PHOENIX — With a long-awaited conflict again coming into view, Dodgers outfielders have taken a variety of approaches to what could be an uncomfortable situation.
Matt Kemp was brazen, declaring he wouldn't be a fourth outfielder. Carl Crawford was understanding. Yasiel Puig was diplomatic, saying he would respect any decision made by Manager Don Mattingly.
Then there is Andre Ethier, who, when asked about playing time and potential trades, smiled, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. The Dodgers start their Cactus League exhibition season Wednesday against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ethier realizes it's pointless to forecast the future this early.
"Just enjoy being here and put your best foot forward," he said.
Ethier, 31, is old enough to know that what's supposed to happen — in this case a logjam among starting outfielders — sometimes never materializes. Over the years, there were countless times there were rumors he would be traded, but he's still a Dodger. Puig's emergence last year could have made him expendable, but Kemp suffered a pulled hamstring and suddenly Ethier was the Dodgers' everyday center fielder.
Asked if he could have imagined last season unfolding that way, Ethier laughed and said, "Never."
Ethier used to be tense, the kind of player who was known as much for his bat-smashing tirades as the towering home runs he hit. Trade rumors used to prompt silent rages.
"I'd be sitting in the cage, grinding the bat, doing crazy things like that," he said." Or sitting in the house watching movies, waiting for your phone to ring or text you. Not going about everyday stuff."
When the rumors swirled again this winter, Ethier tried something new: He ignored them. He would turn off his phone and take his two boys up to the mountains.
"I'm not going to sit here and stop my day trying to decipher what's real," he said.
Especially now, when reality is particularly muddled.
Kemp underwent ankle surgery four months ago, and since then has only run on an anti-gravity machine. He will undergo a routine MRI exam Friday that will determine how one of the major weight-bearing bones in the area is healing. If it looks good, he could be cleared for the next running phase of his rehabilitation.
"I'm assuming once we get the green light to go forward, it's still going to be a progression to get him ready," Mattingly said.
In other words, no matter what the exam shows, Kemp won't be playing on opening day on March 22.
General Manager Ned Colletti has responded sarcastically to questions concerning the Dodgers' crowded outfield, in part because of Kemp's uncertain status and also because of what happened to the team's pitching last year.
The Dodgers went into camp with eight starting pitchers on guaranteed contracts. Yet, by the second month of the season Colletti was forced to call up pitchers from the minor leagues because the team didn't have five healthy starters.
The outfield was nearly as fragile. Only twice were Ethier, Kemp, Puig and Crawford all available to play in the same game.
With their current personnel, the Dodgers figure to start Ethier in center field, Puig in right and Crawford in left. But Mattingly said he would move Ethier and Puig around during the exhibition season. In the Dodgers' most recent intrasquad game, Ethier was in right and Puig in center.
Puig has the athleticism to play center field, but he lacks Ethier's polish. Mattingly wants Puig to improve his on-field communication this spring.
"We want to create some flexibility," Mattingly said.