Race at second base: LA converting shortstops
Dodgers hoping Gordon, Guerrero can make transition before season starts
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Dodgers are working on deadline to turn shortstops Dee Gordon and Alex Guerrero into second basemen.
Gordon was the starting shortstop until tearing thumb ligaments in 2012, which led to the acquisition of Hanley Ramirez, whose presence left Gordon looking for playing time, and ultimately, a new role.
The Cuban Guerrero was signed last year for four years and $28 million in the wake of countryman Yasiel Puig's stunning success, with management convinced that Guerrero would replace the aging Mark Ellis and be ready to go without Minor League seasoning. Guerrero was a three-time All-Star in Cuba, but he sat out the 2013 season before defecting.
Plan A hasn't worked out to perfection, as a rusty Guerrero has struggled making the defensive conversion. When a winter ball crash course for Guerrero was derailed by hamstring issues, the Dodgers scrambled and signed experienced Minor League free agents Brandon Harris, Chone Figgins, Justin Turner and Miguel Rojas in what has become a full-blown tryout camp with the season rapidly approaching.
Meanwhile, each of the candidates makes appearances in the morning for extra work primarily with Juan Castro, a longtime Major League glove wizard, and Jose Vizcaino, both special assistants for player personnel.
Guerrero turned a perfect pivot on a double play Friday with speedy White Sox runner Adam Eaton coming his way from first base.
Guerrero and Gordon figure to be the preferred choices because they are already on the Major League roster and they're young (27 and 24, respectively). That doesn't mean one or more of the non-roster invitees won't make the club as a starter or utilityman, only that they would require another player coming off the 40-man roster.
The Dodgers have a long list of players who have successfully switched positions, including Jackie Robinson, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Russell Martin and Kenley Jansen. The last shortstop they turned into a starting second baseman was Alex Cora in 2003, and he teamed with Cesar Izturis for one of the finest defensive tandems in club history.
Castro had a .229 career batting average, but his glove was so good that he appeared in the Major Leagues in 17 different seasons and had three stints with the Dodgers, his original team.
He's happy to explain why there's more to the change Gordon and Guerrero are making than just moving 75 feet to their left.
"For me, the toughest part is making the double play," Castro said. "It took me a whole season to feel comfortable, then I asked to go to Instructional League to get better.
"The double play is harder, because the shortstop has everything in front of him. He can see the runner. The second baseman has his back to the runner and doesn't know where he's at, where he's sliding, if he's going to get hit."
Castro said players are instructed on their positioning to take a throw, turn the pivot and get out of the way of the runner. But it's too dangerous to practice getting taken out by an opponent trying to break you in half from behind. That only happens in the games, and there's no way to know how a player reacts until it does.
Gordon appears the more athletic of the two, and he has added some muscle, while Guerrero has the broader body and an uppercut swing that will be tested by Major League pitching and Dodger Stadium's dimensions. Guerrero hasn't displayed the smooth actions common for shortstops, especially in the lower body.
Although Guerrero played seven seasons in Cuba, those seasons are roughly half as long as a Major League campaign. He's played 547 games compared to 678 professional games for Gordon.
"For Guerrero, the toughest thing has been the switch of angles and throwing on the double play," said Castro.
"Dee is better around the bag, he just has to get accustomed to throwing from different angles depending on where he catches the feed. You don't have time to throw over the top, you have to flip from three-quarters."
Manager Don Mattingly said he will try to play Guerrero in every Spring Training game, using him as a designated hitter when he isn't in the field. The crash course continues, but the Dodgers need a starting second baseman for the trip to Australia in three weeks.
When general manager Ned Colletti keeps saying that Guerrero "needs to play," it sounds a lot like it will be in Albuquerque and not Australia.
"I know there's a lot for Guerrero right now," said Castro. "He's never played the position, he's learning English, learning how to play the game at this level on the big stage. And people don't realize the difference in the speed of the game up here. Everything is faster."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.