Commentary

DeWitt ready to cover new ground

Dodgers are still strong defensively but have a question mark in the middle

Updated: March 31, 2010, 2:20 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the 53-year history of baseball's Gold Glove, an award given to no fewer than 18 players every season, the honor has been bestowed on a Dodgers second baseman three times, including the one earned by Orlando Hudson in 2009 in his only season with the club. As the team goes through its final preparations in advance of next week's season opener, there doesn't seem to be anyone in the organization -- including, presumably, Blake DeWitt himself -- who believes the fourth time will come this year.

For the Dodgers, there has been an unusual amount of focus this spring on second base, where DeWitt appears to be the likely choice for the everyday job. He doesn't have Hudson's athleticism or his penchant for highlight-reel plays, and he certainly doesn't have Hudson's experience or his instincts.

[+] EnlargeBlake DeWitt
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireBlake DeWitt seems to be the only question mark in the Dodgers' infield as he takes on a new position at second base.
It isn't that DeWitt is out of his element at second base. He has played 29 games there in his career, and he started all eight of the Dodgers' postseason games there in 2008. But he is a natural third baseman, and the thought of sticking him at second and leaving him there was disconcerting enough to club officials -- and to DeWitt -- that he went to the Arizona Instructional League this past fall and then to the Dominican Winter League to get comfortable at the position.

And still, after a full spring training, the move is being made with many crossed fingers.

In 2009, the Dodgers committed the fourth fewest errors of any team in the National League. This season, they return seven of their eight starting position players, including a reigning Gold Glove winner in center fielder Matt Kemp, a potential Gold Glove winner in first baseman James Loney and one of the slickest-fielding shortstops in the game in Rafael Furcal.

"Defense was one of our strengths last year," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "With the exception of second base, I think we actually might be, overall, a tad better defensively than we were last year. I am basing that on the bench we have and the ability of those players to play a lot of different positions and play them well."

So why, then, is everyone so worried about second base?

Well, for starters, it's one of those spots where a player who is a defensive liability gets exposed very quickly. A pitcher can throw a perfect pitch in a key situation and get a batter to hit a weak grounder up the middle, but if the second baseman can't get to it, it's through for a base hit. A pitcher can induce a tailor-made, double-play grounder to short to escape a bases-loaded, one-out jam, but if the second baseman isn't experienced at turning the pivot with a sliding baserunner barreling toward him and trying to knock him down, there is a decent chance that second baseman will make an off-balance throw to first or no throw at all and eventually wind up on his keister.

To be fair, the Dodgers also won a division title in 2008 with the aging Jeff Kent playing second base most of the time, and DeWitt has at least as much range as Kent had. And in those 29 regular-season games in which DeWitt has appeared at second base, he has made just two errors in 108 chances.

But there are numerous intangibles to the position. One problem is that purely by happenstance, DeWitt has been the pivot man on only three double plays this spring, and one of those was on a ball hit to him near the bag. Only twice -- once in the eighth inning against Cleveland on March 21 and again against the Indians on March 29 -- has DeWitt had to take a throw from a shortstop or third baseman, turn and throw to first to complete the double play.

Each time, he handled it flawlessly. But it remains a small sample size.

"He has been pretty good at second base," Colletti said. "But the game hasn't provided a lot of the tougher opportunities to show where he is. It isn't his fault, but those situations just haven't materialized. So that is still out there a little bit, at least in my mind."

DeWitt has shown flashes of brilliance this spring, including in the Dodgers' first Cactus League game on March 5, when he made a leaping catch behind the bag to take a hit from Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox. But DeWitt also has committed three errors, all of which came on fairly routine grounders and all of which involved faulty footwork.

Or, more specifically, inexperienced footwork.

DeWitt will be a work in progress, but Colletti and manager Joe Torre are convinced that if DeWitt has a chance to play every day, he will hit well enough to justify whatever risk is involved in sticking him at second base.

The Dodgers appear to be in good shape everywhere else. Catcher Russell Martin is a former Gold Glove winner, but his defense has declined along with his offense over the past two years, a sign he might be letting his frustrations when he is standing over the plate affect him when he is squatting behind it. Loney is as good as they come at first base, and Casey Blake is solid at third even if his range is such that Furcal has to provide most of the coverage on the left side.

Manny Ramirez is always an adventure in left field, but the fleet Kemp can make up for a lot of what Ramirez can't cover in left-center. Andre Ethier has developed over the past couple of years into an above-average right fielder.

The Dodgers are still a good defensive club, but the spotlight will be squarely focused on DeWitt. To his credit, DeWitt has always seemed unaffected by that spotlight. An inability to relax and focus isn't his problem. The most likely scenario is that he will struggle at first, continue to take early grounders whenever he can find a coach to hit them to him, gradually get more comfortable and eventually become a serviceable big league second baseman.

Until then, Colletti and Torre are willing to show patience with him, for better or worse.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com