As he left a backfield at Camelback Ranch on Monday morning, Dodgers triple-A manager Travis Barbary crossed paths with James Outman.
“Have a day, Outty!” Barbary shouted, watching the 25-year-old hit three home runs during live batting practice.
“I have one more, don’t I?” Outman asked jokingly.
Barbary laughed and shook her head.
“No,” he said, glancing over the far fence that Outman repeatedly cleared with ease. “No more balls left.”
Chalk it up as the final star moment of Outman’s remarkable spring — another resounding statement in the young slugger’s bid to make the Dodgers’ opening day lineup.
Coming into the season, Outman was viewed as the best outfielder in the club’s system, but a player who could still benefit from more minor league seasons.
After all, it was just a few seasons removed from a massive overhaul of its mechanics. He had just 212 career at-bats in triple-A, and didn’t reach the top of the minors until the middle of last season.
And while he impressed in his brief major-league debut last July — hitting a home run in his first at-bat and going six for 13 overall in four games — he also struck out seven times, a sign that he has holes left. in his renewed swing.
However, that early taste gave Outman a renewed yearning for the big leagues.
James Outman had his first major league at-bat last season.
(Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)
“When he came back … I asked him, ‘How was he?’ ” Barbary, who manages the organization’s Oklahoma City affiliate, recalled this winter. “And he said, ‘All I want to do is give back, and I’ll do whatever it takes.’ And he played great all year.”
Outman closed the campaign on a tear, posting a .293 batting average and 1.018 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in Triple-A in a week that included 15 home runs and two home runs.
He has carried that strong finish into the spring.
In 23 Cactus League at-bats, Outman has nine hits – four of them for extra bases, two of them undoubtedly as homers. He has scored eight runs. And he’s only struck out six times, and added three walks with a nearly .500 on-base percentage.
“Coaching the pitching side, rather than the swing side, is a big deal.”
– Dodgers outfielder James Outman
In live batting practice on Monday, he continued his streak. Evan Phillips, Caleb Ferguson and Daniel Hudson turned around and saw Outman take one of their pitches deep.
“This is the second time I’ve faced hitters in eight months,” joked Hudson, who recently returned from a torn ACL, “and they faced Babe Ruth here.”
And is there really a chance Outman could be left out of the opening day squad yet?
Apparently, yes, based on how director Dave Roberts has been tiptoeing around the question in recent weeks.
“Is the big league ready? I’d say it is,” Roberts said. “How we shake it off is another question. But yeah, he’s doing everything he can.”
Dodgers’ James Outman moves to third base during a spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 2 in Phoenix.
(Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
And as the clock ticks toward the end of camp, there are several factors at play.
Scouts are split on whether Outman’s game could lead to an extended stay in the big leagues.
While he has the raw power and natural athleticism to be a potentially productive MLB slugger, some reviewers have questioned whether his swing still has too many moving parts to deal with higher-caliber pitchers capable of changing speeds and attacking multiple pieces. plate
The Dodgers may consider going in a different direction with the roster left open by Gavin Lux’s season-ending injury. Other veteran options in the infield and outfield remain in contention, such as Steven Duggar, Yonny Hernández and Luke Williams.
At the heart of the decision, however, is what the Dodgers think is best for Outman’s long-term future:
Guaranteed everyday at-bat in the minor leagues, at least for the start of the season? Or more of a part-time role with the big-league team, which already has two left-handed hitters on its early-season roster.
“Trouble at the top,” Roberts said of the situation. “This is good, the competition. Boys doing, boys competing. And we have a lot of great options.”
Outman declined to enter into roster speculation Monday, saying he’s “trying not to think about it” as spring training enters its final weeks.
His latest focus has been hitting the situation and trying to improve his approach on high-leverage trips.
“Is the big league ready? I would say it is. How we shake it is another question. But yes, he’s doing everything he can.”
– Dodgers manager Dave Roberts on outfielder James Outman
Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds provided the ultimate test. In the third inning, Outman walked with the bases loaded. In the next at-bat, he bounced back with an RBI double.
“Coaching the grip aspect, rather than the swing aspect, is a big thing,” he said.
The immediate response caught Roberts’ eye.
“James is one of a kind,” said the manager. “I put his mentality in the Will Smith (Dodgers catcher) boat, as far as being unflappable.”
That’s not to say, however, that Outman isn’t enjoying his spring performance.
Among the many ways the rookie can thank his new teammates, the most visible may be the pet rock he keeps sitting in his closet, a fist-sized gray rock with a toothy grin marked as a face.
Outman originally received his triple-A last year when Oklahoma City pitcher Marshall Kasowski passed it around as a good luck charm for the pitching staff.
“Hey, we used to have this for pitchers,” Kasowski told Outman. “But we started giving too many hits.”
Ironically, Outman noted, the gift didn’t work at first.
“I wasn’t swinging very well,” he said.
Before long, however, Outman found a groove that he still hasn’t lost.
So the rock has remained as a minor superstition: it has traveled with him to spring training, road games and, perhaps soon, a spot in the home club at Dodger Stadium.
Times staff member Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.