GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Last year, at this time, Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson spoke freely, and at length, about where he saw himself in the Dodgers plans, about his formative experiences playing for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic Qualifying Tournament, about his family and his walk-off heroics, if walk-off home runs in spring training can be so termed.
This spring, a lot has changed. Pederson is no longer on the outside, looking in. He’s no longer wearing the scrub-sized No. 65 on his back. The weight on his shoulders now, is different, as he pulls on No. 31.
“It’s about half as light,” Pederson says.
As Pederson takes batting practice, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda looks on from his golf cart throne. “Listen to the sound it makes when the ball comes off his bat,” the two-time World Series-winning skipper marveled. All eyes, truly, are on him.
This offseason, the Dodgers dealt away longtime center fielder Matt Kemp, easing an outfield logjam that saw Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford shoved into three spots, and with arguably one of the best positional prospect in baseball out in the cold.
“Joc is like all the prospects: You see him here in camp one year, and you know they’re not really going to make your club, but then he goes out and kind of slays Triple-A, and basically says, ‘I’m ready,’” says manager Don Mattingly.
Slaying is quite an apt description for what Pederson did to the Pacific Coast League in 2014, hitting .303 with a .435 on-base percentage, a .582 slugging percentage, 33 home runs, 4 triples, 17 doubles and 30 stolen bases.
“Joc is an exceptional athlete,” says former big leaguer Gabe Kapler, who coached Pederson on the 2012 WBC Qualifying Tournament team. “Amazing eye-hand coordination, tremendous bat speed, tremendous drive and the thing I think I’ve noticed most, since I saw him in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament, is his willingness to hunt value at the margins, so his willingness to be devoted to a nutrition program that’s going to put him in the optimal position to have success, his willingness to do the little things that will make him a better baseball player.”
When Kemp was traded during the Winter Meetings, Pederson didn’t even bat an eye.
“All that stuff is out of our control,” he says. “Kemp’s a great player. I hope the best for him in San Diego. He’s someone I looked up to when I was in high school and he was playing, and even when I signed. I hope the best for him.”
Though no one connected with the organization will say it, with Kemp gone, the door is wide open for Pederson to take over in center.
“Now he comes into camp with a different look,” says Mattingly. “It could be the same with a number of our young prospects. You see them now, you know they’re not really going to make your club, they’re going to go down to the minor leagues again, and, depending on how they handle that and how they do, then it’s a different situation moving to the next year.”
This situation is very different for Pederson, and so is he. While fairly wide-eyed last year in camp, he’s laser-focused this year. He knows the spotlight is on him, it would seem.
“I’ve got to stick to the same process I’ve been on, continue to grow as a player, get my work in, show up every day and try to help the team win,” Pederson says.
What drove that performance down in Triple-A? Once again, Pederson pleads the process.
“I just showed up, ready to play, continued to stick on the process the coaches gave us, and grow as a player,” Pedrson says. “You never can be too good. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and show up every day with a good attitude and get my work in and help the team win. I’ve trained the same way, I’ve worked out with the same people in the offseason, and I’m happy to be here. It’s good to get back on the field and get all the kinks out and get ready for the year.”
That process has been evident to those around Pederson, including Kapler, who’s been at Dodgers camp every day this spring. It was evident to Kapler the day he met Pederson.
“What struck me was that he had exceptional baseball instincts,” Kapler says. “Super, super confident. Carried himself in a professional manner, genuine human being.”
And now, he’s got a genuine shot to not only make the team, but to start in center field on Opening Day at Chavez Ravine, even if he won’t publicly entertain the thought.
“Joc,” Kapler says, “understands that he’s in control of his destiny.”