Monday, April 18, 2011

MLB Player To Watch: Jerry Sands

The Dodgers already had one of the best outfields in baseball, and that was with a group of left fielders that would have to put together career years just to reach a .300 on-base percentage.  Matt Kemp (.474/.545/.719) and Andre Ethier (.377/.441/.492) have been and are so good, but anyone who has seen the Dodgers play this year knows that those two are the only above-average hitters on the team.  (To put things in perspective, aside from Ethier and Kemp, the rest of the team is hitting .202/.254/.282).  Now, with the stunning news that top prospect, Jerry Sands, will be called up today after only 10 games in triple-A, there is a chance that the team will actually have a third.  

Only two days ago, Ned Colletti spoke about  being patient with the 23-year old from Division II Catawba College, but the Dodgers have been so bad, and he has been so good in Albuquerque that they decided to make the call.  Who knows how good he'll be, but my oh my, does he qualify as a "Player to Watch."

The Past

He was picked in the 25th round of the 2008 draft, 757th overall after breaking Catawba College records for homers (61), walks (132), and slugging (.752).  He proceeded to hit 10 home runs in his pro debut in 185 plate appearances in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast league.  The following year he hit .315/.401/.618 between two levels, showing the power/on-base mix that the Dodgers' major league club was sorely lacking.  Heading into last season, Baseball America ranked him the 25th best prospect in the organization, saying:
His best tool is clearly power.  Capable of hitting the ball out to the deepest part of just about any park...He's more than just a one-dimensional slugger, too.  He hits the ball to all fields and shows good patience at the plate.  He also has decent speed and is capable of taking an extra base if he catches the defense napping.
They had me at "power."

Fast forward to this year, when prospect guru, Kevin Goldstein, had him as the Dodgers' fifth-best prospect, behind two pitchers and two up-the-middle players.  In other words, he was considered their best pure hitter in the system.  In Spring Training, he impressed Dodgers brass but had nearly no shot of breaking camp with the club.  Then he hit home runs in his third, fourth, fifth, and sixth games at triple-A, which, as exciting as it was, had to be even more tempting when juxtaposed with the anemic output of the Major League options in left field and at first base. 

The Present

Tonight, Sands will make his debut in Los Angeles.  He will wear the number 47, start in left field and bat 7th against Braves righty, Tim Hudson.  It's going to be the first of many tests he will face, none of which are guaranteed to go well.  He could show his inexperience and struggle to adjust to the quality of pitching he will face.  Even worse, he could struggle early and find himself pressing or battling to stay in the lineup -- the horrifying downward spiral that can result from rushing a top prospect. 

But for most Dodger fans, the options are decidedly more promising, if for no other reason that the fact that he has a chance to be really good.  You can't say that about Tony Gwynn, Jr., Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons, Jamie Hoffman or any of the other sad excuses for hitters that Don Mattingly has had to choose from this season.  Not only does he have obvious and prodigious power, but he knows how to take a walk and from all accounts, is a humble guy and hard worker.  When you ask a prospect to jump to the Majors after 10 games at Triple-A, I guess that's the best you can ask for.

The Future

Ideally, Sands seizes the left field job and gives the Dodgers just enough pop, with Kemp and Ethier, to support the outstanding pitching staff they have and make a run at the division title.  It may not happen immediately but, again, the situation has to be better than it was before.  The other question now becomes, what happens if Sands hits and James Loney continues to struggle?  Another Dodgers top prospect, Trayvon Robinson, is also not far away, and he has the potential to make a difference defensively in the outfield.  It would be a good dilemma to have, one that can't make Loney and his .150/.175/.215 line very comfortable.  One thing is certain: what looked to be an excruciatingly incompetent offensive team now has a glimmer of hope in the form of a legitimate masher, the type of player many Dodgers fans have been crying for since Manny's suspension. 

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