Joc Pederson is a World Series hero and a free agent. Will he return to the Dodgers?
CASE FOR DODGERS KEEPING HIM: On a roster built on versatility, there’s room for “guy who hits home runs off right-handers.” If there’s a DH in the NL next year, all the better.
CASE AGAINST: Edwin Rios can fill that role. Pederson might prefer a team that would let him hit against left-handers, or at least try to.
BEST OTHER FITS: Cardinals, Giants, Indians.
The image was enduring and indicative, a defining moment in Joc Pederson’s Dodgers career that came in the most familiar way.
Pederson’s home run in Game 5 of the World Series will live in the team’s championship highlight reel forever, a towering blast accompanied by a loud dugout celebration that helped the Dodgers cement their advantage against the Tampa Bay Rays.
In his seven years with the team, it might have been Pederson’s most important hit. The question now: Will it also be his last as a member of the organization?
Though only 28, Pederson was the second-longest tenured position player on the Dodgers’ title-winning team this fall, a former 11th-round draft pick who debuted in 2014 and has played more than 800 regular-season and playoff games with the club.
The Dodgers won the World Series, Justin Turner made a poor choice, and MLB decided to point the finger at him first and investigate later.
His thunderous left-handed swing has become one of the most familiar sights at Chavez Ravine in recent years. He made one All-Star Game and twice competed in the Home Run Derby. And when the Dodgers needed him most this postseason, he delivered his best October performance yet.
But now, for the first time, the outfielder will enter free agency. And despite his storybook finish to the 2020 season, he hits the market coming off his least-productive campaign overall, leaving a return to the Dodgers in doubt.
Even in a small sample-size regular season, Pederson’s numbers this summer were glaringly poor. His .190 batting average was a personal-worst (excluding his brief 18-game debut season of 2014) and a team-low among qualified hitters. He recorded a sub-.300 on-base percentage and negative wins-above-replacement, according to Fangraphs, for the first time in his MLB career. He hit seven home runs in 121 at-bats, but his slugging percentage was .397, better than only Max Muncy among the Dodgers’ qualifiers.
Pitchers approached Pederson differently, throwing off-speed and breaking pitches more often than fastballs for the first time in his career, and his contact rate dropped from 77.7% in 2019 to 71.2% in 2020. His strikeout rate rose for a second straight year, to 24.6%, and his ground-ball rate skyrocketed to a career-high 51.7%.
Those numbers led to a reduced platoon role for Pederson entering the postseason. In the wild-card round, he received only one at-bat. He didn’t play a complete game until the championship series.
But then his bat caught fire.
In the Dodgers’ Game 3 rout of the Atlanta Braves, he hammered a three-run homer during an 11-run first inning and finished the day with four hits. He recorded hits in both Game 6 and Game 7 of that series. Then in the World Series, he went four for 10 with three RBIs.
Over his final 13 postseason games, he recorded a .419 batting average and 1.083 on-base-plus-slugging with eight RBIs.
Pederson will be hoping those impressive playoff credentials boost his value on the open market. After George Springer and Marcell Ozuna, there are few outfielders available with a more distinguished track record than Pederson, especially for hitting with power. And fewer still on the right side of 30.
The Dodgers’ interest in him remains to be seen. They didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Pederson, whose $7.750-million salary in 2020 was prorated over the 60-game season.
The club agreed to trade Pederson to the Angels before last season only to have the deal called off by Angels owner Arte Moreno at the last minute. With Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts locked into center and right field, there will also be only so many at-bats to go around for a left fielder. And the Dodgers also have AJ Pollock and the versatile Chris Taylor already under contract.
Re-signing Pederson could make more sense for the Dodgers if the designated hitter is used in the National League in 2021, which has yet to be determined. Even in that case, the Dodgers have other left-handed options in Edwin Ríos and Matt Beaty.
Pederson would be a starter on many teams around the league. But the Dodgers aren’t just any other team. They are the reigning champions of Major League Baseball. And it will be up to them to decide whether their long-serving slugger is still a necessity in their bid to defend their crown.
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