For seven months, from the heat of the summer until the start of spring training, Trayce Thompson fixated on the condition of his back. He thought about strengthening and healing the fractures that short-circuited his season. He thought about flexibility and function. He thought about what it would take to make it back in time to play in the Dodgers’ outfield in 2017.
What he did not think about much, during his journey back to baseball, was the actual act of playing the game, the competition between pitchers and hitters that occurs on every pitch. It is that muscle that he’s been exercising this month in Cactus League games.
“You lose that battle mentality when you’re hurt for so long,” Thompson said. “It took me a while to get that back.”
The early results have been a pleasant surprise for the Dodgers, and an encouraging sign for Thompson. In six games he has hit .333 with a .929 on-base plus slugging percentage and one home run. He has yet to play in back-to-back games, and he likely won’t receive that assignment until the final week of games in Arizona next week.
Despite the limited action, Thompson believes he can contribute if asked to break camp on the 25-man roster. “Physically,” he said, “I’m absolutely ready.”
The decision does not belong to him. Before this week, the Dodgers had an easy solution for Thompson’s next step. He could go to triple-A Oklahoma City, play every day and freshen up for a call-up when a roster spot became available.
The Dodgers appear committed to Yasiel Puig in right field. Manager Dave Roberts has emphasized that Joc Pederson will receive more playing time in center field, including at-bats against left-handed starting pitchers. Franklin Gutierrez will play in the corners against left-handed pitchers. The team may require Scott Van Slyke as insurance for Adrian Gonzalez, who is nursing a sore right elbow.
That leaves one spot. It makes more sense for the Dodgers to bring Toles, a left-handed hitter, than Thompson, a right-handed hitter. But Thompson has at least forced the conversation, which Roberts admitted was a surprise.
“He’s moving really well,” Roberts said. “He’s recovering. There’s no signs of anything with the previous back [injury] .... The whole time, he’s really wanted to push the envelope. And we’ve kept him back to care from him and keep him prudent. But he’s accelerated this whole process.”
Acquired before 2016 in a three-team trade with the Reds and White Sox, Thompson was a vital contributor to the Dodgers in the first two months of the season. He supplied 11 homers with an .804 on-base plus slugging percentage in May and June.
His back began to bark in June. A month later, after hitting .189 in a 38-game stretch, he was placed on the disabled list. An MRI could not discern the source of his discomfort and he did not respond to treatment. Clarity arrived in the form of an X-ray examination, which showed the fractures. Thompson did not play again.
“You just really never know how it’s going to play out,” Roberts said. “We were obviously very cautious with Trayce. But this guy’s going to work as hard as anybody to put himself in the best position. And the training staff has done a fantastic job with Trayce.”
Thompson said he does not worry about his back while playing. He has yet to experience a setback. Now he shifts into the strategy aspects of his profession.
He decided to challenge himself this spring. He wanted to break a pattern of his approach at the plate, in which he felt he was often too passive on the first pitch. In 397 major-league plate appearances, he has put the ball in play on the first pitch only 17 times. He wants to force himself to engage from the start of the at-bat, rather than put himself in an 0-1 hole on a consistent basis.
For seven months, it was foolhardy for Thompson to engage in nuanced discussions like this. His back overrode all other concerns. But for the past month at Camelback Ranch, he has been able to expand beyond the monotony of rehabilitation.
“When you’re going through rehab, you don’t think about that at all,” Thompson said. “You just want to get back to the point where you can swing a bat. You’re not thinking about the pitcher-hitter chess match. I’m definitely trying to get my bearings in that.”