Dodgers' bench is stacked
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti has always been a big believer in inventory. As the theory goes, more players means more competition for the open spots, and fewer open spots means more fierce competition, forcing everyone to elevate his game.
Or something like that.
Even in a year like this, when the starting and backup positions on the opening day roster appear to be set weeks before the first day of spring training, Colletti believes in stocking the minor league shelves with as much major league-ready talent as he can.
"It's not a baseball month," Colletti said recently. "It's a baseball season."
Translation: You never know what is going to happen between now and October, but you can bet the farm someone is going to do an extended stint on the disabled list, someone is going to struggle at a time when the team can't afford to be patient, and a roster that only has room for 25 guys at any one time is going to have 35 or 40 guys on it at various times throughout the season.
It is for that reason that the Dodgers are bringing experienced major league infielders Angel Berroa and Nick Green to spring training, why they signed veteran major leaguer Alfredo Amezaga even though he won't be ready to return from knee surgery until June and why they felt the need to re-sign Brad Ausmus as their backup catcher at a point when it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep longtime prospect A.J. Ellis out of the major leagues.
Barring something unforeseen, Berroa, Green or Ellis aren't likely to be on the opening-day roster. But things unforeseen are what this game is all about, and Colletti seems too determined to have a deep bench at the major-league level no matter what happens in the next few weeks.
For now, though, that bench appears to have a no-vacancy sign flashing above it.
Last week's re-signing of Ausmus was another bitter pill for Ellis, who has had back-to-back seasons for the ages at Triple A but with his 29th birthday looming in April is still waiting for his big chance. The past two seasons, he has combined for a .318 average and a .437 on-base percentage in the Pacific Coast League, and those who watch him on a regular basis rave about his game-calling skills.
Los Angeles Dodgers
But in an organization that is finally starting to value long-term stability, the fact the 40-year-old Ausmus is coming back is a small step in that direction. If both Ausmus and starter Russell Martin can stay healthy through spring training, this will mark the first time the Dodgers will begin consecutive seasons with the same backup catcher since they did so with Chad Kreuter in 2001-02.
And besides, Ausmus' value to the organization runs much deeper than backup catching duties. A three-time Gold Glove winner and a cerebral type -- he has a B.A. in government from Dartmouth -- Ausmus was brought in largely to mentor Martin, who despite his status as a two-time All-Star has shown the past couple of years that he is still very much a work in progress. As far as playing time, Ausmus doesn't figure to start more than once a week, but he showed last year that he can still swing a bat. He hit .295 in 95 at-bats.
In an offseason when the Dodgers didn't make a single move that could be classified as major, the signing of Jamey Carroll and the re-signing of Ronnie Belliard were among the most significant. For the moment, they are the club's only backup infielders, although veteran Doug Mientkiewicz figures to make the club as a non-roster invitee because he is the only real left-handed pinch-hitting threat the Dodgers will bring to spring training.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Carroll, Belliard and Mientkiewicz are each capable of playing at least three positions, and Carroll and Mientkiewicz can even play the outfield in an emergency. Such versatility is absolutely critical in the National League, where late-inning double switches are a staple.
But there are a couple of factors that could throw a wrench into this plan.
First, if Blake DeWitt doesn't nail down the everyday second-base job in spring training, Carroll and Belliard will have to make most of the starts there. That would remove one of them from the bench each night. However, that also would mean DeWitt would begin the season at Triple-A Albuquerque, so it would open another roster spot, probably for Berroa or Green.
Another factor could be Belliard's weight. His new one-year, $825,000 contract requires him to get down to 209 pounds sometime during spring training. If he fails to do so, the contract won't be guaranteed, and Belliard probably will be released. That also would create a spot for Berroa or Green.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Belliard has the ability to hit for power, which Carroll really doesn't. That would seem to indicate Belliard, who was outstanding after the Dodgers acquired him from Washington at last year's waiver deadline, is more suited to pinch-hitting duty than Carroll. But Carrroll has a lifetime .348 average as a pinch hitter, with a .438 on-base percentage, where Belliard is a career .250 pinch hitter.
With manager Joe Torre reportedly planning to rest third baseman Casey Blake often, either Belliard, Carroll or Mientkiewicz could play there on those days.
It appears Reed Johnson, whom the Dodgers signed earlier this week to a one-year, $800,000 deal, will be the only backup outfielder for much of the season, although Jason Repko and Xavier Paul could receive periodic big-league callups. But the Dodgers aren't left threadbare in the outfield because Carroll, Mientkiewicz and even Blake can play there if needed.
Johnson's ability to play all three positions will come in handy, as well. He'll probably start at least once a week in left field, where Manny Ramirez will need frequent days off, and at least once every couple of weeks in either center or right.
Johnson is a .238 career pinch hitter.
Los Angeles Dodgers
It is worth nothing that every single candidate for the Dodgers' bench, including Berroa and Green, has at least some experience playing at least three different positions. So no matter what transpires in spring training, when the season starts, Torre should be able to cover a lot with a little on a nightly basis.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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