The Dodgers added two position players over the weekend, and will add a third when the signing of Albert Pujols becomes official on Monday. But the question shouldn’t be why are they adding these marginal upgrades at best, but rather who else are they going to add?
The need is definitely there.
It’s been obvious since the offseason, even before Justin Turner re-signed with Los Angeles, that the Dodgers were going to need more position players than just their returning third baseman. They did add Sheldon Neuse in addition to Turner just before spring training, but that was it.
On one hand, with Kiké Hernández and Joc Pederson signing elsewhere, the Dodgers still brought back 12 of the 14 position players who got any sort of playing time in 2020. But after that, the depth was razor thin. Various injuries have exposed that over the first seven weeks of the season.
Last year, Turner’s hamstring was the only real injury suffered by a Dodgers position player. Pederson also missed some time during and after the birth of his son, but for the most part the team was remarkably healthy, a good trait to have when vying for a championship.
This season, the hits keep coming. Cody Bellinger hasn’t played since the fifth game of the season. Tuesday marks four weeks since Zach McKinstry’s last game. AJ Pollock will miss a few weeks with a hamstring strain, after being limited the last week with a milder version of the same injury. Corey Seager is out a minimum of four weeks with a broken hand. It’s a lot.
Edwin Ríos struggled mightily and is out for the season after shoulder surgery. His last hit was April 13, which brings us to the cost of all those injuries. The fill-ins simply haven’t been good enough.
Matt Beaty has earned his way into more playing time by hitting extremely well, but outside of him and McKinstry, no other reserve has even a 90 wRC+. Last week the Dodgers had all three of Luke Raley, DJ Peters, and Neuse active. On the season, that trio is hitting .181/.245/.309 with a 35-percent strikeout rate.
There’s still reason to be skeptical, since the two position players joining the roster on Monday aren’t doing much better. Yoshi Tsutsugo is hitting .167/.244/.218 with a 31-percent K rate, and Pujols is hitting .198/.250/.372.
The Dodgers’ hope is that Pujols will occasionally punish lefties, against whom he has three home runs in 28 plate appearances this year, a .593 slugging percentage and .829 expected slugging percentage based on batted ball data.
That’s a small sample to be sure, but the Dodgers are in need of bodies at this point. Neuse and Peters, the Dodgers’ two active right-handers on the bench, are a combined 3-for-35 (.086) with a home run and 17 strikeouts against southpaws this season. The left-handed Raley is 0-for-11 against lefties, Ríos was 0-for-12, and even Beaty is 0-for-2 against them. Literally any semblance of production against lefties will suffice.
As for Tsutsugo, a left-handed hitter, he’s in search of the form that averaged 35 home runs in Japan from 2016-19, rather than the major leaguer who has hit .187/.292/.336 in 272 plate appearances.
“There’s things our hitting guys have already dug into. If you do a side-by-side of him in Japan and him with the Rays, he’s a shell of himself,” manager Dave Roberts told reporters on Sunday. “There’s a lot of upside. There’s life to the bat. He’s a professional hitter.”
Roberts said he expects Tsutsugo to play mostly first and third base, plus some left field, and will be a bat off the bench.
It’s almost like the 2015-16 days of roster churn, with the team looking for any semblance of an incremental upgrade wherever possible. With several regulars out, the Dodgers have little choice at this point but to keep trying, and figuring out what sticks.