When the Los Angeles Dodgers began spring training two weeks ago, most positions featured clear-cut starters who would not be facing much job competition leading up to Opening Day.

The exception—and biggest question mark facing the organization as it prepared to defend its National League West division crown—focused on the opening in center field.

For most of last season, Yasiel Puig manned the position. That was because Los Angeles had Matt Kemp in right field and Carl Crawford in left field. Andre Ethier was relegated to the bench and top outfield prospect Joc Pederson was tearing up Triple-A.

But now, Kemp is gone and Pederson is ready for his shot. Crawford is on track to begin the season in left field and the Dodgers would prefer Puig in right field in order to best utilize his excellent throwing arm.

The net result? A position battle between Pederson and Ethier, and so far, the highly touted prospect is leading the seasoned veteran by a wide margin in the race to become the Dodgers’ center fielder.


The Performance

Pederson has quite simply been the Dodgers’ best hitter in spring training.

Entering the weekend, he is batting .433 with a team-high 13 hits—including two home runs, four doubles and six RBI. Pederson yanked one of his home runs deep to right and lofted the other one over the fence in left-center, demonstrating impressive power to all fields. His seven runs scored rank second on the club, and he has also stolen a base.

“I just show up every day, go about the process that was set by the coaching staff,” said Pederson, per Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times. “[I] work hard and try to do everything I can on the field to help the team win.”

The Dodgers selected Pederson in the 11th round of the 2010 draft. His progression through the minor league ranks was smooth and natural, culminating in his breakout campaign last season at Triple-A.

Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 with 135 hits and 78 RBI in 121 games prior to his September call-up last year, becoming the Pacific Coast League’s first player since 1934 to hit at least 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com.

He has started more games in center field than any other outfielder on the Dodgers this spring, and has looked comfortable at the position defensively.

“Once you’re up there, you never want to leave,” Pederson said, per Baxter. “You’ll do anything you can to stay up there.”


The Competition

Ethier, on the other hand, is hardly putting up a fight when it comes to this in-house battle.

The eight-year veteran owns a mediocre .250/.300/.321 slash in 28 at-bats this spring through Thursday. His first extra-base hit did not come until this week, and he leads all Los Angeles batters with eight strikeouts.

Ethier has played 142 games in center field during the past two seasons, more than any other Dodger during that span, according to Baxter. But after reluctantly coming off the bench last season, Ethier made it known back in December that he would rather be traded than repeat the situation he endured a year ago, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Steve Dilbeck.

It was fun trying to win the way we did last year, but it didn’t prove any more successful than me playing every day or not playing every day. I’d rather play every day and help this team win — or whatever team it is — to the best of my ability. I feel I can, if given a role. As I stand here today, I’m preparing every day to be a starting outfielder for the Dodgers, until I’m told otherwise. I’m not changing my mind about that. It’s probably going to be a little less wanting to take the same role as I did last year.

The Dodgers tried to acquiesce around the time Ethier made that statement, but were unsuccessful as a potential trade that would have sent him to the Arizona Diamondbacks fell through, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports

Ethier is coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he batted .249 with just four home runs and 42 RBI in 341 at-bats. Part of the difficulty in trading Ethier is the $56 million he is owed over the next three seasons.

However, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that the Dodgers would be willing to eat half of that in order to unload Ethier, who will turn 33 in April. 


The Decision-Makers

Although the numbers speak for themselves this spring, Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly has refused to announce what figures to be an inevitable decision favoring the team’s top outfield prospect.

“We’re still in camp and we’re still competing,” said Mattingly, per Baxter. “But obviously we like what we’ve seen from Joc. We’re looking at Joc’s processes as much as we are just the results. How’s his work? Has he got good routines? How’s he kind of dealing with it all?”

Mattingly considers Pederson the “best defensive center fielder” on the Dodgers, per Dilbeck, and the rookie has done nothing to dispel that notion so far at Camelback Ranch.

The Los Angeles skipper remained diplomatic when asked about Ethier’s body of work during spring training.

“Andre’s at-bats have been pretty good,” said Mattingly, per Baxter.

This noncommittal stance from Mattingly has not wavered from the official party line that team president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman established several months ago while discussing the 2015 center-field outlook.

“I think we’ll take some time in spring training and assess that, get a feel for [Pederson] in camp and how he’s handling things,” Friedman told Dilbeck. “It’ll be a discussion we’ll have with the staff and I’m sure it will be an ongoing discussion between now through the last game in March.”

With just one week left in March, the question has reached a crescendo but the answer is a simple one: Pederson should be the Opening Day center fielder for the 2015 Dodgers.


All statistics are courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise stated.

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