Dodgers roster outlook: Why most spring competitions already seem settled
For all the focus on their offseason roster turnover, and for all the talk of new arrivals and open competitions coming into the spring, the Dodgers’ opening day team seems surprisingly settled with Cactus League games having just started.
Their starting rotation is crystal clear. Their infield looks locked into place, as well.
Playing time in the outfield is up for grabs, but probably only between five players who have separated themselves from the pack.
Even the bullpen lacks much preseason intrigue, with the core of the group set and the closer role unlikely to be filled — or so the Dodgers have said, at least — by the end of camp.
It didn’t take long for the Dodgers to see how the pitch clock and new MLB rules for the 2023 season will affect games, and they like the changes.
Though manager Dave Roberts maintained “there’s still things to be determined,” he quickly added: “I think our guys understand the landscape of our roster and how it potentially could shake out.”
Translation: The Dodgers have a good idea of the pieces they’ll have entering the season; right now, they’re more focused on figuring out how they’ll fit.
The outfield seemed like the most open area of competition coming into spring, with only Mookie Betts’ spot in right field fully cemented.
Roberts has indicated that Chris Taylor, David Peralta and Trayce Thompson are likely to split most of the playing time at the other two positions, capable of forming right-handed- and left-handed-hitting platoons unless one of them emerges as an everyday weapon.
The fifth spot is becoming clear, as well, with Jason Heyward pulling clear of fellow minor league signings Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer, as well as prospect James Outman, through the opening couple of weeks.
Dodgers brass has been pleased with Heyward’s offseason swing change, in which he’s lowered his hands, flattened his bat path and simplified his mechanics.
Heyward hasn’t yet appeared in a Cactus League game, but the 33-year-old former All-Star has looked sharp in live batting practices. He hit a home run against Tony Gonsolin last week. Then, Sunday morning, he drove a sharp single the other way, prompting a nod of encouragement from Roberts watching nearby.
“If you have the last year and a half the way I had,” Heyward deadpanned about his career lows in 2021 and 2022 with the Chicago Cubs, “you’d expect to make changes in the offseason.”
The Dodgers’ infield plans seem even more clear.
Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy will be the primary first and third basemen. Gavin Lux and Miguel Vargas will form a new middle infield duo at shortstop and second base. J.D. Martinez, meanwhile, will get most of the starts at designated hitter.
That leaves Miguel Rojas as the team’s utility infielder — a role the 34-year-old veteran is embracing after being an everyday shortstop for the Miami Marlins the last several years.
After a dream resurgence last season, Trayce Thompson has even bigger goals in mind for 2023 as he also prepares to play for Britain in the WBC.
“I just want to be part of the puzzle,” Rojas said.
He might not be an insignificant piece either, with Roberts saying Sunday his goal is to keep Rojas “relevant” with regular playing time at any of the four infield positions, and maybe even left field when needed.
“He’s already got an openness just to be on the baseball field and help in any way,” Roberts said. “So now it’s up to me to figure out how I can give guys a day off to keep Miguel involved. Because I do think he’s very additive.”
With a defined rotation of Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Noah Syndergaard, the only major outstanding starting pitching question is who starts opening day.
“We’ll give one to you soon,” Roberts said jokingly last week. “I think you guys got a pretty good idea.”
And in the bullpen, the Dodgers have again said they don’t feel the need to pick a closer this spring — the same plan they had last year before trading for Craig Kimbrel prior to opening day.
“To think that spring training is a competition for that role, I just don’t buy that,” Roberts said at the start of camp. “Do I think that at some point in time, we will have a closer? I could see that … But I could also see us not having a dedicated closer.”
Of course, with so much time left before the start of the season March 30, things could always change.
Angels outfielder Brett Phillips delivered the game-winning hit for the Rays in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series against the Dodgers. He then delivered a message to remember.
Players get hurt, or fall out of form. And though spring games might not provide the most persuasive evidence, managers and front office executives are always in the process of evaluating.
For now, though, most jockeying is occurring further down the organization’s depth chart.
Young pitchers such as Ryan Pepiot, Gavin Stone, Michael Grove and Bobby Miller are trying to position themselves for potential big league call-ups at some point this season.
Zimmer, Duggar and Outman could factor into the outfield if injuries or poor performance arise.
And a final bullpen spot could be up for grabs among Caleb Ferguson, Victor González, Phil Bickford and others.
In that way, it’s like a normal spring camp for the Dodgers — who, despite all of their offseason changes, are already envisioning the way their roster will take shape.
“We got a lot of good players and things always do change, so we’ve got to be obviously open to that,” Roberts said. But, he added, “We have a good idea of how it’s going to shake out.”
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