How will Dodgers align defense beyond Betts, Freeman and Smith?

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It was only 15 months ago that two soon-to-be $300 million shortstops roamed the Dodgers’ middle infield. Now, one is in Texas and the other is in Philadelphia. 

After the 2021 season, Corey Seager parlayed his longtime success as a Dodger into a 10-year, $325-million pact with the Rangers. Trea Turner and his 6.3 WAR from 2022 departed Los Angeles this offseason for an 11-year, $300 million deal that helped solidify the infield of the National League champion Phillies. 

This winter in particular has been one of significant change, unlike most the Dodgers and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman have navigated before. That’s the price of winning the division nine of the past 10 years, often ranking atop the payroll leaderboard along the way. 

Now, they’ve dropped to seventh in projected luxury-tax payroll for the 2023 season as they attempt to give their next crop of young prospects a runway to produce. The subtractions to the roster go far beyond one position. 

Gone is the franchise’s all-time postseason leader in games played, hits, doubles, home runs and RBIs. Justin Turner, a Dodger for the past nine seasons, is now in Boston. 

Gone, too, is Cody Bellinger, who — despite his well-documented offensive struggles the last few seasons — trailed only Trent Grisham and Daulton Varsho among qualified NL center fielders with seven outs above average last year. His consistently reliable defense helped make him a 1.7 WAR player last season. 

That’s all before getting to All-Star Tyler Anderson, who is now an Angel, and another resurgent starter in Andrew Heaney, who is now a Ranger. 

Dodgers a Winter Meetings loser, but in on Shohei Ohtani?

Dodgers a Winter Meetings loser, but in on Shohei Ohtani?

Ben Verlander thinks the Dodgers are working to get their payroll under the luxury tax to make a big move for Ohtani next season. 

The Dodgers have countered their losses by rounding out the rotation with Noah Syndergaard, adding J.D. Martinez to effectively replace Justin Turner as the designated hitter and acquiring Miguel Rojas to expand their infield options. 

Only a few positions seem like locks: Will Smith will be behind the dish, Freddie Freeman will man first base and Mookie Betts will roam right field — assuming he’s not needed in center. Barring any more additions, that appears to be the extent of the set positions entering spring training. 

So, how might the Dodgers fill out the rest of their defense? 

Let’s start with the infield. It seems most likely that second base and third base will be occupied primarily by some combination of Max Muncy and prospect Miguel Vargas, whose bat is projected to play well at the major-league level. Vargas debuted last season and played in 18 games. Though he struggled in September, he also doubled in his first at-bat, hit his first home run and flashed enough tools to give the Dodgers the confidence to put him on their postseason roster. 

The Dodgers experimented with Vargas in left field, but the 23-year-old has spent the vast majority of his minor-league career as a third baseman, a spot Muncy settled into last season. Both Vargas and Muncy also have experience at second base, where Gavin Lux played last year. 

Lux appears to be the likeliest candidate to start this season at shortstop, where he came up through the minor leagues and where he logged more than 400 innings when Seager was hurt two seasons ago. Lux has graded out better throughout his four-year major league career at second base (16 defensive runs saved in 1,346.2 innings) than shortstop (one DRS in 502.1 innings), but the Dodgers have more options at the former than the latter. 

If the Dodgers ultimately find Lux is a better fit at second base, Rojas gives the Dodgers insurance at shortstop. Rojas served as the Marlins’ primary shortstop for the past six years but has also logged more than 250 innings apiece at the other three infield spots. 

Chris Taylor could also factor into the infield mix — he has started more games at shortstop in his nine-year career than any other spot — but he has played mostly in the outfield each of the past four years. Taylor was the Dodgers’ primary left fielder last year until Joey Gallo’s arrival. He might be needed there again. 

Perhaps more than any other position, center field is up for grabs. 

After Bellinger’s departure, the most obvious options are Trayce Thompson, prospect James Outman or Taylor. Friedman said at the Winter Meetings he imagines Outman “will get some real opportunity” in 2023, though he didn’t commit to that being on Opening Day. Outman’s standout .978 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2022 came with a 27.2% strikeout rate (for perspective, 22.4% was the major-league average). He dazzled in his four major-league appearances last year, going 6-for-13 with a homer and two doubles, but struck out seven times. 

The Dodgers also signed five-time Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward, Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer to minor-league deals. All three logged innings in center field as recently as last season, but the Dodgers would need to make a 40-man roster move to add any of them. They wouldn’t need to make a 40-man move to call up infielder Michael Busch or outfielder Andy Pages, two more highly regarded prospects who could work their way into the position-player mix at some point this year. 

“The sustained success part comes — and we’ve seen it over the last seven, eight years — in interjecting young, talented players into the mix,” Friedman said at the Winter Meetings. “We have integrated a lot of those over the years, and we are going to continue to do that, and I think it’s really important to do to be able to sustain success. It’s a balance, and we don’t want to do too many of them at the same time because it adds a lot of risk to your roster, but it is important to get them the experiences we’ve done over the years with a lot of these guys.”

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner. 

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