James Outman is having a breakout spring. Has he done enough to make Dodgers roster?
“Have a day, Outty!” Barbary exclaimed, fresh off watching the highly touted 25-year-old crush three home runs in a live batting practice session.
“I got one more, right?” Outman asked, jokingly.
Barbary laughed and shook his head.
“No,” he said, glancing over the distant outfield fence Outman had repeatedly cleared with ease. “There’s no more balls left.”
Chalk it up as the latest stellar moment of Outman’s standout spring — yet another resounding statement in the young slugger’s bid to make the Dodgers’ opening day team.
The Dodgers have been encouraged by the growth Dustin May has shown on and off the mound this spring. The pitcher had Tommy John surgery in 2021.
Coming into the season, Outman was seen as the top outfielder in the club’s system, but a player who could still benefit from more minor league seasoning.
He was, after all, just a few seasons removed from a massive overhaul of his mechanics. He’d logged only 212 career at-bats in triple A, not reaching the minors’ highest level until midway through last season.
And though he’d impressed in a brief debut in the majors last July — hitting a home run in his first at-bat and going six for 13 in four games overall — he’d also struck out seven times, a sign that holes remained in his revamped swing.
Still, that initial taste gave Outman a renewed craving for the big leagues.
“When he came back down … I asked him, ‘How was it?’ ” Barbary, who manages the organization’s Oklahoma City affiliate, recalled this winter. “And he said, ‘All I want to do is get back, and I’m going to do whatever it takes.’ And he played great the rest of the year.”
Outman closed the campaign on a tear, posting a .293 batting average, 1.018 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 15 home runs in triple A, while hitting for two cycles within the span of a week. He finished with 31 homers and 106 RBIs in 125 games.
That strong finish has carried over to the spring.
In 23 Cactus League at-bats, Outman has nine hits — four of them for extra bases, two of them as no-doubt homers. He’s driven in eight runs. And he’s struck out only six times, adding three walks for an on-base-percentage of nearly .500.
“Training the hitting aspect, rather than just the swinging aspect, is a big thing.”
— Dodgers outfielder James Outman
In live batting practice Monday, his streak continued. Evan Phillips, Caleb Ferguson and Daniel Hudson all turned and watched Outman take one of their pitches deep.
“My second time facing hitters in eight months,” joked Hudson, who recently returned from a torn ACL, “and they got me facing Babe Ruth over here.”
And there’s really a chance Outman could still be left off the opening day team?
Apparently, yes, based on the way manager Dave Roberts has tip-toed around the question in recent weeks.
“Is he big league ready? I would say he is,” Roberts said. “How we shake out, that’s a different question. But yeah, he’s doing everything he can do.”
And as the clock ticks toward the end of camp, there are several factors at play.
Scouts have been split on how well Outman’s game might translate to an extended big league stay.
Though he has the raw power and natural athleticism to be a potentially productive MLB slugger, some evaluators have wondered if his swing still has a few too many moving pieces to hold up against higher-caliber pitchers capable of changing speeds and attacking various parts of the plate.
The Dodgers could consider going another direction with the roster spot that’s been left open by Gavin Lux’s season-ending injury. Other veteran options in the infield and outfield remain in contention, such as Steven Duggar, Yonny Hernández and Luke Williams.
At the crux of the decision, though, is what the Dodgers believe is best for Outman’s long-term future:
Follow along for the latest news and analysis from Dodgers spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix ahead of the 2023 MLB season.
Guaranteed everyday at-bats in the minor leagues, at least for the opening leg of the season? Or more of a part-time role with the big league squad, which already has two left-handed-hitting outfielders penciled into its season-opening roster.
“High-class problems,” Roberts said of the situation. “This is good, the competition. Guys are performing, guys are competing. And we have a lot of great options.”
Outman declined to wade into the roster speculation Monday, saying he is “trying not to think about it” as spring training enters its final couple of weeks.
His recent focus has been on situational hitting and trying to refine his approach in high-leverage trips to the plate.
“Is he big league ready? I would say he is. How we shake out, that’s a different question. But yeah, he’s doing everything he can do.”
— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts on outfielder James Outman
Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds provided the most recent test. In the third inning, Outman popped out with the bases loaded. In his next at-bat, he bounced back with an RBI double.
“Training the hitting aspect, rather than just the swinging aspect, is a big thing,” he said.
The immediate response caught Roberts’ eye.
“James is unique,” the manager said. “I put his mentality in the [Dodgers catcher] Will Smith bucket, as far as [being] unflappable.”
It doesn’t mean, however, Outman isn’t enjoying his breakout spring performance.
With some top U.S. pitchers not taking part in the World Baseball Classic, the tournament could struggle to grow among U.S. baseball fans.
Among the many ways the rookie has ingratiated himself to his new teammates, the most visible might be the pet rock he keeps perched in his locker, a gray fist-sized stone with a toothy smile markered on as a face.
Outman originally received it early in his triple-A stint last year, when Oklahoma City pitcher Marshall Kasowski passed it along as a good luck charm from the pitching staff.
“Hey, we used to have this for the pitchers,” Kasowski told Outman. “But we started giving up too many hits.”
Ironically, Outman noted, the gift didn’t initially work.
“I wasn’t swinging it very well,” he said.
Before long, though, Outman found a groove he has yet to lose.
So, the rock has stayed around as a minor superstition — going with him to spring training, road games and, maybe someday soon, a stall in the home clubhouse of Dodger Stadium.
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.
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