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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Offensive woes might force Dodgers to bring up Jerry Sands

Power-hitting outfielder, 23, is hitting home runs at triple-A Albuquerque and the Dodgers might not be able to afford keeping him in the minors much longer.

April 16, 2011|By Bill Shaikin
  • Dodgers outfielder Jerry Sands during a spring training game at Camelback Ranch.
Dodgers outfielder Jerry Sands during a spring training game at Camelback… (Harry How / Getty Images )

The Dodgers should not be talking about Jerry Sands this season, other than to wish him well.

The kid was playing for the Great Lakes Loons this time last season. In a happier time and place, the Dodgers would just let him grow.

In this time and place, with their offense all too drearily resembling the one from last year and their resources all too limited, the Dodgers might have to turn to the kid and hope for the best.

The Dodgers began play Saturday with an offense that ranked among the bottom five in the National League in runs, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

It's early, of course, and the Dodgers have played 10 of their 15 games either against the World Series champion San Francisco Giants or in the hitters' graveyard that is Petco Park.

But it's not early, not when what we see now is what we saw last summer, when the Dodgers scored the fewest runs of any team in the league after the All-Star break.

As General Manager Ned Colletti assessed the damage, he kept thinking back to 2009, when the Dodgers advanced to the league championship series. By that point, Manny Ramirez was a threat in name only, but the rest of the lineup was pretty good.

Andre Ethier hit 31 home runs that season, Matt Kemp 26, Casey Blake 18, James Loney 13, Rafael Furcal nine. None of the five batted lower than .269 or higher than .297.

Those guys surely could match those numbers, Colletti figured.

Blake turns 38 this summer. Furcal was on the disabled list four times over the last four years. Each already has been on the disabled list this season.

That might be a quibble, but not this: The success of the 2009 offense was rooted in getting on base, and the players imported to fill out the 2011 lineup do not live by on-base percentage.

The Dodgers put up a .346 OBP two years ago. They led the league. Russell Martin was at .352, Orlando Hudson at .357. Ramirez, for all his vanishing power, was at .418.

The Dodgers' catcher this season is not Martin but Rod Barajas, with a career OBP of .284. The second baseman is not Hudson but Juan Uribe, with a career OBP of .300. We'll get to the left fielders in a moment.

Colletti thought the Dodgers needed some more pop, somewhere. They ranked next-to-last in the league in home runs last season.

But he chose not to trade Kemp, Ethier or Loney, and he didn't have much else to offer in trade, not as he tried to assemble a pitching-first roster, not with a thin minor league system.

"I wasn't in a place where I wanted to trade our core guys for somebody else's core guys," Colletti said. "Our group is hopefully approaching the prime of their careers.

"That really leaves you with the free-agent market."

Colletti pursued Aubrey Huff for left field. He got a catcher in Barajas, who has a little pop. Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth have more, but the next $100-million contract Frank McCourt awards will be the first. That left the infield as the targeted upgrade.

"I felt we needed a run-producing infielder," Colletti said. "There were probably two of them out there as free agents."

Adrian Beltre would not cost $100 million, but close enough. The Dodgers got Uribe. If a team gives Uribe 500 at-bats, he almost inevitably gives the team 20 home runs.

That left Colletti with left field, where Ramirez had left a mess in consecutive years.

"Left field last year wasn't a strong offensive position for us," Colletti said. "We had assumed it was a year ago at this time. It never materialized. We assumed it was going to be two years ago at this time, and it materialized for about five weeks.

"So the position has been unorthodox, offensively, for about two seasons, thinking we had solved it when we signed Manny."

If the Dodgers were not going to sign a premium player, then Colletti did not want to tie up left field beyond this year. Nine players started there for the Dodgers last year. Four started there in the first 13 games this season — Tony Gwynn Jr., Xavier Paul, Marcus Thames and Jamie Hoffmann — with Jay Gibbons soon to follow.

"We were trying to be patient with Jerry Sands," Colletti said, "and, at the same time, give us enough offensive output in left field to be patient."

If Ethier and Kemp do not carry the offense, if Loney and Uribe do not rise above the Mendoza Line, if Blake and Furcal do not stay relatively healthy, then maybe left field is nothing more than a trivia question.

But, if the Dodgers can stay in the pennant race, Trader Ned can get busy, or try to. Colletti saved a chunk of his budget last season for use in July. He did the same this season, although no one knows whether that money actually will materialize come July, with payroll up, attendance down, security costs up and McCourt's old law firm suing him.

Sands is 23. He played Division II ball, at a college with 1,250 students. He did not rise above Class A until last June, halfway through his third pro season.

When the Dodgers arrived at Camelback Ranch, the Dodgers had him ticketed for double A. He looked very good this spring, the rest of the offense not so much, and the Dodgers redirected him to triple A, where he hit a home run in his third game, and his fourth, and his fifth, and his sixth.

"He's off to a good start, but I think it's important for us to see how he adjusts as pitchers adjust," Colletti said.

In what should be a developmental year for him, Sands could end up in L.A.

"I'm not saying it's going to happen," Colletti said, "but there's a chance."

There are hard questions, and good ones, about how a team that takes in more money than the Philadelphia Phillies can sink into such a left-field quagmire. For now, Jerry Sands, the Dodgers nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

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