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Steven Duggar, Bradley Zimmer & the Dodgers’ pursuit of outfield defense

Both CF signed minor league deals with LA in December

NLDS: LA Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants

The Dodgers this offseason so far haven’t waded into the deep end of the free agent pool, outside of perhaps Clayton Kershaw’s return. But even Kershaw signed only a one-year contract, just like the three other free agents who have joined Los Angeles for 2023.

One position they seem to covet, to a point, has become clear: an outfielder who can play good defense in center field.

This makes sense considering they non-tendered Cody Bellinger, who provided plus defense in center, even while the last two seasons were far below average at the plate. Pursuing an elite skill makes sense, but for the Dodgers they figured roughly $18 million — the estimate of what he might have earned through his final season of salary arbitration — was a bridge too far.

Los Angeles this offseason has shown they are fine with subpar offense as long as someone can handle center field, given their actions. They were in on Kevin Kiermaier, the longtime Rays center fielder who signed a one-year, $9-million deal with the Blue Jays. Juan Toribio at went as far as to call Kiermaier the Dodgers’ “top target” for center field.

Current in-house options for center field on the major league roster include Trayce Thompson, Chris Taylor, and James Outman, or maybe Mookie Betts depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out, which would be a positional move that makes more sense than Betts to second base.

While they lost out on Kiermaier, the Dodgers quietly brought in a pair of potential center fielders. Both Bradley Zimmer and Steven Duggar signed minor league deals in December.

One would presume these deals include invitations to big league spring training, though the Dodgers have not announced their non-roster invitees yet outside of Jason Heyward. Reliever Adam Kolarek also has a spring training invite, but we’re talking outfielders here.

Neither Zimmer nor Duggar has hit well in the majors, and both were terrible at the plate in limited duty in 2022. Zimmer had 13 hits in 105 at-bats (.124) with the Blue Jays and Phillies last season, while Duggar was 11-for-72 (.153) with the Giants, Rangers, and Angels.

Dodgers new center fielders, on offense

Player 2023 age PA XBH HR SB BB rate K rate BA/OBP/SLG wRC+
Player 2023 age PA XBH HR SB BB rate K rate BA/OBP/SLG wRC+
Duggar 29 846 63 14 19 7.2% 31.0% .239/.293/.367 77
Zimmer 30 975 58 21 42 7.8% 33.9% .213/.298/.333 73

Both can field quite well, however.

In the last two seasons, Zimmer in center was rated at +10 in Outs Above Average, +12 in Total Zone Rating, and +7 in Defensive Runs Saved, despite only 749⅓ innings at the position. Zimmer in 2021-22 started 71 games in center and 39 more games in right. Last year, he started only 26 games in center but played 71 more games at the position as a reserve. He was a late-inning defensive replacement a lot.

Duggar isn’t as good defensively as Zimmer, but still rates as above average. Over the last two years, Duggar is +10 in Total Zone Rating, +4 in Defensive Runs Saved, and +2 in Outs Above Average in center in a similar number of innings (719⅓).

Duggar’s edge might come as a total package, considering his was an above-average offensive player in 2021 with the Giants, hitting .257/.330/.437 with a 106 wRC+ and 27 extra-base hits in 297 plate appearances.

Defense was Heyward’s forte for years, and he mixed in time in center field in addition to his usual position in right field throughout his career. Though he started 23 games in center for the Cubs in 2022, he was rated below average by Defensive Runs Saved (-2) and Total Zone Rating (-1), though was positive with +1 Outs Above Average. But Heyward is coming off two injury-plagued years and missed the final three months last year with a knee injury, so expecting him to play center field with any regularity seems like a stretch.

These are all flawed players, but at least bring some skills to the table. Whether they contribute in the majors in 2023 is still up in the air, but it’s clear the Dodgers are looking for outfield defense this offseason.