Crawford tries to make up for lost time
PHOENIX — The realization struck Carl Crawford as he stood in front of his locker. He was talking about how the off-season invigorated him, how he split workouts between meetings with Dodgers trainers in Los Angeles and sessions at home in Houston. He felt refreshed and ready to rewrite his legacy.
Then he remembered his injury-ravaged past. He spun around to face his locker and rapped his knuckles against the wood. After years of misfortune, he sought some semblance of good luck. A productive off-season was not enough.
“I said that last year,” Crawford said. “And look what happened to me.”
Crawford experienced his fourth consecutive year interrupted by a major injury when he suffered a torn oblique muscle in April. He began this spring training without a defined role, a four-time All-Star relegated to part-time status. His presence prevents the Dodgers from optimizing their roster, with his trade value sapped by his $21.6 million salary and his fragility.
The reality agonizes Crawford. He acknowledges the limits of optimism. He can only rely on his work ethic, a quality team officials feel may inadvertently contribute to his injury problems.
“Trust me, I’m just as frustrated as everybody else when it comes to this stuff,” Crawford said. “I mean, what can I do? You show me how to stop that from happening, and I’ll be the first one doing it.”
For manager Dave Roberts, dividing time between Dodgers outfielders will present a daily puzzle. Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig figure to play regularly. After that, Roberts must find at-bats for Crawford, Andre Ethier, Scott Van Slyke and jack-of-all-trades Enrique Hernandez.
Crawford lacks a quality that sets him apart. His once-vaunted speed has diminished. A surgical reconstruction of his throwing elbow limits him to left field. His plate discipline lagged last season when he had a .304 on-base percentage.
Compare that to the profile of the other outfielders: Ethier mashes right-handed pitchers. Van Slyke treats left-handed pitchers in a similar fashion. Hernandez pummeled left-handers last season and demonstrated the ability to handle center field.
Crawford also blocks the advancement of Trayce Thompson, a talented defender who displayed promise during a late-season cameo with the Chicago White Sox in 2015. Thompson is expected to begin the season with triple-A Oklahoma City.
Roberts referenced a few scenarios when Crawford could play. He will face right-handed pitchers on occasion. He can pinch-hit or pinch-run. He could start as the designated hitter in interleague games.
“With the season, there always seems to be at-bats,” Roberts said. “There’s really nothing set in stone.”
In August 2012, when the Dodgers completed a franchise-altering trade with the Boston Red Sox, the team accepted Crawford’s contract as a part of the tax on their desire to acquire first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Crawford joined the Dodgers two days after undergoing elbow ligament-replacement surgery on his left arm. He sat out the rest of the season.
The pattern continued after Crawford rehabilitated the elbow. Limited by a thigh strain and back problems, he played in only 116 games in 2013. That number fell to 105 after an ankle sprain in 2014. After the injury to his oblique last season, he sat out two months and played in only 69 games.
Crawford creates a dilemma for the front office. Should the Dodgers cut ties with him and reconfigure the roster, or should the team commit to helping Crawford recapture the form that so electrified the Tampa Bay Rays a few years ago?
Publicly, the Dodgers commit to the latter course. The team has encouraged Crawford to curtail his weightlifting regimen during the regular season. Crawford focused this off-season on strengthening his abdominals to prevent another oblique injury, but the team also wants him to take fewer swings to avoid a recurrence.
“He has incredible work ethic,” baseball boss Andrew Friedman said. “And one can argue he works too much. So it’s just really talking through and documenting the volume of work to try to be proactive.”
Crawford listened to the advice. He plans on taking it, even if it contradicts his nature.
“It’s hard trying to figure it out, because your whole life you’ve been taught to just work hard, work hard, work hard,” Crawford said. “And now you’re getting to a point where your body can’t take it as much, and you have to tone back. That’s what you have to learn how to do, because you’ve never had to tone back.”
Crawford will turn 35 in August. He has spent 14 seasons in the majors, the last five of them unhappy. His body has betrayed him too many times, enough to make him shake his head.
Yet, he will continue to knock on wood and hope for the best. It is all he can do.
“People say I keep getting hurt,” Crawford said. “But I work as hard as I can to get better. I don’t give up on it. And I’m here to try again. That’s the thing. I haven’t given up on myself.”