Change was the theme of the offseason for the Los Angeles Dodgers, both on and off the field.

It began with an overhaul of the team’s front office, as ownership hired Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi to serve as president of baseball operations and general manager, respectively, and with those two analytic rock stars came a new approach to constructing a winning and cost-effective roster.

That led to some tough goodbyes to fan-favorite players, as Friedman and Zaidi allowed Hanley Ramirez to leave as a free agent and then traded Dee Gordon and Matt Kemp in December during the annual winter meetings.

While the Dodgers subsequently restructured their middle infield through trades for veterans Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, the team’s decision not to replace Kemp in center field was a direct vote of confidence in prospect Joc Pederson.

Pederson enjoyed one of the better seasons in minor league history in 2014, as the 22-year-old was named MVP of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League after leading the league in home runs (33), OPS (1.017), on-base percentage (.435), runs scored (106), walks (100) and total bases (259). He also became the first Pacific Coast League player to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season since 1934. 

Unfortunately, Pederson didn’t fare as well in his first taste of the major leagues, as the September call-up was just 4-for-28 (.143) with 11 strikeouts and nine walks in 38 plate appearances with the Dodgers.

At 6’1″, 185 pounds, Pederson is an impressive athlete with quiet strength, showcasing five average-or-better tools and good secondary skills. He projects to be a slightly above-average hitter at the highest level, with a mature approach and line-drive-oriented swing, and he already demonstrates a feel for working counts and getting on base.

The left-handed hitter has shown at least above-average power at every minor league stop, including a career-high 33 bombs in 2014. His power will play even if the average doesn’t translate, as Pederson is patient enough to wait out specific pitches each trip to the plate.

Pederson’s consistency on the basepaths rivals his power frequency, as he’s now swiped at least 26 bases in each of the last four seasons. Beyond that, his knack for getting on base and using his speed to put pressure on opposing defenses should always make him a consistent source of runs.

Pederson is a natural in the outfield, with plus range, excellent instincts and above-average arm strength, and manager Don Mattingly has previously stated he believes the 22-year-old is the “best defensive center fielder” in the organization, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times.

Following the season, the 22-year-old traveled to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball for the Leones del Escogido. He batted .265/.351/.361 with five extra-base hits (one home run), 13 runs scored, 10 walks and 33 strikeouts in 22 games with Escogido.

As expected, the Dodgers coaching staff and front office have been noncommittal about the possibility of Pederson, who has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, opening the 2015 season in center field. The youngster will “have the opportunity to compete for the position” during spring training, according to Mattingly, while Zaidi has acknowledged that it’s between Pederson and Andre Ethier heading into camp. However, I’m not convinced it will be the battle they’re making it out to be.

Pederson’s potential to contribute in 2015 obviously played a major part in the Dodgers’ decision to deal Kemp, so one would think he’d have to fail pretty miserably in spring training for Ethier to win the Opening Day gig.

On top of that, the center field situation will determine the club’s outfield configuration next season, which makes it hard to believe the Dodgers would enter spring training with that much uncertainty at the position.

The Dodgers front office “would not have shipped Matt Kemp to the division-rival Padres if they didn’t believe Pederson is for real,” writes Lyle Spencer of

Whether Pederson makes an impact and lives up to expectations will depend on his ability to make adjustments and overcome the inevitable growing pains that come along with being a rookie in the major leagues. For him, specifically, that will mean keeping his strikeout rate, which reached 27 percent last season between Triple-A and the major leagues, under control.

The Steamer and ZIPS projection models for 2015 call for Pederson to strike out somewhere in the 25 to 30 percent range, but they also like his chances of going 20-20 with a 10-plus percent walk rate in his age-23 campaign.

With Carl Crawford slated for left field and Yasiel Puig opposite him in right, Ethier would likely be the odd man out if Pederson claims center field. Suffice it to say the 32-year-old Ethier, who’s coming off a career-worst season (.249 average, four home runs in 380 plate appearances) and is still owed $56 million, would not be on board with such a role.

However, it still makes sense for the Dodgers to hang onto Ethier in 2015, argues Dilbeck, as the Kemp trade made him even more valuable to the team:

The problem is, should they trade Ethier and Pederson struggles, they could be in trouble. You almost would have to keep Ethier. He absolutely will not like it and be far from happy and cause Manager Don Mattingly a few maddening moments, but Ethier wouldn’t sour the clubhouse. He’s too much a loner. And though he was mostly great about his situation as the odd outfielder out last season, it’s not like he’s never been in a snit before.

The Dodgers potentially have something special in Joc Pederson, but they also have enough outfield depth so that he won’t be forced into an Opening Day role if he’s not ready.

Like any young power hitter, Pederson, who turns 23 in April, can be streaky at the plate, so he’s likely to experience plenty of ups and downs over a full season in the major leagues. At the same time, Pederson’s steady improvement from year to year in the minor leagues speaks to his capacity to make adjustments against advanced competition, and it should give the Dodgers enough confidence to stick with the promising center fielder through it all in 2015.

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