- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Two weeks ago, in an impromptu conversation with a handful of reporters at the major league owners' meetings in suburban Phoenix, Dodgers manager Joe Torre was asked about his team's second-base situation, the question coming at a time when it didn't appear the club had much interest in bringing back any of the incumbents.
"We're going to give Blake DeWitt a shot at playing there,'' Torre said, with a sigh.
Torre's words were direct and straightforward. It was his sigh that was hard to read.
Was it a sigh of resignation, meaning the relatively untested DeWitt was being given the job because there were no alternatives? Was it a sigh that said Torre wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of an everyday second baseman who has appeared in all of 29 big-league games at that position, including a grand total of two last year?
Los Angeles Dodgers
Or was it a sigh that said there is no way to keep this kid down anymore, that after two years of constantly shuttling back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A Albuquerque, and doing it without complaint, the former first-round draft pick out of tiny Sikeston, Mo., had finally forced his way into a starting job?
Well, it was probably a combination of all those. By all appearances, Dodgers officials are perfectly at ease with having DeWitt as their primary second baseman. But what they aren't perfectly at ease with is putting all their second-base eggs into DeWitt's still very inexperienced basket.
It was partly for that reason that the club re-signed veteran Ronnie Belliard on Tuesday, agreeing to terms on a one-year, $825,000 contract with performance bonuses that would pay him up to an additional $250,000. For Belliard to max out on those, though, DeWitt probably will have to falter somewhere along the way, whether it be by failing to win the everyday job in spring training or failing to succeed once the season begins.
For now, this appears to be the scenario: DeWitt will compete this spring with Belliard and veteran utility man Jamey Carroll, who signed earlier this winter for two years and $3.85 million. All indications are that DeWitt is the guy everybody is rooting for, partly because he is the only left-handed batter in the group and partly because he is the only one of the three who conceivably could make six starts a week.
Carroll will turn 36 before spring training, while Belliard will turn 35 a couple of days after the season opener.
Los Angeles Dodgers
But if DeWitt doesn't nail down the job in spring training, he'll head right back to where he has headed no fewer than seven times over the past two seasons, to Triple-A. That would leave Belliard and Carroll to split the starts at second base and probably leave the Dodgers' bench at least somewhat depleted because of the positional versatility that both Belliard (first, second and third) and Carroll (second, third, short and outfield) possess.
DeWitt "needs the at-bats, and he needs them at either level,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "He'll have a chance to make the club, but if he [does], he'll have to be able to have enough at-bats to stay sharp and stay fresh. Carroll can play less and still be effective, and so can Ronnie. But Blake has to play.''
So if nothing else, DeWitt, 24, can count on being the everyday second baseman somewhere. But somehow, the job just isn't as glamorous in Albuquerque, N.M.
For his part, DeWitt, at least outwardly, has been unfazed by this strange odyssey he has been on for the past couple of seasons. This is the same guy who began spring training in 2008 in minor-league camp and ended it at Dodger Stadium, as the opening-day third baseman against San Francisco when Nomar Garciaparra started the season on the disabled list.
DeWitt hit .303 for his first two months in the majors.
The Belliard signing was curious in its timing. After all, if the Dodgers were interested in bringing him back, why did they wait until three weeks before spring training to do it? The answer is the same as it seemingly always is where the Dodgers are concerned these days: It was all about the money. Belliard had just completed a two-year, $3.5 million deal he had originally signed with Washington, and he was believed to be seeking at least a $2 million salary for this season when the winter began.
Apparently, no one was interested in paying him that much, so he eventually fell into the Dodgers' price range. If that hadn't happened, the Dodgers would have proceeded with DeWitt and Carroll, possibly as a straight left-right platoon that still would have given DeWitt a majority of the starts. One thing the club was not interested in doing was re-signing Hudson, who finished last season in an offensive slump that happened to begin right around the time Belliard was acquired from the Nationals on Aug. 30.
Belliard, who hit .351 with a .398 on-base percentage for the Dodgers, eventually stole the job and started all eight of the club's postseason games. Hudson, who had been an All-Star earlier in the summer, finished up on the bench, bristling at the indignity of it all, according to several sources.
If DeWitt can take care of business in spring training, the Dodgers figure to have a fairly strong bench again. They also re-signed veteran backup catcher Brad Ausmus to a one-year, $1 million deal on Tuesday. And while they still don't have a left-handed pinch hitter, Carroll's ability to fill a backup outfield spot could free the Dodgers up to re-sign veteran Doug Mientkiewicz, technically as a seventh infielder but mostly as that lefty off the bench.
So, while the Belliard signing might seem superfluous at first glance, it actually changes the Dodgers' landscape in many ways going into spring training. Add to that last week's re-signing of Vicente Padilla to fill out the starting rotation, and the club probably has at least regained favorite status in the National League West.
That, of course, means nothing in January. But if nothing else, there are more reasons to believe in the Dodgers than there were, say, two weeks ago.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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