With no guarantees, Pederson ready for challenge
Dodgers expect prospect to prove he deserves starting center-field job
LOS ANGELES -- The last Dodgers rookie position player to win a starting job out of Spring Training and keep it with any degree of success was Raul Mondesi.
That was more than two decades ago. Two years later, Todd Hollandsworth was the 1996 National League Rookie of the Year, but platooned until winning a starting outfield job in August.
So 22-year-old Joc Pederson doesn't have history on his side as he soon embarks on a Spring Training with the starting center-field job seemingly his to win.
Or his to lose.
Management, which moved a superstar, Matt Kemp, to make room in the outfield, has tried to have it both ways and manage expectations for Pederson by saying he won't be handed a job.
The new front office acquired Chris Heisey to be a right-handed platoon in center, but it hasn't yet unloaded Andre Ethier, who like Pederson bats left-handed and apparently is a fallback if Pederson shows in March that he won't be ready in April.
Coming off a 30-30 season at Triple-A, there's nothing left for Pederson to prove down there. But he did little in a September callup (.143/.351/.143) to draw comparisons to, say, Yasiel Puig, who got a 2013 callup and instantly impacted the team and the game.
While the Puig benchmark is inherently unfair, Pederson nonetheless will be on a short leash because the Dodgers have the highest expectations and the offense will be immediately scrutinized having subtracted Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.
Asked at Saturday's FanFest if he is ready for the task, Pederson either was being modest or candidly unsure when he said, "Time will tell."
Does he feel he will be under pressure to prove he is ready?
"I'm just going to work hard and go about my business and whatever happens, happens," he said. "Nobody plays that well when they are trying to prove something. Just be yourself."
Don Mattingly has been a Pederson fan since he first saw him swing in a batting cage, and Pederson is quite possibly the best natural center fielder in the organization. Still, Mattingly has said Pederson will compete for the job but "we won't be handing over anything," and after a phone call from Mattingly, Pederson said the same thing.
"I don't expect anything to be handed to me," Pederson said. "It never has in the past. I still have to grow as a baseball player."
Pederson is ranked by MLB.com as the 13th-best prospect in the game entering 2015. Here is the MLB.com scouting report:
"Signed for $600,000 as an 11th-rounder in 2010, Pederson has gotten better each year as he has progressed through the Dodgers system. He has displayed improved power and patience at each stop and had his best season yet in 2014, winning Pacific Coast League MVP and rookie of the year honors after becoming the Triple-A circuit's first 30-30 player in 80 years and pacing it in runs (106), homers (33), walks (100) and on-base percentage (.435). He ended it with a September cup of coffee with the Dodgers, just like his father, Stu, got in 1985.
"A quality athlete who had an invitation to walk on to Southern California's football team had he attended college, Pederson has solid tools across the board. His best attribute is his left-handed power to all fields, the product of a quick bat and fine pitch recognition. He has developed a disciplined approach that should allow him to hit for average and post high on-base percentages, though strikeouts are part of the package.
"Pederson has the speed and quickness to steal 20 bases per season and play center field. The Matt Kemp trade opens the opportunity for him to claim a starting job in center, and he has enough arm strength if he shifts over to right field in the long run."
The most glaring red flag during Pederson's callup last year was the one that has followed him throughout his career. He struck out 11 times (and walked nine times) in 38 plate appearances. He has a 25 percent strikeout rate throughout his Minor League career.
Pederson said he used September to "adjust to the big league lifestyle," admitting to "a lot of emotions," and has used the winter to "make a few adjustments to maximize my craft -- nothing outrageous," then took the adjustments for a brief stint in the Dominican Winter League.
Pederson has successfully, and dramatically, adjusted in the past. In 2013, he hit .200 with a .269 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching. After committing to adjustments last winter, he hit .299 with a .598 slugging percentage against lefties in 2014 at Triple-A.
"Everyone knew I stunk against lefties in Double-A," he said. "So I picked some hitters' brains and educated myself as much as I could. I like the direction I'm going in."
He doesn't seem nearly as concerned about the strikeouts.
"I don't think anyone wants to strike out, but sometimes it happens," he said. "Just the way it goes sometimes."