhile, the Yankees had a need for a fourth or fifth outfielder, which Williams could have filled nicely. But GM Brian Cashman didn't sign him, and Torre was rumored to be the reason why. Cashman knew that if he signed Williams, Torre would eventually show his allegiance to the veteran and play him over youngsters such as Melky Cabrera. There would be no youth movement under Torre's watch, and the manager's track record of "overplaying" oldies but goodies who have leadership and intangibles (Raul Mondesi, Darryl Strawberry, Ruben Sierra, David Justice, Scott Brosius ... even Joe Girardi) proved it. Heck, according to a report on the Yankees' Web site in November, Torre even thought about signing Williams to play for the Dodgers when he came aboard as manager.

And really, who's to question Torre for this? He's one of the game's best managers, a future Hall of Famer. He's a great leader of people, and he has given much of his life to baseball. He knows what it takes to win. And he's the one in that clubhouse, not us. He's the one who sees which players earn respect from their teammates, which players are putting in the work.

You have to know this: Pierre has the respect of his teammates, and boy, does he ever work. I asked a veteran baseball reporter about Pierre a few years ago (right after he had joined the Cubs), and the guy shook his head, saying, "I've never seen a player in this game work as hard as Juan Pierre." The outfielder is the first one at the ballpark and the last one to leave. He keeps himself in great shape, he studies pitchers, he talks baseball with teammates, he takes extra BP and he studies the caroms in the outfield.

And you're gonna tell me Joe Torre, knowing what we knows of him, is gonna sit him? Yeah, right. Pierre is Torre's type of player, plain and simple, and it doesn't hurt that Pierre has never been on the DL in his career (in fact, he had played five straight seasons without missing a game coming into this season), is fairly consistent month-to-month and season-to-season, hits lefties and righties about equally, hits at home and on the road. Oh yeah, he is a downright nuisance on the base paths, another Torre fascination. Pierre has his faults, with low OBP and a lack of power being chief among them, but I'm not sure those are big faults in Torre's mind.

Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp
AP Photo/Eric RisbergAndre Ethier and Matt Kemp should be the future of the Dodgers outfield, but it's a slow process.
And so we go back to Ethier and Kemp. They have better, or least more interesting fantasy potential, but are they truly better all-around baseball players to have on your team? Because there's a difference. For instance, just compare Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells. In terms of fantasy potential, Soriano wins by a long shot. But when it comes to true baseball skills and intangibles, Wells, a fine center fielder and more well-rounded hitter with a decent OBP, wins out. We owners think Ethier and Kemp are superior options, but are we too "fantasy-minded"?

The Dodgers have a win-now approach, and I believe, just as I think Torre believes, that Pierre gives the team the best chance to win now. Were I managing him, I'd have a tough time sitting him, too. That's why I think Pierre will finish with more plate appearances than Kemp and Ethier.

And with more plate appearances comes more times on base, and with more times on base comes more steals. Pierre stole an amazing 64 bases, one short of his career-high, in 2007, and it's not like he's at an age (30) in which we can expect him to slow down. I'm not seeing 64 steals again; in fact, I'm not even thinking 50. And he'll homer no more than once or twice, if that. But I'm seeing 45-49 steals, a .290 average and 95 runs. Players like that don't grow on trees. We have only four players (Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Chone Figgins) projected to steal that many. Whether you're a Pierre backer or not, you have to admit he can carry a 5x5 team with that kind of three-category production.

So what of Ethier and Kemp? Well, next up in plate appearances, I think, is Kemp, who Torre knows has untapped offensive potential and a much higher ceiling than Ethier. Even when talking to Grey and others on Monday, Torre was sure to tell those present that Kemp would get his playing time this season. The manager knows Kemp is the future of the team. I'm seeing something like 450 at-bats, with a .295 average (yes, I think he takes a step back there), 15 homers and 15 steals. Pretty respectable, but you can find more players like that in fantasy. However, he's just too young to count on for anything more.

That leaves Ethier, who actually has the most at-bats of the three right now. I'm thinking fewer than 400 at-bats, with about 15 homers, a .295 average and maybe one steal. That, my friends, is fringe mixed-league value.

Pierre is owned in 52.2 percent of leagues, which is just too low, considering his upside. (Kemp is owned in 94.2 percent of leagues, and Ethier in 41.2 percent of leagues). Fantasy owners can have their opinions about who should be starting and who will be more valuable among the Dodgers' corner outfielders. But Joe Torre is the one writing out the lineups, and that trumps all.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.

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