Van Slyke works way back into Dodgers' plans
SYDNEY -- Don Mattingly hasn't named a starting left fielder for Opening Night yet, but Scott Van Slyke is the most likely candidate.
Talk about reinventing yourself. In 2011, Van Slyke was the Dodgers' Minor League Player of the Year after a monster season at Double-A Chattanooga. He moved up to Albuquerque for the 2012 season and was headed for another player of the year season when he finally got the callup to Los Angeles, only to hit .167 and disappoint with his approach.
When that season was over, the Dodgers had seen enough of Van Slyke, and apparently so had every other team. He cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A. The son of former All-Star Andy Van Slyke was at a crossroads.
"That year, we had our kid and I came to camp overweight," said Van Slyke. "I didn't look like a baseball player and didn't play like one. A few guys can get away with it. I didn't. A couple guys told me how people viewed me, and a lot of it is how you look."
Van Slyke has lost 30 pounds in two years, from 250 to 220. He hit .348 at Triple-A Albuquerque with a 1.107 OPS to earn his way back to the Major Leagues as a fill-in that slugged seven home runs in 129 at-bats last year.
That was good enough to bring Van Slyke into training camp this spring with a job to lose. He hasn't lost it. He's serviceable in the outfield and at first base. The latter is manned by dependable Adrian Gonzalez, so Van Slyke will be the fill-in when Gonzalez gets a break against a tough left-hander.
Although Van Slyke isn't one of the four big-name outfielders the Dodgers are supposed to have, he could start Saturday's regular-season opener because he's healthy and here. Those are two characteristics not shared by incumbent left fielder Carl Crawford, who remained in Arizona for the birth of his baby and came out of a Minor League game Wednesday with a right shoulder issue.
Van Slyke is particularly effective against lefties like Arizona's starting pitcher Wade Miley. In addition, Van Slyke has shown an effectiveness coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter (6-for-14).
What would it mean to be the second Van Slyke to appear in an Opening Day starting lineup Saturday night?
"Obviously, that's never happened to me, and if it did happen, I'd be excited and thankful and feel blessed and grateful," he said. "My wife and I have talked about this a lot. When things don't go well in life, you can play the woe-is-me card. What helped me focus and prepare was realizing that I'm playing for a higher power.
"Growing up, I don't think I ever had anything really hard happen to me. I had an easy life. It was school and sports, my parents took care of everything. The first time I struggled was [high Class A], and I had to re-evaluate how I went about my business. I needed a kick in the butt."
It happened again in 2012.
"I talked with my dad, he went through struggles, too," Van Slyke said. "Everybody does. But the really good guys struggled for six days, then put up three good months. I've had to take a step back before realizing it."
Van Slyke was good enough to help the Dodgers win a division title last year, good enough to make the postseason roster and might just be good enough, and right-handed enough, to start the first game of the year in Australia.
"I'm proud and excited to get to this point after everything that's happened," he said.