(Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)
The four-way battle for the Dodgers’ final starting OF spot could lead you to a strong contributor at the back end of your roster. After swinging a trade with the Atlanta Braves to get under the luxury tax for the 2018 season, the Dodgers added Matt Kemp to an already crowded outfield mix, with Kemp, Andrew Toles, top prospect Alex Verdugo, and former top prospect Joc Pederson all vying for a spot in the Opening Day lineup.
At some point, every single one of those players has captivated the hearts and imaginations of fantasy owners (or at least offered some reason for intrigue). Kemp was regarded as a first-round fantasy talent as recently as 2012-2013, Toles flashed 23 SB across 82 minor-league games in 2016, Verdugo made MLB’s Top 10 OF prospects rankings earlier this winter, and Pederson once lit up the world as a rookie in 2015, hitting 20 HR in his first 78 games of the season en route to an All-Star selection and a spot in the Home Run Derby.
However, the most important question is what each of these potential starters can give you now, and which way the wind is likely to blow.
Spring Training Statistics (as of 3 PM on Tuesday, 3/13)
Although Joc Pederson’s struggles are uninspiring, none of the four has performed at a level which clearly distances them ahead of the pack. Ultimately, the outcome of the battle will come down to a few external factors. Let’s dive into the variables and what they mean for each player’s chances of cracking the Opening Day lineup, as well as their likely statistical contributions.
His star is falling just at an age where he should have been coming into his own. Fans might still remember his electric first half as a rookie in 2015, but across his career, Joc’s averaged 25 HR per 162 games, which is nothing special any more, especially when packaged with a .222 BA and virtually irrelevant speed (14 SB in 408 career games). Early reports stated that Young Joc came into Spring Training with some extra weight, and his spring performance has been equally sluggish. Even if that weren’t the case, his inability to hit left-handed pitching remains a major concern that might prevent him from being much more than a platoon bat with a bit of pop.
Joc Pederson OPS vs. LHP (2015-2017)
In fairness, Pederson’s been an above-average hitter over the course of his career, with a lifetime .780 OPS (112 OPS+) and an OPS+ of 126 in 2016 (.847), when he hit 25 HR in 137 games. However, he’s been a below-average defensive outfielder over his career, with -0.9 dWAR over the past three seasons (and an uninspiring -1.1 mark last year). Pederson’s postseason heroics give him a bit of leeway, but I’d be surprised to see him start the year as anything more than a bench player.
The starting left fielder job was his last season, before he tore his ACL and opened the door for Chris Taylor to make good. I’m actually pretty excited about Toles, because he’s already shown some nice ability at the major league level, with a minor-league profile that suggests upside for more. In limited action during his first 2 MLB campaigns, Toles has a .294 AVG to go with a .341/.483/.824 slash line. His 8 HR, 31 RBI, and 36 R in 217 plate appearances is pretty strong, suggesting that he could feasibly top 20 HR and 80 R/RBI if he held on to a starting role for most of the year. On top of that, he’s demonstrated intriguing speed at the minor league level, with 62 stolen bases in 2013 (when he was part of the Tampa Bay organization) and 23 stolen bases in 82 games across 3 minor league levels with the Dodgers in ’16. Though it’s fair to acknowledge that Toles is coming off a torn ACL, reports indicate that he’s fully recovered. Unlike Kemp and Pederson, Toles has shown above-average defensive ability as an outfielder, with a positive dWAR in 2016 and 2017, even in limited action. If Toles could hit .280 with 20 HR, 80 R, 80 RBI, and 10 SB, that’s essentially Christian Yelich-lite (projected by ESPN for .302, 20 HR, 85 RBI, and 14 SB).
Despite a strong spring performance, I can’t imagine any scenario in which Verdugo cracks the Opening Day roster. The Dodgers are hardly pressed for options in the outfield and all signs point toward the Dodgers continuing the disappointing yet fiscally responsible trend of keeping top prospects in the minors to milk the service-time clock. Even if he were to somehow win a starting spot out of Spring Training, my expectations would be incredibly lukewarm. Verdugo has hit for a strong average (.314 in 117 games with AAA last season), but his 6 HR/9 SB across 495 plate appearances at that level don’t exactly quench the thirst for category juice. His hit tool is strong and bat speed alone could give him a .300 BA/15-20 HR profile in his prime, but even that overly optimistic scenario isn’t much more than a solid back-end outfielder. Verdugo’s not someone who should command your attention as a fantasy owner, and I’d expect that the biggest news he makes is as a trade chip for a mid-season Dodgers acquisition.
The Dodgers had to take him on in order to unload 2018 salary obligations on, and a hot topic this past offseason among Dodger fans was whether the front office could successfully unload Kemp’s contract by packaging prospect talent with him. Kemp isn’t even a shadow of the 40/40 player he was when he signed his 8-year, $160 million extension in 2011, but ironically, his albatross of a contract works in his favor, as it means the Dodgers have everything to gain by giving him playing time to bolster his trade value. Even a diminished Matt Kemp has still been a quality hitter, with a .794 OPS (109 OPS+) and a 33 HR/103 RBI/82 R 162-game average since the start of 2016. In 2017 fantsy drafts, Kemp was getting selected right around the 9th to 10th round in 12 team leagues (107th overall in a Yahoo cash league I played in), and nothing indicates to me that he can’t still be that type of talent at the plate.
However, Kemp’s awful defense (-10.2 dWAR over the past 4 seasons) completely flies in the face of the product that the Dodgers front office has endeavored to place on the field these past few seasons. Offensively, Kemp is still good enough to return mixed-league value, but on a team with championship aspirations, you can’t realistically play someone who loses more value on defense than he adds with his bat.
In a perfect vacuum, Toles would win the starting job and get the chance to provide peasant Christian Yelich production with the upside for a bit more. However, despite being a worse overall player, the Dodgers’ financial situation indicates that they’ll showcase Kemp and try to build his trade value so that they can attempt to unload him to an AL team in need of a DH. As soon as Kemp gets traded (or proves to be unusable as a major-league regular), I’d anticipate Toles getting his shot. If I’m a fantasy owner looking to scoop a decent bat at a discount, I’d tab Kemp as a late-round pick (current ESPN ADP of 209.2) with the pretty sizable hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. Kemp got off to a hot start with Atlanta in 2017, with a .345 AVG and 10 HR through the end of May, and I’d imagine that Kemp is at least an OF4/5 for as long as he’s starting regularly. Toles would be more of a deep-league target, but still a guy worth putting on your watchlist in shallower formats.