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How the idea of Casey Blake in left field could still be alive: Or how Don Mattingly could make like Gumby

January 20, 2011 | 12:10 pm

Don Mattingly
spent his entire 14-year playing career in the American League. He spent his first four years as a coach in the American League. It was only in the last 2½ years that he coached in the National League. So only a little more than 10% of his career has been spent in the league without a designated hitter.

Mattingly had best be a quick read. One early indication is he is.

"I want to be flexible," Mattingly said. "That’s the one thing I think I’ve learned as much as anything in the National League, you have to have a team with some flexibility in its lineup.’’

Which is why even after the signing of outfielder Marcus Thames
, the idea of using third baseman Casey Blake in left may not be dead.

There are several scenarios that could have the infield in flux, whether as an occasional change-up in the lineup, or in regular platooning of several players.

Right now, the working assumption is that left-handed Jay Gibbons and the right-handed Thames will platoon in left, with a set infield of first baseman James Loney, second  baseman Juan Uribe, shortstop Rafael Furcal and Blake.

Yet if you had an offense that struggled as badly as the Dodgers’ did in the second half, you’d best be open to plenty of options. And the Dodgers have them.

First off, they can’t close themselves to the possibility that Ivan De Jesus Jr. could play second. Not the plan, but it should be a possibility this spring. Mattingly said De Jesus was his most major-league ready Dodger he had in the Arizona Fall League. De Jesus would give them the still-needed No.2 hitter, allow Uribe to move to third (his better position) and Blake to left. Same with playing Jamey Carroll at second.

Then there’s the thought of giving Loney some time off, particularly against left-handed pitchers. Loney’s OPS (on-base plus slugging) was over 200 points higher against right-handers last season (.785 to .575).

Blake has also played a little first (108 games), but so has Thames (44 games).

If Mattingly really wants to get right-handed hitting heavy -- remember three of the Giants' starters are lefties -- he could play Thames and Blake together, one as the left fielder.

Before the Dodgers signed Thames, Mattingly said he talked to Blake about playing some left field. He’s played 240 games in the outfield, though only twice since joining the Dodgers in 2008.

"Primarily, I think he’s a third baseman, but I had a little chat with him about possibly playing some outfield," Mattingly said.

Blake is 37, but still runs surprisingly well.

"He’s an interesting guy in that respect," Mattingly said. "He’s really athletic. He’s lean and long, and he runs pretty good. So he’s a valuable guy."

At his age, Mattingly would also like to see Blake take a few more days off.

Blake, ever the good teammate, apparently told Mattingly he would do whatever was requested.

"Actually, Casey understands," Mattingly said. "Casey is at a point in his career where he’s getting older. We really feel like he may benefit from playing a hair less and get more production out of him. I know (ex-Yankees manager Buck) Showalter did it with me late. Those extra days off that I didn’t necessarily want, made me better.

"We talked about that a little bit. You hear what you want to here, because he wants to play every day. You like that. But he’s also realistic to a point that he knows what may be best for him. He wants to be a team guy, he wants to help the club win."

Uribe can play second, third, of if really needed, short. Carroll can play all three, plus the outfield. Thames can play outfield or first, Blake third, first or outfield. And then there’s playing Tony Gwynn Jr. in the outfield, or the more remote possibility of De Jesus at second.

That’s a lot of juggling even for a veteran manager, let alone a rookie manager who has spent almost his entire career in a league where there’s dramatically less late-inning lineup movement.

The safe bet for a new manager would be to go with a set lineup. Apparently, however, Mattingly is open to being as flexible as Gumby in the dugout. And that’s a good thing.

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photo: Casey Blake. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times