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Around the Horn: Outfielders

Around the Horn: Outfielders

The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: outfielders.

LOS ANGELES -- There's more to the Dodgers' outfield situation than what to do with Juan Pierre.

How three players -- Pierre, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier -- divide into two positions is new manager Joe Torre's problem.

Not anticipated to be an issue is who plays center field. That will be Andruw Jones, the 10-time and defending National League Gold Glove Award winner, who signed to a two-year, $36.2 million contract during the Winter Meetings after being an Atlanta fixture. Jones provides the Dodgers with a proven slugger for the middle of their order.

Or does he?

He's got things to prove. Although only 31 in April, Jones has critics suggesting his best years are behind him. They say he's gotten soft and that he provided some of the all-time worst at-bats imaginable last year while hitting .222.

Yet, he still slugged 26 homers with 94 RBIs, numbers which would have led the Dodgers, even if they came in the worst year of his career. And Jones is only two years removed from 51 home runs and 128 RBIs.

If he winds up somewhere between his best and worst, the Dodgers will consider this venture a rousing success. And if he wins an 11th Gold Glove, he'll become best friends with the pitching staff, which grew increasingly annoyed with every extra base opposing runners took on Pierre's weak arm.

Jones reluctantly admits that his 2007 season was marred by a hyper-extended elbow. Though he sustained the injury playing defense -- reaching over the fence trying to goal-tend a home run -- it ruined his swing, and the compensation in his stance only made things worse.

He insists he's now healthy, his swing has been rehabilitated after extensive film comparison, and he's primed for a two-year salary drive that will allow him another bite at the free-agent apple while still in his prime at age 32.

As for the corners, Pierre has become perhaps the most polarizing Dodger in recent memory. Fans either are excited by his base-stealing capabilities or dismayed at his defensive shortcomings and one-dimensional speed offense.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Catchers: Martin becoming a fixture
Corner IF: Third base up for grabs
Middle IF: Veteran Kent back for more
Outfielders: Talented foursome
Starters: Consistency might be key
Bullpen: Saito anchors deep group
DH/Bench: Feb. 13

But general manager Ned Colletti doesn't seem to share the desire of detractors to dump Pierre. He said he's "fine with the outfield as it is," meaning Pierre and Ethier are more likely to open camp with Jones and Kemp than for one of them to be traded away. He said it wasn't out of "the realm of possibility" that Ethier could start ahead of Pierre.

Torre has said that sorting out the outfield will be a spring priority.

"I know there are more bodies than positions," he said. "I had a conversation with Juan. He was curious. I basically said what I said to Bernie Williams when [the Yankees] signed Kenny Lofton. We'll do what's best for the team. We'll leave for Spring Training with three guys to give it their best shot."

Torre downplayed the shortcomings of Pierre's throwing arm, saying the speed with which an outfielder reaches a ball is more important, citing Johnny Damon as an example. But he also stressed the importance of defense if pitching is the strength of the team, as he believes is the case with the Dodgers.

He said if Pierre is in the lineup, he would probably bat first or second because he wants speed players at the top to distract the opposing pitcher.

Ethier will be heading into his third season, Kemp his second. Ethier is more proven, Kemp possessing what scouts believe to be the higher ceiling. The presumption is that Kemp wins the right-field job, but Pierre and Ethier are both left-handed, so a traditional platoon isn't an option unless Kemp is tossed into that mix.

The Dodgers also seem to have the makings of some outfield depth. Delwyn Young is out of options, strengthening his chances to make the club as an extra. There's also Jason Repko, talented enough to play all three positions, but only when he's healthy, which isn't often. Repko missed the entire 2007 season with hamstring surgery and he needs to show he can stay in one piece before the club can count on him for any particular role.

Also showing up for Major League training camp is young outfielder Xavier Paul (on the 40-man roster) and non-roster invitees George Lombard (Jones' Minor League teammate with Atlanta) and John-Ford Griffin.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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