Though the offseason baseball schedule after December first remains largely uncertain, a looming deadline for roster additions is approaching this Friday, November 19, ahead of the end of the collective bargaining agreement. While no team is immune to having to make tough decisions on protecting prospects from the Rule 5 draft, the Dodgers will almost certainly be forced to expose some prime talent that it cannot fit on the 40-man roster.
Especially tricky for Los Angeles this year are the number of young infielders that won’t be ready to see big league time in 2022 but are talented enough to continue to protect and develop. The Dodgers won’t be able to keep everyone, and some of these names could end up as trade fodder in the days leading up to Friday.
Perhaps the easiest decision Los Angeles has on this front is adding CF James Outman to the roster. Outman was drafted in 2018 as a toolsy but under-skilled collegiate outfielder, and through working with the Dodgers development team he has become an impact bat and reputably reliable defender. Outman’s stroke is short but steep, which allows him to still catch up to tough fastballs but will always leave him vulnerable to high whiff rates given the angle of contact. Outman has a physical build but he’s a fluid mover that looks both athletic at the plate and in the field.
As a left-handed hitter, Outman may ultimately settle in as a platoon outfielder, though his splits weren’t noticeably different this season. He held his production gains in a mid-season jump from High-A Great Lakes to Double-A Tulsa, and he’s continued to impress in the Arizona Fall League. I still think the swing and miss will keep Outman from being an everyday guy, and his track record of hitting with this much power is just one season, but he’s arguably the organization’s best outfielder in the upper minors and his success this fall suggests he’s likely ready to open 2022 in Triple-A.
The next-most likely 40 man addition is fellow Glendale Desert Dog, SS Jacob Amaya. 2021 was not a good year statistically for Amaya, as he failed to impact the ball offensively for Tulsa. Amaya’s typically stellar plate discipline was largely fine, but his swing and miss crept up as more pitchers challenged him in the zone at the Double-A level. His offense has rebounded in the very friendly desert environment this fall, which has likely secured his roster spot by the 19th.
Amaya will not be added for his bat primarily, as his calling card is sound play at shortstop. The Texas League experimented in limiting the shift, which helped re-emphasize the importance of defense at shortstop, and Amaya still impressed with steady if unspectacular form. Amaya has moved around the diamond more this fall, and any immediate future at the big league level would likely come in a utility role, but a player in that mold that can also handle short is a plus.
Like Outman, Amaya’s strong fall could allow him to move up to Triple-A to start next year. He’s bought in completely to the Dodger way at the plate, with some of the better plate discipline in the minor leagues. With just any added pop, he could carve out a future Jed Lowrie-type career, but for now, the Dodgers will likely want to protect him for his future defensive utility.
After Amaya, it starts to get tricky in terms of rostering players that could see action at the big league level in 2022, and as we saw with the Dodger roster in 2021, they cannot spend too many 40-man spots on future value while also shuttling first-division-quality role players back and forth between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. This could mean that one or possibly two young infielders that have yet to reach Double-A but have shown offensive potential could be exposed to the Rule 5 draft. The infielder with better than even odds to get elevated to the 40-man is SS/CF Eddys Leonard.
The pandemic has made it hard to evaluate the young international players from afar, so it’s hard to say just how surprised we should be about Leonard’s offensive output this season. Leonard has shown above average game pop thanks to a very quick bat that is noted both for it’s smoothness through the zone and whirlwind one-handed finish. Leonard essentially replicated his production after jumping from Low-A Rancho Cucamonga to High-A, and he should be one of the better offensive prospects in Tulsa’s lineup in 2022.
Given how polished his bat has proven at a young age, the Dodgers would likely have to protect Leonard or risk losing him to a bottom-third team looking to add future potential. Leonard spent time at shortstop and center, and might ultimately fit best at second or as a utility player, but his calling card will likely be above average offense at whichever up-the-middle position he lands. A 2022 MLB debut still feels aggressive, but he could hit his way into the 2023 conversation.
Perhaps the player most on the borderline is 3B Jorbit Vivas. The compactly built Vivas has followed a similar path to Leonard, hitting his way through Low-A and High-A. Vivas’ bat and bat speed might be a notch better than Leonard, as he’s an easy 55-grade hitter. Vivas has fringe-average game power, and will likely get to it frequently given his high hitting aptitude, but he has a short and stocky frame that’s already filled out, limiting his raw power.
Vivas does not have quite the versatility of Leonard, and if he cannot stick at third base, he would likely end up a four corners bench bat. Like Leonard, he’s not ready to contribute in 2022, but his hitting is already advanced enough that he could tempt teams in the Rule 5 draft. Right now, I don’t think the Dodgers make room for both Vivas and Leonard, so Vivas may be a player to watch in the trade market leading up to the 19th.
The final High-A infielder that the Dodgers must decide on might have the most potential, as SS Leonel Valera has an impressive frame, strong arm, and big power potential. Valera is the largest (6’2 200 lbs.) and the most athletic of the infield trio, and even if he slows as he fills out, has plenty of arm to stick on the left side. Valera’s bat speed does not appear to be on par with Leonard or Vivas, but he shows more leverage in his swing and is capable of 20+ home runs at his peak.
Valera’s offensive game is not without its warts, as he struck out in 36 percent of his plate appearances last year. That number alone will scare off enough teams that the Dodgers likely do not need to protect Valera to keep him in the system. A claiming team would have a hard time giving him enough playing time to justify selecting him without ruining his confidence and stunting his development. He’s a quality prospect, but just far enough from the big leagues to buy the organization another year of development.
The Dodgers will also have a few tough protects on the mound, with a pair of more advanced arms that could be tried as relievers at the big league level. RHP Michael Grove was a bit of a surprising second-round draft pick in 2018, having just undergone Tommy John surgery at West Virginia. His results as a professional have been spotty, but Grove has frequently underperformed his peripheral numbers. His command of a mid-90s fastball is better than his walk rate would suggest, and he easily misses bats with a sharp downer slider. The Dodgers have plenty of fringe arms on the current 40-man that they could make room for Grove, but I instead expect them to pass on adding him and instead wait and see if any team tries to pluck him for a relief role.
Another older collegiate Tommy John survivor, RHP Gus Varland, had a rough return from injury in his first season with Tulsa in 2021. He’s been used as a starter, but his size and effort in his delivery look more like a reliever. His upside is more in middle than late relief (standard mid-90s with a solid slider fare), so I expect the Dodgers to also pass on adding Varland to the roster at this time.
There are also a handful of young arms that are eligible for the Rule 5 draft but don’t warrant protection due to a lack of upper level success or upside beyond middle relief. LHP Robinson Ortiz is the most famous name in this group and could still have a bright future given his newfound velocity and tumbling changeup, but he missed most of last season with a strained forearm. RHP Guillermo Zuniga missed bats with a plus slider and solid fastball with Double-A Tulsa, but he lacks the command that the Dodgers typically prefer to employ in its pitching staff. Rounding out this group are RHPs Juan Morillo, Jose Martinez, and Melvin Jimenez, who have each shown enough arm talent to feature on prospect lists but not enough performance to rise above organizational depth status.
Two hitters that aren’t likely to be protected but could be intriguing Rule 5 selections are 1B Justin Yurchak and UTIL Devin Mann. Yurchak has hit everywhere he’s played but hasn’t brought the pop needed to feature full time at first base. In a league plagued by strikeouts, Yurchak could be tried as a poor man’s Matt Beatty, providing a bottom third team with a high contact bench bat. Mann has been tried almost everywhere by Los Angeles and has generally hit for pop while doing so. It’s easy to see him sticking on a big league roster given his positional versatility and plate discipline.
Lastly, a pair of bats you’ve been reading about for several years on prospect lists are Rule 5 eligible, but are likely now relegated to organizational depth fodder. CF Jeren Kendall never found a swing or plate approach to make consistent contact, and despite his immense athletic tools, may never be rosterable. SS Omar Estevez saw his bat largely disappear at the Triple-A level, striking out over 25 percent of the time and failing to balance that with any pop. He’s just 23, but his upside now looks like a Quad-A utility glove.