Saturday, April 5, 2008

Torre's Dilemma?

In my last post I congratulated Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre on starting the season off right. What I meant by this was starting Andre Ethier over Juan Pierre in left field for opening day. Unfortunately, since then Torre managed to start Pierre in the second game of the season, resulting in an 0-2 night. There has been much discussion on this topic as Pierre was signed to an incredible 5-year $44 million dollar contract last winter with the intention of him being the Dodgers' centerfielder. This off-season, seeking to add more pop to a power hungry lineup, General Manager Ned Colletti signed Andruw Jones to a 2-year $36.2 million contract, dislodging Pierre from center, and creating a logjam in the outfield. This was a sound move by Colletti, as even in Jones' worst full season he would have led the Dodgers in home runs and RBI.

During the off-season, there was a clamoring from the general public to have an outfield of Jones in center, Ethier in left, and Matt Kemp in right field, leaving Juan Pierre to sit on the bench and collect his paycheck. The worry was that new manager Torre and his staff would favor the veterans as was his perceived style in New York. This worry proved to be worthwhile as Torre took a liking to Pierre's work ethic and "old school" game. However, Pierre managed to further muddy the issue by hitting under the Mendoza line during spring training, while Ethier hit lights out. All of this led to Ethier starting opening day, and Pierre losing his consecutive game streak.

The real issue in all of this is not who has the bigger contract, or who had the best spring training, but rather who is the better player, and more specifically, who is the better player for this Dodgers team. This is a team that prides itself on pitching, boasting a strong rotation and great back end to their bullpen. Last season the Dodgers were subpar defensively, due in large part to an outfield comprised of Pierre and Luis Gonzalez. When Bengie "Wheels" Molina can score on a single to center from second base, that's when you have to worry. By playing an outfield of Jones, Ethier and Kemp, the Dodgers would greatly improve their outfield defense, and likely save themselves some runs in the process. Ethier does not have Pierre's speed, and therefore range in left field, but he does run better routes, and have a stronger arm. The consensus, and I would agree, is that Ethier is the better defender of the two in left field.

Hitting wise Ethier outclasses Pierre in every area, save (again) for speed. Ethier has a career .353 OBP to Pierre's .348. This doesn't seem so significant, but in Pierre's last 3 years he has posted OBP's of .324, .330, and .331, so at this stage in their careers, Ethier has been much better at getting on base. Additionally, Pierre has the power of a fruit fly, so when looking at their respective OPS +'s (OPS modified to take park effects, and league into consideration), Pierre stands at 84 (100 is league average), and Ethier is at 108. True, 108 is nothing to go crazy about it is a huge improvement over the 84 that Pierre brings to the table. While Pierre does possess game changing speed, he doesn't get on base enough to make it a useful attribute, and skill-wise, he is just not an every-day player anymore. My favorite take on this comes from ESPN's Rob Neyer, and that is: the upgrade to Ethier might not do anything but win the Dodgers a few games over the course of a season, but in the NL West a few wins is significant. And if there is one move that can win you 2-3 games over the course of a season, shouldn't you make that move?

The reason for my question mark in the title is because to me, almost every sign points to Ethier being better than Pierre, so it isn't really a question. But then again, Joe Torre doesn't seem to be one to look at a sign, much less ask for directions.

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