The Dodgers have decisions to make regarding their roster for the upcoming season and one of those decisions just became harder. The utility spot has become arguably the toughest to decide upon.
One of the aspects the Los Angeles Dodgers, under Andrew Friedman’s regime, have emphasized is versatility on the field. Over the past two years they have signed or traded for numerous players who can play multiple positions on defense. This eye toward flexibility on the field allowed them to build up depth that withstood an MLB record number of injuries in 2016.
The Dodgers have tough decisions to make when the time for final cuts comes around and one of the tougher ones will be filling out the bench. A team will typically organize their 25-man roster with either 12 position players and 13 pitchers, or 13 position players and 12 pitchers. I believe, because with all the depth that they have accumulated on the position player front, that the Los Angeles Dodgers should go with the latter. This would allow for five bench spots.
I am confident that Chase Utley and Austin Barnes are locks to get two of the reserve roles. Chase Utley isn’t a player you re-sign just to cut. He has tremendous pedigree and was an important player on the team last season because of his veteran leadership and experience. Austin Barnes is everyone’s favorite to win the backup catching gig for the Dodgers. I do not see, barring catastrophe, a reason why Andre Ethier won’t make the team. First of all, he is due a lot of money. He also has experience and a proven track record.
The fourth spot will belong to either Trayce Thompson or Franklin Gutierrez (assuming Andrew Toles wins the right field job). I admit that I did think that Thompson would platoon with Toles, but Gutierrez does have a track record of slugging off of southpaws. We all know the struggles the Dodgers had with left-handers last season. However, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Thompson gets the fourth spot. That would leave only one spot left open, and that would most likely be reserved for a utility man.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have three main options to choose from: Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor and Charlie Culberson. None of them can hit very well, but all three provide defensive versatility and somewhat solid defense at multiple positions. They all have experience at shortstop, second base and third base. Hernandez and Culberson have experience in the outfield as well, while Taylor has been getting reps there this spring. He definitely has the speed to play out there.
Something that won’t get much attention at first is the fact that whoever wins the utility role will also serve as the unofficial backup to Corey Seager at shortstop. Because shortstop is the shallowest position for the Dodgers, extra value is added to this bench role. The question is, to whom should the front office entrust the important role of being the team’s Swiss army knife?
Culberson seems to profile more as an infielder (he only played five innings in the outfield last season) and is a very light-hitting player. He had an OPS of .667. Culberson doesn’t offer much at the plate or on the base-paths, and doesn’t play defense better than the other two. Thus, I believe that the competition should come down to Taylor and Hernandez.
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Taylor doesn’t offer much at the plate either, but it’s hard to deny that he’s had an excellent spring. In 22 plate appearances he has a slash line of .500/.633/.636. He’s also quicker and more athletic than Culberson, which gives him an advantage on defense and the base-paths. These attributes allow Taylor to have more range, a better ability to play in the outfield and a more dangerous weapon on the base-paths. He should be given a hard look, especially if he continues his strong Spring Training.
However, I believe that Kike Hernandez should be awarded the final utility spot. My stance will get only stronger if he does well for Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic. To say he had a disappointing 2016 would be generous. He did not even reach the Mendoza line, as he slashed .190/.283/.324 in 244 plate appearances. However, he did have a good 2015 campaign for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 218 plate appearances he hit .307/.346/.490, seven home runs and a 133 wRC+. That same season he had an OPS of 1.215 in 87 plate appearances against lefties. Small sample size, but he showed that he can do some damage.
According to metrics, Kike also profiles as a solid defender and the best defender of the trio. Not only is he the better defender, but he has played more positions and has more experience. He has also been on the team longer and seems to be a fan and locker-room favorite. He can always be seen in the dugout messing around and putting smiles on his teammates’ faces. Chemistry is something that is valuable and you can’t force. He should be given a chance to prove that 2016 was just a down season and not the player he truly is. He did have a BABIP of .234, so he is due to improve as his BABIP returns closer to average (around .300).
If he does not recover, then a corresponding move should be made. However, the Dodgers should show loyalty and faith because this is a player that Friedman brought in himself.