What an odd Saturday that was. Without Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, or Zack Greinke, the Los Angeles Dodgers secured a season opening sweep over the Arizona Diamondbacks (who were themselves without Patrick Corbin after learning the day they departed for Australia their ace would need Tommy John surgery), winning 3-1 in a game that started at 4am Eastern, and 7-5 in the 7pm affair. Some things were to be expected; Clayton Kershaw demonstrating his usual dominance, Paul Goldschmidt going 4-9 at the plate, Mark Trumbo being predictably terrible in left field, the beautiful Sydney Cricket Ground outdrawing Tampa Bay’s two most-attended home games last year, Yasiel Puig doing Puig-like things… Others, not so much; Kirk Gibson’s decision to play Didi Gregorius over Chris Owings against the left-handed Hyun-jin Ryu, Jayson Stark referencing the Dodgers’ PECOTA projection on the MLB Network’s broadcast (!), some of the just awful fielding on show (that means you Miguel Montero), Yasiel Puig doing Puig -like things… And then, in the second game, Dee Gordon’s performance.
At just 25-years-old, it already seems easy to place Gordon. After being called up to L.A. in June 2011, the son of Tom played 56 games that summer for the Dodgers, hitting .304 (and stealing 24 bases) as a classic beneficiary of a small sample size. Aged just 23, Dee began 2012 as not only the Dodgers’ everyday shortstop, but also leading off for Don Mattingly’s squad; this time around however, his numbers regressed. His average had precipitously dropped to .229 (his OBP to an atrocious .280) before he injured his right thumb stealing third on July 4, and when he returned on Sept. 11, the newly-acquired Hanley Ramirez was manning short, and Gordon was without a job. He would receive only 94 at-bats with the ML team in 2013, serving primarily as a pinch-runner in his time up, and would spend the majority of the year in Triple-A Albuquerque.
In other words, he’s a 5’11, 155lb, extremely light-hitting shortstop who, although a threat on the basepaths, ranked by Fangraphs’ WAR measure as the 15th worst player in baseball (on both sides of the ball) over the last three years: of the 343 hitters to collect at least 600 plate appearances over that time, his .274 wOBA is better than only 12 other hitters, while he also racked up 35 fielding errors in the 160 games he appeared in. He lost his job to Nick Punto of all people last year – and a 35-year-old Nick Punto at that. Quite simply, Gordon is bad. Yet on a team with a $233,658,334 payroll, he’s now starting. Not at shortstop though – but at second base.
In forking out $28M in guaranteed money (including a $10M signing bonus) to bring in the then-26-year-old Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero on a four year contract, the Dodgers bought themselves quite the 2B quandary; giving the unproven Cuban the reins, they declined Mark Ellis’ $5.75m team option on October 31, let Skip Schumaker leave for Cincinnati, allowed the aforementioned Punto depart to Oakland, and saw Michael Young and Jerry Hairston opt for retirement – leaving Gordon and his 3.2 innings of time as the only remaining player with 2013 experience at the L.A. keystone. So when Guerrero bombed in his adjustment to second base this spring (like Gordon, he’s a natural shortstop), making an acclimation period in the Minors necessary, the spot was unexpectedly opened up for someone to claim. Not wanting to completely block Guerrero by trading for Brandon Phillips or alike, the Dodgers just needed anyone to step up for a while, and not be truly horrific; so far, by virtue of his being the lesser of evils after hitting .286 this spring with four triples and nine steals without getting caught, it seems Gordon has secured himself the dubious distinction of beating out Justin Turner and Chone Figgins for a majority timeshare of the position.
Which brings us to Saturday’s second game, in which Gordon was… strangely electric? Batting leadoff ahead of Yasiel Puig (a typical Mattingly lineup that reared it’s ugly head when Gordon had second easily stolen on a 1-0 pitch, only for Puig to unnecessarily foul off the ensuing delivery), the speedster got aboard 4 times (3 hits, 1 HBP – courtesy of Addison Reed), and was driven in on two occasions. He would have tripled but for Ryu slowing his progress ahead of him, provided a sacrifice fly when required, and generally looked like a prototypical leadoff man. Could it be then, that at 25, Gordon has cracked it?
Yes, he’s using his blazing speed more to his advantage while at the plate, and showed significant improvement in regards to his approach last year at Triple-A (he had a .385 OBP at Albuquerque). Recognition must also go to how he eliminated basketball from his offseason workouts in an effort to gain weight and put on muscle; Gordon’s apparently up to 170lbs now. But he’s still barely a replacement level player, and the sooner the Dodgers can get Guerrero ready, or find a suitable replacement, the better. The offensive performance was an aberration on Saturday, but the fielding wasn’t; Gordon butchered an easy snag of a line drive, and crossed in front of Hanley Ramirez on a double play opportunity that resulted in every runner being safe. Furthermore, he couldn’t even be trusted to play against Wade Miley – hardly Cliff Lee in terms of lefty-death – in the series opener because of his severe platoon splits (Gordon’s a .271 career hitter against righties, but a miserable .221 vs. lefties).
As much as I don’t want to say so, because it was as fun as watching Puig try and bottle up an ill-advised throw he desperately wants to uncork in the direction of third base, we might well have just witnessed Dee Gordon’s best performance of the season. The Dodgers, considering their World Series aspirations, would be wise in recognizing a return to normalcy is imminent.