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2/22/2013 6:14 P.M. ET

Now healthy, Gwynn looking to return to bigs

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The team's starting center fielder pulled a hamstring and it's the backup's job to help keep the team afloat by playing until he returns.

The only problem was the backup was hurt, too.

That was Tony Gwynn's dilemma in 2012. Have surgery, don't play and let the team down. Or try to play hurt, and eventually let the team down anyway.

Gwynn, 30, played with an injury that was never discussed by him or the club. He believes he suffered a sports hernia lifting weights after the 2011 season, but he never had an MRI to diagnose it.

"I didn't want to know," he said Friday. "I wasn't having surgery no matter what I had."

He was hurting last Spring Training, hurting when Matt Kemp went down with that hamstring injury in early May and the relapse in late May. Needing to fill in for Kemp on almost an everyday basis for several months, Gwynn's already injured body finally broke down.

"I was still swinging the bat good enough to be a Major Leaguer, but I'm not Matt Kemp or Carl Crawford," he said. "I need to be 100 percent to be effective, especially my legs."

The son of the Hall of Famer, Gwynn's reputation is that of a defensive specialist with the speed and skill to steal bases and, as he's shown more than one season, enough bat to be a serviceable fourth outfielder.

"We know what Tony can do," said manager Don Mattingly. "We know he can play all three outfield spots great. Offensively, we'll have to see how Tony swings the bat. With Tony, sometimes you have to put guys in position where it's not the best thing for them. Matt gets hurt and all of a sudden he's an everyday, everyday guy. That's a lot different than four days a week."

Gwynn hit .253 during the first six weeks of Kemp's hamstring injury, then went 2-for-22 the next two weeks. By the time he was taken off the Major League roster in early August, Gwynn was hitting .232 with only 13 steals and had been caught six times.

"That's not me," he said. "My middle body wasn't strong enough and it broke down. What really put it in perspective for me were physical therapy tests that I had done throughout my career, I couldn't pass any of them."

After being designated for assignment, then outrighted to Triple-A Albuquerque (because nobody would pick up a contract that still had $1.15 million guaranteed for 2013), Gwynn knows his job this spring is to rehab his career and change the perception that last year was the result of diminished skills, rather than an injury that has healed.

"Obviously, management views me as an insurance policy, with the moves they made," Gwynn said, knowing that the trade for Skip Schumaker adds a center fielder and a right-handed hitter to the roster, with Jerry Hairston a likely fifth outfielder ahead of Gwynn and young Alex Castellanos also on the 40-man roster.

"It is what it is. I just have to play well. Last year I'd get on base and have no confidence in my body to get to second. I'd get thrown out on bunts or ground balls that I know I should beat and you just know something is wrong."

Gwynn said the Dodgers were aware of his ailment, but he's not surprised if the moves they made are an indication he's fallen on the depth chart.

"It's the business of the game," he said. It's a do-for-me, do-for-you world. The moment you can't do your job, it's a cutthroat world. That's the way the game's been as long as it's been played."

Gwynn is in that awkward place where he's not on the big league roster but he feels part of the team. He was given a locker in the middle of the veterans, even though he's technically a non-roster player fighting for a big league job. If the other five outfielders are healthy, Gwynn could wind up back in Albuquerque.

What's different, he said, is that he's now healthy, thanks to the Dodgers training staff ("one of the best I've ever dealt with") and San Diego-area therapist Dr. Kahl Goldfarb, who put Gwynn on a program of cupping therapy.

That's an ancient Chinese form of alternative medicine where vacuum is created by the placement of pump-assisted cups over soft tissue.

"It acts like the opposite of massage," said Gwynn. "I started to see results and by January the pain subsided. It had been so bad I couldn't walk up steps. But I didn't want to get hernia surgery because there's no guarantee it works."

Gwynn said he's now 100 percent. He can run and steal and is determined, "from a personal standpoint, to showcase I can play. Whatever happens, happens. If it's L.A., Albuquerque or another big league team, so be it."

Gwynn laughs when asked if he requested the Dodgers trade him.

"That would have been hard with the numbers I put up, to have the audacity to ask for a trade," he said. "That would have made Ned's [Colletti] job tough, my body breaking down and hitting .234. I didn't get on base or steal bags, didn't do the things they needed. I don't feel I have a right to ask."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.