The Dodgers are a serious and often tense bunch, burdened by the expectations inherent in their world-record payroll and the uneasiness inherent in an overloaded outfield.
Scott Van Slyke, a naturally easygoing sort, does what he can to lighten the mood. On Monday, he fed sunflower seeds to two ducks that wandered into center field, and he challenged Yasiel Puig to an impromptu sprint from the outfield to the dugout.
Van Slyke also hit two home runs, driving in four runs in the Dodgers’ 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp might chafe at the Dodgers’ outfield rotation, but not Van Slyke.
“I’ll do what they tell me,” Van Slyke said. “I’ll be a humble servant.”
The cries to call up top prospect Joc Pederson and put him in center field ignore the fact that Van Slyke has earned the chance to share the position with Andre Ethier, let alone that throwing another outfielder into the mix would be like throwing a match into a clubhouse full of dry brush.
Before the game, Crawford said the Dodgers’ outfield alignment has been so much in flux that players cannot simply do what the coaches tell them.
“They tell us one thing and something else happens,” Crawford said. “We can’t go by what they say. It’s been frustrating for all of us. We have to be men about the situation and accept what is going on and try to do the best for the team.”
The Dodgers’ outfield alignment at this moment: Yasiel Puig is in right field, every day. Ethier and Van Slyke are platooning in center field, with Van Slyke occasionally spelling Adrian Gonzalez at first base and Ethier filling in when Puig needs a day off.
Kemp is in left field every day, until Crawford gets back. Manager Don Mattingly won’t say what might happen then, but for now Kemp has six hits in his last 12 at-bats.
Van Slyke, labeled as the fifth outfielder, is the only player besides Puig with an OPS above 1.000. The Dodgers play him sparingly against right-handers, but he has absolutely crushed left-handers.
In 43 at-bats against left-handers, he has 13 hits, 11 for extra bases. He has six home runs, one more than Kemp has this season, against all comers. Van Slyke also has 12 walks against left-handers, giving him an otherworldly 1.311 OPS against them.
That might earn Van Slyke an everyday opportunity on some teams, but not this one.
“I’m not sure that comes here,” Mattingly said.
The obvious reason is that there are four established players ahead of him, one superstar and three highly compensated veterans. But Mattingly also said Van Slyke was “not necessarily an everyday player.”
Van Slyke is on pace for 15 home runs. Play him every day — and right-handers pitch more often — and Mattingly said Van Slyke might hit 20 home runs.
After spending all or part of nine seasons in the minor leagues, Van Slyke is content to hit against left-handers and sit against right-handers.
“I know what I’m here for,” he said. “I don’t mind it. I like it. I’m not going to complain.”
Crawford says he does not know what he is here for.
“I don’t know what I’m going to play when I get back,” Crawford said. “I just don’t really know what my situation is going to be.”
If Kemp hits well enough to keep playing every day, it is possible that Van Slyke could play more than Crawford.
“I want to take care of my part,” Crawford said. “If I was a guessing man, I would say they will go with whoever is hitting.”