PITTSBURGH — Andre Ethier doesn’t know where he’ll be batting in the lineup when the Dodgers open a three-game series in Pittsburgh on Friday. Or, for that matter, if he’ll be playing at all.
These days, nothing is certain for Ethier, who only a year ago was viewed as one of the team’s centerpieces and signed to a five-year, $85-million contract extension.
Not only is Ethier’s short-term future now in question, his long-term future is too.
The emergence of Yasiel Puig has led to widespread speculation in baseball circles that the Dodgers will attempt to trade Ethier in the near future. Perhaps at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. Perhaps in the winter.
Of course, some of the same people who are saying Ethier is a goner were also saying Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly would be fired last month.
Asked about his future, Ethier chuckled. “Look at the way guys are dropping around here,” he said. “They need as many bodies as they can have.”
The Dodgers have put 15 players on the disabled list this season. Among them are their two other former All-Star outfielders, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, who are sidelined by strained hamstrings.
But if Puig continues his ascent and the entire outfield is healthy, Ethier could be the odd man out.
“It’s not in your control,” Ethier said. “It’s nothing you can have a say about, except to go out there and play hard.”
Kemp continues to be viewed as the team’s franchise player, even as he works his way back from a shoulder operation that has sapped him of his trademark power. And until Crawford was injured, he looked like the same player who was once baseball’s top free agent.
Meanwhile, Ethier came under fire from his manager as recently as last month, when Mattingly implied that he wasn’t competitive enough.
The combination of Ethier’s hefty salary and disappointing performance could make him difficult to trade. Ethier is batting a career-low .235 and has only five home runs and 17 runs batted in in the Dodgers’ first 65 games. To find a taker for Ethier, the Dodgers would probably have to pay a significant amount of the money owed him over the remainder of his contract.
There was a time when Ethier used to respond tersely to questions about his slumps or future. No more.
Ethier hasn’t made any excuses for his play, saying he feels as healthy as he has felt in several years. As for his future with the Dodgers, he says he wants to be here.
He has already been forced into unfamiliar roles, batting everywhere from second to sixth in the lineup. He has either not started or not played in seven games. When Kemp was injured, Ethier moved from right field to center, where he has played well.
“If the team asks for us and it’s going to make us better, that’s what I want to happen,” Ethier said. “It’s fun to be here. It’d be a lot more fun to be part of a team that can win.”
As for Puig, Ethier said, “If guys can come up like that and help this team win, I’m all for it.”
Ethier recalled the grace with which former teammate Juan Pierre handled a similar situation. An established veteran, Pierre was forced out of the Dodgers’ lineup when Ethier and Kemp became everyday players in 2008.
“He really embraced a role that he was kind of thrown into there with me and Matt coming up,” Ethier said. “He always cheered us and rooted us on no matter what, even if he was put in a tough situation. That’s something I definitely learned from.”
That doesn’t mean Ethier intends to give up his position to Puig without a fight. Pierre, who is now with the Miami Marlins, didn’t stop working. Ethier doesn’t intend to stop, either.
“It’s ingrained in you,” Ethier said.
Decision on brawl delayed
The Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks are still waiting to learn whether the league will punish them for their roles in a brawl at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. The league office was expected to announce suspensions and/or fines Thursday but decided to wait a day, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Puig was thrown out of the game, along with reliever Ronald Belisario and hitting coach Mark McGwire.
Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.