With Manny coming back, red-hot Pierre forced to grin and bear it
When the Dodgers needed him most, Pierre played absolutely out of his mind
With Manny returning Friday, Pierre will return to his role as fourth outfielder
He hasn't publicly expressed frustration, but it's not hard to read through the lines
Since May 7, all Juan Pierre has done in 48 games back in the Los Angeles Dodgers starting lineup is bat .319 with 32 runs and 21 RBIs to go along with 17 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases. Those are stats that put him near the top of the National League leaderboards over that stretch, and numbers that have helped the Dodgers maintain the best record in the majors and a six-game lead in the NL West.
"He is, in my opinion, the best leadoff hitter in the game," Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. And unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that Pierre is just keeping left field warm until this Friday, when Manny Ramirez returns from a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's substance-abuse policy. Dodgers manager Joe Torre has said Ramirez will return to his regular spot in the lineup, relegating Pierre back to the bench.
Unfair? Probably. No one's going to confuse Pierre for possessing the game-changing swing and enormous lineup protection Ramirez has brought to the Dodgers. But it's hard to argue with the fact that when the Dodgers needed him most, Pierre played absolutely out of his mind. Some of his stats this season are so much higher than his career averages, it's almost laughable: His .391 on-base percentage and .418 slugging average dwarf his career numbers (.348 and .373, respectively). Were it not for the fact that none of those drives have made it over the wall, Pierre would be doing an awfully good Manny impression at the plate.
But once Ramirez retakes left field on Friday in San Diego, Pierre will return to the bench, a familiar spot since the beginning of the '08 campaign; first losing his regular center-field spot to $36.2 million debacle Andruw Jones last year, then being pushed out of left field after the Dodgers acquired Ramirez at the trade deadline last July.
The biggest shame -- and irony -- of the situation is that Pierre is currently playing better than the guy Dodgers fans thought they were getting when the team signed him to a five-year, $44 million deal after the '06 season. That contract has been the albatross that has followed him around for three seasons. He has absorbed countless criticism from the media and fans for not producing numbers befitting that kind of money (despite the fact that he hit near his career averages at .293 with 196 hits in '07, his first and only full season as a Dodger starter, and led the league in singles, sacrifice hits and had the lowest strikeout-to-at-bat percentage).
In reality, Pierre was the scapegoat for an expensive, underachieving team. With a $108 million payroll in '07, the Dodgers barely cracked .500. Then with another $11 million in added salary last year, they pulled a repeat performance all the way to late August. Maybe Dodgers fans had enough of mediocrity. Maybe Pierre was the next-best target for their scorn after Jones struggled to hit .200 despite earning nearly $15 million. Either way, Pierre was made out to be the bad guy.
When the Dodgers acquired Ramirez -- one the greatest hitters in the history of the game -- it was a little easier for Pierre to swallow that he was the odd man out. The Dodgers won 19 of their final 27 games and advanced to the NLCS last fall. In seeing what his replacement had done for the team, Pierre was, as one Dodger official said, "a little less sour" to be around. In all, said his teammates, he has been a consummate clubhouse guy who refuses to complain.
"His mood never changes," said Kemp, who occupies the locker next to Pierre and considers him his best friend on the team. "A lot of people wouldn't take that too well, but Juan's a different guy. He's about the team and whenever we need him for something, he's always ready to do it."
But if you've got a beating heart and any modicum of pride in what you do for a living, it's hard to believe that Pierre is not at all perturbed that he's heading back to the dugout despite putting up fantastic numbers in Ramirez's absence. Pierre declined numerous requests to comment for this story, and tries to deflect as much attention from himself as he can in interviews with beat writers. But ask his best friend, Los Angeles Angels third baseman Chone Figgins, and it isn't hard to read through the lines.
"I do feel badly for him because he's my best friend and he's not getting to play [regularly]," said Figgins, who came up with Pierre in the Colorado Rockies farm system. "But we've seen what happened with the Manny Ramirez situation and the fact that he did do something that was illegal. In retrospect, [the Dodgers] should see that a player that hasn't done things like that is putting up numbers that are natural. It should be shown that we deserve more respect than what we get."
What's interesting to note is that Figgins uses the word "we" to describe Pierre. True, both men are similar types of players: speedy leadoff guys who can get on base with a timely hit and then disrupt games by stealing a base or tearing from first to third on a ball in play. But considering how tight they are (Pierre and Figgins even crash at each others' places during Dodgers-Angels Interleague series), you get a sense that Figgins feels as wronged by the situation as Pierre likely does.
And the situation, as Torre has explained, is not only that Ramirez will reclaim his place in left, but Pierre won't even supplant one of the other starting outfielders, neither of whom has put up as good numbers as he has. Kemp will stay in center and Andre Ethier -- who can be an explosive hitter but has a penchant for deep slumps -- will occupy right. According to Torre, Pierre will start a couple games a week in center; in those games, Kemp will move to right and Ethier will take a seat on the bench. The rationale there isn't all that hard to understand: The five-tool Kemp (24 years old) and sweet-swinging Ethier (27) are integral pieces of the crop of prized youngsters the Dodgers feel will be their future for years to come. And while Pierre has done all he can do, a 31-year-old, scrappy leadoff hitter isn't exactly the future of the team. What he will be at this point, however, is an experienced outfielder off the bench who can contribute immediately down the stretch and push the other outfielders to keep performing at a high level. (Dodgers GM Ned Colletti also has said he's not eager to deal Pierre before the deadline.) "All I can say is that our bench gets deeper," Torre told MLB.com on Monday.
The Dodgers skipper has been nothing but complimentary of Pierre's effort and attitude. And to the starting outfielders' credit, they're also deeply respectful of Pierre and are willing to roll with a plan that might see them sit out stretches. "I can't argue with Joe and the decisions he's making," said Ethier. "We have one prerogative and that's to keep winning games. If that's to the benefit of helping us that day, I'll do what I'm asked to do."
But at the heart of the matter is a bitter taste of injustice. Pierre has been asked to step in and keep the Dodgers on a winning track when their biggest offensive contributor has been enmeshed in controversy, and he has delivered bigtime, more than he ever has as a Dodger, but once again, he's being asked to sit, grin and swallow it.
"Now he's a so-called bench player, which isn't accurate," said Figgins. "Bench players don't get a five-year contract or get 200 hits over the last couple years, [only] behind Ichiro [Suzuki]. Stats are stats."
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