Scott Van Slyke held his right hand in front of his face. He was trying to demonstrate his physical limitations in 2016. The wrist should be able to bend backwards 90 degrees, inverted “like you hold a pizza,” he said inside the Dodgers clubhouse at Camelback Ranch one day last week.
In 2016, before he underwent arthroscopic surgery, his right wrist could not flex like that. He could only bend it a few degrees, not nearly enough to control the path of his bat or the direction of his relays from the outfield or, really, much of anything.
“I could have played through it,” Van Slyke said. “But I wasn’t accurate with my throws. I wasn’t a benefit defensively, like I could have been, if I was healthy. Offensively, I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do.”
A healthy version of Van Slyke, who went 1 for 2 with a walk in a 10-8 victory over Milwaukee on Sunday, would help a club that seeks to improve its performance against left-handed pitching and requires a backup for veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Except on a team stacked with talent — “we’ve got enough guys for two teams,” Van Slyke quipped — he may spend Opening Day in triple-A Oklahoma City.
For a team like the Dodgers, placing excessive emphasis on spring training competition is foolish. The team used 55 players in 2016. Where a player starts the season does not foretell his final standing with the group. And because Van Slyke has minor-league options, the team can be flexible when deciding whether he or fellow outfielder Andrew Toles can both fit on the roster.
If the Dodgers carry 12 pitchers, that leaves five men for the bench. Chase Utley occupies one spot. The Dodgers guaranteed Franklin Gutierrez a $2.6 million contract. Austin Barnes is likely to be the backup catcher. And General Manager Farhan Zaidi mentioned the importance of carrying an infielder who can play shortstop, which creates a competition between Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor and Charlie Culberson.
In theory, the Dodgers could slide Logan Forsythe or Justin Turner into shortstop on a temporary basis in case of an emergency with Corey Seager. But Zaidi indicated the team would prefer a more dedicated substitute.
“You just want to feel like you have a guy who can play there for, whatever it is, a game or two, rather than someone just going over there to steal a couple of innings,” Zaidi said. “Not that [Forysthe and Turner] couldn’t do it, but given their importance to the team, we wouldn’t want to necessarily over-expose them at that spot.”
A debate between Van Slyke and Toles elicits intrigue. As a left-handed batter, Toles may be a better option against right-handed pitchers than Yasiel Puig. While Puig struggled handling fastballs in 2016, Toles crushed them upon his arrival in the majors last season. Toles was less successful in September, when he posted a .506 OPS and flailed at breaking balls.
Some rival talent evaluators said they believe Toles — despite gaudy numbers (.314 batting average and an .870 OPS) in a limited sample size (48 games) — requires more evidence of success before he can be considered an everyday player. Toles has tweaked his batting stance, jettisoning an unorthodox backward step with his left foot, to create more balance for offspeed pitches.
“I don’t think that there’s necessarily something for Andrew to prove,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “He did show us a lot. We feel he’s a major-league player. We just want him to continue to go out there and do what’s he doing. There are a lot of different ways that Andrew has shown that he can impact the game.”
Van Slyke also offers value. He is considered by scouts to be a useful defender. He hit 11 homers in 212 at-bats in 2014 and posted a .784 OPS against left-handers in 2015.
Near the end of 2015, Van Slyke began to receive treatment for his wrist. He felt discomfort when he swung, when he threw and when he slid. He chose to rest over the winter, rather than undergo a procedure, but the trouble lingered into 2016.
With his swing compromised, Van Slyke failed to aid his team’s seasonlong inadequacy against left-handed pitchers. He managed only one home run and slugged a career-low .314. His wrist lacked the flexibility to adjust the path of his bat, which forced him to chop balls into the ground, rather than backspin them toward the seats.
“In basketball, if you’re trying to shoot a jump shot, and your range of motion is making your shots go left or right, you want to fix that,” Van Slyke said. “And that’s what was happening with my swing. I was doing stuff that I shouldn’t have been doing.”
After aggravating the situation on a slide in August, Van Slyke was placed on the disabled list. He underwent surgery that month to remove cysts and scar tissue from the area. He reported to camp without any lingering concerns about his health.
His place on the team, of course, is undecided. But Van Slyke does not expect a repeat of his injury-plagued 2016 campaign. If he cannot bend his team’s will to his liking, at least he can bend his wrist.
“I didn’t use my body last year,” Van Slyke said. “I was always just sitting around, waiting to do stuff. Now I can just do whatever.”