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KEVIN BAXTER / ON BASEBALL

As the Dodgers could tell you, baseball is running out of left fielders . . . at least ones who can hit

Once a prime source of power and production, the position has fallen on hard times. The Dodgers' situation is particularly acute.

May 28, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Left field has been a revolving door of inconsistency for the Dodgers with (from left) Jerry Sands, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jay Gibbons.
Left field has been a revolving door of inconsistency for the Dodgers with… (Photos by US Presswire and…)

The Dodgers knew about it months ago, so it's not as though the problem came out of left field.

The problem was left field.

Heading into spring training, the team did not have a left fielder — at least not a player the Dodgers deemed worthy of the full-time job. So General Manager Ned Colletti, feeling reasonably good about the rest of the lineup, cobbled together a pool of mostly overlooked, overrated or over-the-hill candidates in hope that the situation would sort itself out.

It didn't.

And now, 52 games into the season, with six left fielders having combined to hit .219 with two home runs, the job has been turned over to rookie Jerry Sands

"We know we really haven't gotten a lot of production out of that spot," Manager Don Mattingly said.

And in that the Dodgers are hardly alone.

Left field was once a premier offensive position. It was where Barry Bonds played when he set the single-season home run record and where Manny Ramirez won batting, home run and RBI titles. It's the ground Ted Williams, Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, Stan Musial, Lou Brock and 16 other Hall of Famers once roamed.

But this season the average big league left fielder is hitting .248 with five home runs, 23 runs batted in and more than twice as many strikeouts as walks through Friday's games.

Vernon Wells, the highest-paid player in Angels history, went on the disabled list this month with a .183 average. Detroit's regular left fielder, Ryan Raburn, is hitting .190 with 46 strikeouts (and 23 hits) there this season. And the Blue Jays, Reds and Twins have regularly started left fielders hitting below .200.

Traditionally, teams have built their lineups with solid defense up the middle and power at the corners — left field, right field, first base and third base. Under that philosophy, contending teams couldn't afford to have underperforming players in left field.

"It's a position that provides some power," says Jay Gibbons, one of the Dodgers' left field candidates. He has played just six games there this season because of vision problems. "We don't have a guy that's going to hit 40 homers like some teams. But you need to drive the ball a little bit."

However, the blueprint that calls for each team to have a masher in left field is changing, Colletti says.

"You look for it wherever you can find it," he says of offense.

When Colletti worked for the Chicago Cubs, for example, second baseman Ryne Sandberg averaged more than 30 home runs over a four-year span (1989-1992) while first baseman Mark Grace hit more than nine homers just once during that time. That's a formula Colletti has tried to copy with the Dodgers.

"Here we've got a center fielder [Matt Kemp] that produces offensively . . . somewhat like a corner outfielder. And for a while we had Russell Martin, who was producing [more] than a catcher typically would," he says.

So after signing free agent Juan Uribe (24 home runs last year) to bring power to the middle of the infield, Colletti figured he could piece together a workable combination this season in left — one he thought would contribute 20 to 25 homers and 80 RBIs. Instead, the platoon has combined for more days on the disabled list (51) than hits (42) and Dodgers left fielders are second to last in the majors with 16 runs scored.

"The injuries have changed the thought process," Colletti says of his off-season thinking. "We've been banged up so much . . . that we really haven't seen anything that closely resembles what the [plan] was."

If Colletti was going to have problems with one position, though, it's no surprise that it was left field. The Dodgers have started five players there in Colletti's six opening days as GM. And the only man to start there twice, Ramirez, provided more than his share of headaches: A 50-game drug suspension, erratic behavior and just 27 home runs in his final two years in Los Angeles.

"Sometimes that happens," Colletti says. "The Mets went years at third base [with little production]. The Cubs went years at third base. Once in a while that becomes an area that you can't seem to fill."

Left field has recently become something of a Bermuda Triangle for the Angels as well. Since letting Garret Anderson go after the 2008 season, they've tried 16 players there — including two infielders who had never played a big league game in the outfield before this month.

"At one point, I remember when we first came here, shortstop was like that," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "When Gary DiSarcina was hurt we couldn't find a shortstop until David Eckstein filled in. I haven't really noticed left field being cursed or anything.

"We came into the season with a template. Obviously we've had to adjust from it."

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