Of all the things the Dodgers have come to appreciate about Miguel Rojas this spring, two of the biggest have to do with his feet.
There is Rojas’ nimble footwork in the infield, a natural agility that’s made the 34-year-old one of the best defensive shortstops in the major leagues.
Then there’s his obsession with custom sneakers and cleats, a vibrant collection of colorful footwear that epitomizes the confident swagger with which he plays.
“His shoe game,” manager Dave Roberts said jokingly this week, “is pretty tight.”
In the wake of Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury, the Dodgers will need Rojas’ entire game to stand out the same way in 2023.
The Dodgers announced shortstop Gavin Lux would miss the entire year because of a torn ACL in his right knee. Here are four ways the team can overcome Lux’s absence.
Originally acquired in a January trade from the Miami Marlins to serve as a part-time utility player on the Dodgers’ bench this season, Rojas was instead thrust into an unlikely starting role this week.
With Lux out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and no other natural shortstops on the Dodgers’ major league roster, Rojas is in line to play 75-80% of the team’s games, according to Roberts, barring another impact acquisition by the front office before the regular season.
That proposition might scare some fans, given Rojas’ shortcomings at the plate — he has produced at an above-league-average clip just twice in nine seasons — and ever-advancing age.
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman hasn’t closed the door on the Dodgers making an impact addition that could alter roster roles again before the end of the spring, though he acknowledged on Friday morning that such a move would probably be more likely around the midseason trade deadline.
So, for now Rojas is preparing as though he’ll be a starter in the Dodgers opening day lineup.
And during multiple scrums with reporters this week, he was vocal about wanting to seize the opportunity, and embrace an unforeseen challenge.
“I’m not going to take [it] for granted,” he said. “I know what I have to do to be part of a winning team.”
This won’t be an unknown responsibility to the 10-year veteran.
“It’s how I express my personality. If I feel good and I look good, I’m gonna be out there with a lot of confidence.”
— Dodgers shortstop Miguel Rojas on his custom cleats
After debuting with the Dodgers in 2014, then being traded to the Marlins along with Dee Gordon and Dan Haren the following offseason, Rojas became Miami’s primary shortstop over the last five years.
During that time, Rojas posted the third-best fielding percentage (.983) among qualified major leaguers at the position. He also ranked fifth in that group in defensive runs saved with 23, including a National League-best 15 last season alone.
“Every time we played the Marlins, at home and there, I always watched what he did,” Dodgers third base coach and infield guru Dino Ebel said. “Even in between innings, how he presents himself, he’s a true pro.”
Still, the unexpected developments of this past week have forced Rojas to adjust his spring routine.
On Thursday, the Venezuelan native announced he is set to withdraw from the World Baseball Classic, a decision he made following a meeting in Roberts’ office with the manager, Friedman and general manager Brandon Gomes.
Follow along for the latest news and analysis from Dodgers spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix ahead of the 2023 MLB season.
“I need to be ready for the season,” said Rojas, who could still play in the WBC but only in the unlikely event other changes to Venezuela’s roster enabled him to play a more prominent role on its team.
“I feel really, really bad that I’m not going to be representing Venezuela because it’s something that I really wanted to do,” he added. “But I don’t know if I’m going to get two at-bats or 20 at-bats or 15 at-bats [in the WBC]. And at this point, the most important thing for me is continuing to create a bond [with the Dodgers] and make the organization feel comfortable.”
To that end, the Dodgers are expediting their work with Rojas’ swing.
While the shortstop is a .260 career hitter who annually posts some of the lowest strikeout rates in MLB, he also has just one season of at least 10 home runs and is coming off perhaps his worst offensive campaign in 2022, when he posted a well-below-average .605 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while hampered by right hand and wrist injuries.
The Dodgers are hoping Rojas can maintain his bat-to-ball skills while also adding more pop at the plate. They have focused on improving his lower-half mechanics. They’ve encouraged him to be more aggressive when he gets in a hitter’s count.
“It’s not gonna be his job to carry us offensively,” Roberts said. “But we expect that professional at-bat. And I think with the information we have and the game prep, I still believe there’s a lot more than there has been.”
Rojas will have to also help shepherd a new-look Dodgers infield.
The importance of the shortstop role was already amplified for teams this year, thanks to new MLB rules that ban defensive shifts. And it could be particularly crucial for the Dodgers early on this season, as they brace for growing pains from rookie Miguel Vargas at second base.
“Immensely,” Roberts said when asked how much Rojas could aid his new double-play partner. “Having Rojas right to his side is gonna help Vargas’ intensity, sense of urgency and how to go about things. It’s gonna ramp it up a lot quicker.”
Rojas has spearheaded a playoff push before as an everyday player.
“It’s not gonna be his job to carry us offensively. But we expect that professional at-bat.”
— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts on Miguel Rojas
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he posted career highs in batting average (.304), slugging percentage (.496) and OPS (.888) to help the Marlins squeak into an expanded postseason field and sweep the Chicago Cubs in a wild-card round upset.
“He was our captain,” current Dodgers reliever and then-Marlins rookie Alex Vesia said. “At least that’s how I viewed him.”
That season was also the year Rojas cemented another of his defining characteristics, beginning a custom cleat collection that now rivals any other player’s in the big leagues.
That passion, born from Rojas’ love of the style and culture found in the NBA, began in earnest with a well-timed picture of a well-turned double-play.
In the snapshot, which was taken during the 2020 season’s second game, Rojas is seen leaping over Bryce Harper at second base with his legs kicked out to either side — positioning his custom-painted, Marlins-colored, Jordan 1 baseball cleats to catch the sun in just the right light.
“They got a lot of attention from that play,” Rojas said, “and the pictures.”
Rojas’ footwear obsession has only grown since then. He has a line of specially painted shoes through a collaboration with Stadium Custom Kicks, nicknamed Miggy’s Locker. He has several variations of Jordan and Nike branded cleats — essentially store-bought basketball shoes with spikes attached to the bottom — that have become the awe of Dodgers camp this spring.
“It’s how I express my personality,” Rojas said. “If I feel good and I look good, I’m gonna be out there with a lot of confidence. It’s not gonna dictate what I’m gonna be as a player. But it definitely makes me feel better.”
An Ipsos poll of 1,035 American adults in January found that baseball was the second-most liked sport behind the NFL.
“He’s got the swag, he’s got the looks,” the reliever said. “But he also has the talent and everything else. He’s the whole package.”
That’s certainly what the Dodgers need him to be now.
A defensive stalwart at shortstop. A veteran leader for young new players on the team. A stopgap capable of sustaining stability in the aftermath of this season’s first major injury.
“The reason we traded for a guy like Miguel was to guard against potential volatility,” Roberts said. “To have a guy to play a premium position, and we trust as a defender first and foremost, that’s huge.”
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