Ivan De Jesus Jr.'s offense ready
PHOENIX -- One look at Ivan De Jesus Jr.'s numbers in the Arizona Fall League, which concludes Thursday, could yield the reasonable conclusion that the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers infield prospect is ready for the major leagues. One look at what he did in the Pacific Coast League this season could make you wonder why he didn't receive a September call-up to a team that by September really didn't have much to lose.
For his part, De Jesus -- who is hitting .333 with a .419 on-base percentage for the Don Mattingly-managed Phoenix Desert Dogs -- says he isn't looking at any numbers and he certainly isn't drawing any conclusions.
"I'm just having fun," he said after a recent game.
It shows. De Jesus has played this AFL season with a noticeable spring in his step, which is something of a feat in itself considering it wasn't long ago he couldn't step at all. Less than two years ago, in a spring training game, De Jesus got caught in a moment of indecision as he approached home plate and did an awkward slide. The result was a nasty collision with the shin guard of Milwaukee Brewers catcher Carlos Corporan, a broken tibia in De Jesus' left leg and, basically, a lost season.
"I cried when I found out I had a broken leg," De Jesus said. "I knew it was going to be a long road back for me. But I just tried to show everybody I could do it. I feel like it's completely behind me now. I don't think my range is completely back to where it was before, but that is what I'm going to work on this offseason. I'm going to go back home [to Puerto Rico] and play a little bit of winter ball, too. I just want to work on improving my range and my first-step quickness.
"Everybody also tells me I have lost a little bit of speed. But I had a broken tibia. It's probably not going to be 100 percent like it was."
De Jesus had reached double figures in steals in each of his first four minor league seasons before missing 2009. This year, his first at the Triple-A level, he stole only six. And although he put up decent statistics for the Isotopes, batting .296 with 33 doubles, seven homers, 70 RBIs and a .335 OBP in the hitter-friendly PCL, those numbers were well off the ones he posted in his previous full season, at Double-A Jacksonville in 2008, when he hit .324 with a .419 OBP while striking out only five more times (81) than he walked (76).
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De Jesus struck out 81 times this year, too, but walked only 32. That is something he is trying to correct in the fall league.
"I'm just trying to be selective and look for my pitch," he said.
It's an approach that sits well with Mattingly, who will be De Jesus' manager with the Dodgers when he finally does reach the majors.
"For me, he is probably our most polished guy on the whole [Desert Dogs] team, hitting-wise," Mattingly said. "He has an understanding of how to approach different pitchers, what a guy does, how to attack him. I have always thought this guy was a good hitter. I think the biggest issue everybody looks at with him is, where does he fit?"
And that is a question that will remain unanswered for a while longer.
The Dodgers drafted De Jesus as a shortstop in the second round in 2005, and he became their de facto first pick in that draft when the club couldn't reach an agreement with its first-round selection, University of Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar. The thought at the time was that De Jesus would follow in the footsteps of his father, Ivan De Jesus Sr. He played the position in the majors for 15 seasons, the first three of them with the Dodgers.
But De Jesus Jr. has played primarily at second after the broken leg. He still plays short on occasion, and because of the logistics of the AFL, he has been playing third for the first time this fall. He took up the position so Mattingly could get him into the lineup on a team that had several other middle infielders, but he has played it serviceably.
"He has looked pretty good over there, even though he isn't a prototypical third baseman," Mattingly said.
Said De Jesus: "It's the first time in my life I have played third. It's a new position for me, but learning new things is only going to help my career."
Which brings us back to fitting in. By the time De Jesus reports to spring training in February, the landscape might be radically different. Ryan Theriot, the Dodgers' everyday second baseman, is eligible for arbitration this winter after making $2.6 million this past year. But he hit just .270, including .242 with six extra-base hits in 198 at-bats after the Dodgers got him from the Chicago Cubs at the trading deadline. At last check, club officials were on the fence as to whether to go to arbitration with Theriot or to non-tender him and make him a free agent, at which point he could be snatched up by another club.
Even if Theriot doesn't return, it's unlikely a player with no major league experience would be handed the second-base job. But if it's open when camp begins, and if De Jesus proves he can hit major league pitching and reclaims the defensive range he had before breaking his leg, he could win the job.
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Is he ready? Depends who you ask.
"Is he ready as a hitter? Yeah," Mattingly said. "I think he is going to hit, but there is still a learning curve there, and it's still different pitching [in the majors]. It's not the same pitching he is seeing now."
He also still needs to improve with the glove.
"I think his bat is ahead of his defense," said DeJon Watson, the Dodgers' assistant general manager for player development. "But his defense isn't far behind. He still has work to do with his range and his quickness, but it will come. Ultimately, it's going to be up to Donnie and [Dodgers general manager] Ned [Colletti]. But he is getting close."
As for the player himself, he says exactly what you would expect him to say -- and exactly what the organizational brass wants to hear.
"I certainly think I'm ready," De Jesus said. "But I still have to keep working."Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.