Thompson’s value to the Dodgers went up a notch this week when he hit the team’s first walk-off home run in almost three years. And that’s not evening considering the fact that he did it cold off the bench. The guy can flat-out hit (.275 average, 4 homers, 5 doubles, 11 runs, 14 RBIs in only 69 ABs), and many in the organization believe he is the best outfielder in their system. Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke are on course to return from injuries in late June, but Thompson’s spot on the big-league roster might be in jeopardy much sooner because Guerrero is already on a minor league assignment and due to come off the DL very soon.
The contract the Dodgers gave Guerrero in 2013 was mind-blowingly stupid, and they have spent the past two years trying to work around it. Guerrero’s 4-year, $28 million dollar guaranteed contract doesn’t allow him to be sent to the minors anymore unless he agrees to it; otherwise, he can demand a trade or his release. The problem is that nobody wants him because he is a below-average infielder, a terrible outfielder, prone to injury, and his contract allows him to opt out after the end of the season and become a free agent. And his bat doesn’t counter-balance any of this. Last season, he hit 11 home runs in 232 ABs, which sounds tantalizing, until you realize almost all of that production came in the first couple months of the season when he was new to MLB pitchers; his .224 batting average pretty much summarizes what happened after they caught on.
Although Dodger manager Dave Roberts views Guerrero as a third-baseman, not an outfielder, the roster will need to be trimmed by one when he returns. On the surface, it seems like back-up infielder/outfielder Charlie Culberson would be sent down before Thompson, but it could be a tough decision. In limited action, Culberson has shown a solid bat and a very good glove at third base, second base, and even more importantly, at shortstop. And that’s the kicker. Culberson is really the only true backup the team has for Corey Seager. Yes, Enrique Hernandez can play there in a pinch, but they need him available all over the diamond, and truth be told, he isn’t nearly as good there as Culberson. Also, Culberson even proved he could play left field if they need him there (he made a highlight diving catch the first inning he played there).
Even if the Dodgers decide to send Culberson down and keep Thompson, it is only a matter of time before some big roster decisions will need to be made. What will happen for sure is that Ethier and his much-needed left-handed bat will return to the lineup. Would they dump Guerrero and eat his salary if they can’t trade him? What about grossly over-paid left fielder, Carl Crawford, and his .200 batting average and pathetically weak-throwing arm? Would they finally release him and eat that crazy contract (2 more years, nearly $42 million remaining)? What about Van Slyke? His power off the bench and strong arm are nice assets, but he seems to find the DL every season when they need him most; he could be a trading piece, but there will still be a log-jam in the outfield no matter what, and Thompson has minor-league options available. And ultimately, this is what will eventually doom the star-in-the-making Thompson, at least for now.
This is just how baseball works. But you can’t keep a good man down forever, and Thompson still has at least a few weeks to continue to make his case.