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With Matt Kemp Unlikely to Be Ready for Opening Day, Will Andre Ethier or Yasiel Puig Start in Center?

February 25th, 2014 at 5:00 AM
By Jimmy Reynolds
'Andre Ethier' photo (c) 2013, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
 
It has become clear that Matt Kemp is not going to be ready to join the Los Angeles Dodgers for Opening Day, and Don Mattingly’s recent comments made it doubtful that Kemp will even be ready in early April. If Kemp is headed for an extended stint on the disabled list, it calls into question whether the Opening Day center fielder will be Andre Ethier or Yasiel Puig.
 
During the team’s two intrasquad games, both Ethier and Puig played center field for their respective teams. While it was Ethier who filled in admirably at center when Kemp was unable to remain healthy during the 2013 season, could Puig be the better option?
 
According to both UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved, Puig is the better defender by far. In UZR/150, Puig outperformed Ethier 5.8 to -1.3. Puig was also good for 10 DRS, while Ethier merely posted 1 DRS. Since center field is considered the most demanding outfield position, it may make sense to use Puig in center and to leave Ethier in right.
 
If Puig is indeed the better defender, then why did Mattingly use Ethier in center and not Puig during 2013? It may be due to Puig’s exceptional arm, which frequently drew the awe of the Dodger Stadium faithful. Mattingly alluded to this fact back in June of last year, discussing the rationale for playing Puig in right, saying:
“He really profiles there just with the arm.”
 
Certainly, Puig’s powerful arm played very well in right field, but center field requires exceptional athleticism for success. Placing Puig there could have additional benefits beyond just a superior defensive presence. Since the Dodgers outfield surplus has remained intact because of injury concerns, Puig manning center could allow the more injury-prone outfielders to play the less physically demanding corner outfield positions.
 
It also allows Ethier to return to right field, the position he has most frequently played since 2008. He absolutely played better than expected in center last year, but that does not mean he is a better option than Puig.
 
Both Kemp and Ethier have won Gold Gloves for their outfield defense, but neither player is really an above-average defender, especially given the nature of the injuries Kemp is returning from. Aside from that, anything that can be done to keep all four outfielders healthy and productive is in the best interest of the team. Playing Puig in center just may be that sort of solution.
 
This much is certain: If Puig is healthy, he is going to be in the lineup. This being the case, his position in the outfield should be consistent. If all four outfielders are healthy, Kemp, Ethier and Carl Crawford will all be rotated in and out of the lineup, with Puig being the mainstay. Since both Kemp and Ethier profile as merely average defenders, and Kemp has an extensive injury history, Puig is probably the best option for center field.
 
When Opening Day finally gets here, do not be surprised if it is Puig leading off and playing in center. When Kemp does eventually return, it should not be surprising if Puig remains as the center fielder.
Tags: Andre Ethier, Baseball, Carl Crawford, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Matt Kemp, MLB, Yasiel Puig

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