Finding playing time for rookie Guerrero is latest challenge for LA skipper
By Richard Justice
Dodgers rookie infielder Alex Guerrero is hitting .474. He has to play, right? It can't be that complicated, can it? I mean, it just can't be. Hey, there's nothing easier -- or more enjoyable -- than telling another guy how to run his baseball team.
Say this for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly: He has some experience in this area, having spent much of the last three seasons figuring how out to work four or five starting outfielders into three spots.
Mattingly's rotation of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, etc., was brilliant, not so much in the strategy, but in how he went about it. He simply gathered them all and asked that they be patient. Mattingly would attempt to use all of them, but he made it clear that they might not be happy.
Mattingly emphasized that every lineup was one he believed gave the Dodgers the best chance to win that day's game. In the end, nothing else is supposed to matter. The players trusted Mattingly and knew he had no other agenda.
That situation got back to the core of why Mattingly has been successful. To know him is to like him and believe in him. There's a decency and honesty about Mattingly that plays well over a long season. In that way, players want to please him.
Here we go again. When the Dodgers signed Guerrero to a four-year, $18 million contract 18 months ago, it was clear they did not project him to be a utility player. At the time of the signing, he was penciled in to play second base.
Once they got Guerrero in Spring Training in 2014, they weren't comfortable with his defensive skills at second. He'd been primarily a shortstop in Cuba, but he wasn't thought to have the range to play there in the Major Leagues.
With Dee Gordon having a breakout season, Guerrero spent most of the 2014 season playing second base at Triple-A Albuquerque. And when new Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman overhauled the roster this past offseason, he acquired Howie Kendrick to play second.
Kendrick is arguably one of the five best second basemen in the game, and so he will play. Which seems to make third base the other option for Guerrero.
This, too, is tricky. The current starter, Juan Uribe, is a career .257 hitter. He's also 36 years old, and like Kendrick, in the final year of his contract.
But on a team built around pitching -- aren't they all? -- Uribe's singular talent is important. He's a very good defensive third baseman, and on a team that spent the last offseason focused on upgrading that part of the team, he's a valuable commodity.
Uribe is also one of the Dodgers' clubhouse leaders, a happy, talkative guy who help keeps the energy at a certain level. Those of us on the outside might never completely understand this part of the thing, but we know it's important.
There's also Justin Turner. He can play every infield position, and when Mattingly looks at his roster, he wants playing time for him, too.
Now he has Guerrero. When Uribe missed two games with a pulled hamstring last week, Guerrero, 28, took off, going 4-for-9 with a double, a homer and six RBIs.
That's how it has gone. When Mattingly has played Guerrero, he has gotten production. In three games in San Francisco this week, Guerrero started once and came off the bench twice. He went 4-for-5 with a double and two home runs. The Dodgers scored six runs in the series, and Guerrero drove in four of them.
When Mattingly was pressed on the issue of where to play Guerrero, he seemed to say that Uribe would remain his third baseman -- for now.
"We're not gong to be hardheaded," Mattingly said. "You make decisions based on where you're at, where you're going."
Will Guerrero be happy sitting on the bench? He's a 28-year-old rookie, so the clock is ticking. Is Guerrero's defense at third better than it was at second? How would Uribe's absence -- either from the lineup or the roster -- impact the environment?
This will end up being an organizational decision. While Mattingly has a feel for the clubhouse, Friedman and his staff may want to see Guerrero's bat in the lineup over a long stretch of games.
In a division race that could be tight, every decision is important. The Padres are all in for 2015, and the Dodgers, after two straight disappointing playoff appearances, believe they're good enough to win a championship.
Maybe it really is as simple as it appears to be. If Guerrero continues to hit, Mattingly will have to play him every day regardless of how it impacts others. Whether Guerrero's offense is enough to offset his defense is the tougher question.
On the other hand, Mattingly had years when he didn't have enough good players. This is a far cry from that. But it's not as easy as it looks.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.