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Will Dodgers pick a closer, center fielder? Five storylines to watch

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts is introduced before Game 1 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts (50) is introduced before Game 1 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 11.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Exactly four months removed from their calamitous elimination in last year’s postseason, the Dodgers will begin a new trek that they hope will end differently come this October.

Despite significant roster turnover, questions at several key positions and the likely influx of a younger core over the course of 2023, the Dodgers still enter this new season with World Series expectations.

Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project the team to finish atop the National League West standings (the latter, albeit, in a tie with the San Diego Padres). Most oddsmakers give them the shortest odds of winning the NL pennant. And anything short of a championship is likely to feel like a failure for a franchise with just one World Series title from its 10-year-playoff streak.

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“When you wear the Dodger uniform,” manager Dave Roberts said, “that’s the bar.”

With the team opening camp Wednesday in Arizona, here are five things to watch this spring.

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Center-field competition

Dodgers' James Outman against the San Francisco Giants during a game in San Francisco.
The Dodgers’ James Outman against the Giants during a game in San Francisco on Aug. 1.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The Dodgers haven’t often had wide-open spring-training competitions for starting spots in recent years.

This camp will be different.

After parting ways with Cody Bellinger in the offseason, the team has an opening in center field and any number of candidates in contention to fill it.

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There are such returning options as Chris Taylor and Trayce Thompson. Taylor was inconsistent in 2022 while dealing with a string of injuries. Thompson reestablished himself in the majors but also wasn’t quite an everyday player. And while they both have experience in center field, they could be needed in left field as well if the Dodgers want a platoon partner for the recently signed David Peralta.

James Outman is another intriguing name after a flashy major league debut and impressive production in triple A last year. The 25-year-old is expected to contribute in the majors this year but could use a big spring in order to break camp with the team right away.

The Dodgers also signed several veteran outfielders to minor league deals this winter, including Jason Heyward, Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer. Heyward is the biggest name, a former All-Star who helped the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2016. Zimmer has also received buzz this winter while working on swing changes with the club’s hitting staff.

Miguel Vargas has spent most of his professional career at third base, but he may be asked to play second for the Dodgers this season.

Feb. 14, 2023

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No closer needed?

Dodgers reliever Evan Phillips pitches during Game 1 of the 2022 NLDS against the San Diego Padres.
Dodgers reliever Evan Phillips pitches during Game 1 of the NLDS against San Diego at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 11.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, the Dodgers spent most of spring claiming they didn’t need a designated closer in their bullpen ... only to trade for likely future Hall of Fame closer Craig Kimbrel just before opening day.

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That experiment didn’t work — Kimbrel struggled all season and was left off the postseason roster — but the question about the need for a consistent ninth-inning option remains.

So far, the Dodgers have again maintained that a designated closer is not a necessity. They like the depth of their bullpen and see benefits to letting matchups dictate their relief decisions each game.

But if the team does decide to pivot leading up to the regular season, it has several in-house contenders for a potential closer role.

Evan Phillips would be the most logical choice after his breakout 2022 season. But the team also valued his ability to pitch in any situation last year, often facing the heart of the opposing lineup late in games (the team’s infamous National League Division Series Game 4 loss to the Padres aside).

Daniel Hudson could be another option, as long as he’s fully recovered from the anterior cruciate ligament tear that ended his 2022 season in late June.

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Brusdar Graterol, Alex Vesia and Yency Almonte are also alternatives who figure to feature prominently in the club’s bullpen.

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Middle-infield duo

Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux fields a grounder and throws to first base for an out.
Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux fields a grounder and throws to first base for an out Aug. 14 at Kansas City.
(Reed Hoffmann / Associated Press)

The Dodgers believe they can get plenty of offensive production from their likely new double-play pairing of shortstop Gavin Lux and second baseman Miguel Vargas.

How those two perform defensively, however, is harder to predict.

Shortstop is Lux’s natural position, and he handled the role for a stretch in 2021 while Corey Seager was injured. The fifth-year big leaguer graded out decently at second base last year.

Despite that, though, Lux also has a track record of occasionally shaky defensive stretches and will be moving to shortstop in the first year of Major League Baseball’s new rules banning shifts — putting a heightened importance on his already premium position.

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Vargas is even less proven in the field. The rookie made only 28 appearances at second base in the minor leagues, where he was mostly a third baseman whose defense was seen as his biggest weakness by talent evaluators. And though he has natural athleticism and range, the shift ban could make it harder to compensate for his potential growing pains with the glove.

If either struggle, the Dodgers’ alternatives up the middle are limited.

Miguel Rojas is a dependable infielder capable of playing either role but has struggled at the plate in recent seasons and is coming off two offseason surgeries to his right hand and wrist. Taylor also has defensive versatility but will likely be needed in the outfield.

The only other member of the 40-man roster with MLB experience at either middle infield spot is Yonny Hernández, a 24-year-old with his fourth organization in the last calendar year. Michael Busch is the club’s next-best infield prospect but has defensive question marks of his own after switching from first to second base a few years back.

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New clubhouse voices

Dodgers' Mookie Betts, right, and Freddie Freeman celebrate the team's extra-inning win at Miami.
The Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, right, and Freddie Freeman celebrate the team’s extra-inning win Aug. 26 at Miami.
(Marta Lavandier / Associated Press)

For the first time in 10 years, the Dodgers will enter a season without Justin Turner in their clubhouse.

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Though they replaced his on-field role at designated hitter with the signing of J.D. Martinez, it remains to be seen who will step into the off-the-field leadership void.

Roberts expects Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman to become more vocal behind the scenes, though neither is an outspoken, rah-rah type by nature. Same goes for Clayton Kershaw, who has quietly become a prominent mentor for some of the club’s younger pitchers in recent years.

Taylor, Max Muncy, Austin Barnes and Will Smith could take on more responsibility as the four longest-tenured position players on the team.

After bordering on super-team status the past couple seasons, the Dodgers have less obvious answers to their biggest questions heading into spring training.

Feb. 13, 2023

Martinez and Rojas should also help provide a veteran presence but will need some time to settle into their surroundings after arriving this offseason.

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Young pitching trio

Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller throws to the plate during the first inning of a spring training game.
Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller delivers during a spring-training game April 5, 2022, at Dodger Stadium.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

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They probably won’t make the opening day roster (barring an injury in the rotation), but the young pitching trio of Gavin Stone, Ryan Pepiot and Bobby Miller will have the chance to add to their resumes during camp in anticipation of potential call-ups later this year.

For now, they appear to be at the top of the pecking order for organizational starting pitching depth. And this spring, the club will get its latest chance to see exactly how MLB-ready they are.

Pepiot debuted in the majors last year, posting a 3.47 ERA in nine appearances. However, he also struggled with his command, an issue he tried to iron out during stints back in triple A.

Stone emerged as a legitimate big league prospect last year, winning the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year award while advancing from high A to triple A.

Miller remains perhaps the most gifted pitcher in the pipeline, a former first-round pick who finished last season in triple A.

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With Kershaw and Julio Urías slated to play in the World Baseball Classic next month, there should be plenty of opportunities for the three young pitchers in Cactus League play as well, important opportunities for their careers and the Dodgers’ depth on the mound in 2023.

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