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Competition for playing time more prevalent in 2023 for the Dodgers

“I know we have some young players knocking on the door, and I think they deserve their shot to make their mark,” Chris Taylor said

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Trying to guess the Dodgers opening day roster is a challenge in itself, before even considering where everyone might play around the diamond. Centerfield is one of the positions open for competition, and if you aren’t sure who might get regular playing time there, you aren’t alone.

Manager Dave Roberts doesn’t yet know either.

“Your guys’ guess is as good as mine,” Roberts said at FanFest Saturday.

Roberts did mention five players who are “in the mix” for playing centerfield in Los Angeles — Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson, Jason Heyward, James Outman, and Bradley Zimmer. They are trying to fill the shoes of Cody Bellinger, who started 135 games in center in 2022, five out of every six, before getting non-tendered in November.

Thompson started all four games of last year’s Division Series, including the last two in center. Outman made his major league debut with a four-game supernova last year, and will likely get an extended stay this year, even if he’s not on the opening day roster.

Heyward and Zimmer are non-roster invitees, the former an established veteran coming off two injury-plagued seasons and the latter is the best defensive outfielder of the group but with a career 73 wRC+. Zimmer had just 13 hits in 105 at-bats with 45 strikeouts last season, but was good enough defensively to play 109 games, even without batting in 57 of them.

Dodgers 2023 OF projections

Player ZiPS wRC+ Steamer wRC+
Player ZiPS wRC+ Steamer wRC+
Mookie Betts 141 138
Chris Taylor 106 95
Trayce Thompson 109 108
James Outman 105 114
Jason Heyward* 95 94
Bradley Zimmer* 80 71
*non-roster invitees Source: FanGraphs

“We’re trying to clean up some things with the bat, but he can really defend,” Roberts said of Zimmer.

Taylor only started nine games in centerfield last season but has played there regularly off and on, including 48 starts at the position in 2021. Then again, Taylor has played just about everywhere in his seven seasons in Los Angeles, with over 100 starts at each of left field, center, shortstop, and second base.

“I don’t know,” Taylor said Saturday when asked what position he might play this season. “I’m going to be prepared to play wherever. I think with where our roster stands now, if everyone is healthy, I’ll probably play a little more outfield than infield.”

Infield is a little more set, even with the free agency departures of shortstop Trea Turner and third baseman Justin Turner.

Gavin Lux will take over at shortstop, the position at which he was drafted and made over three-quarters of his minor league starts. He’s played primarily second base in the majors with incumbents Corey Seager and Trea Turner at shortstop the last three seasons, outside of Lux starting 50 games at shortstop in between Seager breaking his hand and the Dodgers acquiring Turner during the 2021 season.

Freddie Freeman is a fixture at first base, starting 98 percent of his teams’ games at the position over the last five seasons.

Max Muncy has played first, second, and third regularly during his time with the Dodgers, and rated above average defensively at all three positions by Defensive Runs Saved, though not by Outs Above Average. He’ll get the bulk of the time at third base in 2023.

“I felt like I performed very well at third last year. Our internal metrics were very good for me,” Muncy said Saturday. “Third base is a position I’ve said that you need to play it consistently to feel comfortable there. When I was bouncing around and I played there once every week to two weeks, I felt it was a harder position to play. When I started playing there more regularly, it got easier for me.”

With Justin Turner also starting 61 times at designated hitter in 2022, Muncy actually led the Dodgers with 80 starts at third base, though he only started three games in a row at the hot corner once before the All-Star break. Muncy played much more regularly at third base down the stretch, starting 20 of the final 27 games at the position, including three of four games in the NLDS.

Dodgers 2023 infield projections

Player ZiPS wRC+ Steamer wRC+
Player ZiPS wRC+ Steamer wRC+
Freddie Freeman 147 145
Gavin Lux 108 114
Max Muncy 125 122
Miguel Vargas 115 120
Miguel Rojas 92 93
Michael Busch 108 106
Yonny Hernández 80 83
Source: FanGraphs

That leaves second base as the position where Miguel Vargas is most likely going to get his runway for playing time. Primarily a third baseman in the minors, he also saw some time at second base and in left field.

Vargas has trained at second base in both Miami (including with new teammate Miguel Rojas) and in Los Angeles with coach Dino Ebel. And for a rookie, Vargas already has a few veteran clichés down pat.

“I feel incredible [at second base],” Vargas said. “I feel I’m ready to help the team, whatever they ask me to do.”

Roberts cited Vargas’ foot speed as a potential plus for him playing second base. Rojas was impressed in what he’s seen so far from his new protégé.

“Miguel Vargas was the one reaching out to me that he wanted to work out on defense. For me that tells a lot about what he wants to be. He wants to be a good defender. Not just a good player and happy to get an opportunity, but a good defender, and he’s working hard to be good at second base.”

That Rojas, who was acquired by trade less than a month ago, has already embraced a leadership role likely played into the Dodgers’ decision to extend his contract through 2024, with a team option for 2025.

Rojas is also a plus defender at shortstop who will fill in where needed all over the infield. In the right role, he could even be an above-average hitter, once he recovers from offseason surgeries on his wrist and hand. Over the last four seasons, Rojas is a .297/.360/.439 hitter with a 118 wRC+ against left-handed pitching.

Rojas isn’t the only multi-position Dodgers veteran embracing the influx of rookies.

“I know we have some young players knocking on the door, and I think they deserve their shot to make their mark,” Taylor said.

One of those young players is Michael Busch, who was added to the 40-man roster in November. He’s been ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball by four of the five main national outlets to date, and just missed making a fifth. Whether at second base, designated hitter, or maybe even in left field, Busch could make a run at some major league playing time this season, too.

Vargas and Outman were the only Dodgers rookies to bat in 2022, comprising just over one percent of the team’s plate appearances. In the last five years, rookies have accounted for even one tenth of Dodgers plate appearances just once, in 2019.

Recent Dodgers rookie contributions on offense

Year Rookie PA % of total PA bWAR Rookies w/200+ PA
Year Rookie PA % of total PA bWAR Rookies w/200+ PA
2015 1,291 21.2% 6.5 Pederson, Guerrero, Hernández
2016 1,324 21.5% 7.1 Seager, Thompson
2017 737 11.9% 3.5 Bellinger
2018 271 4.3% 0.6 none
2019 1,077 17.1% 6.0 Verdugo, Beaty
2020 167 7.2% 1.3 Ríos*
2021 416 6.7% -1.8 none
2022 66 1.1% -0.1 none
*Edwin Ríos batted 83 times during the 60-game 2020 season, which extrapolates to 224 PA over a 162-game season Source: Baseball Reference

Over those last five seasons, Alex Verdugo and Matt Beaty (both in 2019) are the only two Dodgers rookies to bat even 200 times, or three if you extrapolate Edwin Ríos’ plate appearances in the truncated 2020 campaign over a 162-game season.

This year, there’s more opportunity in Los Angeles. By design.

“I think that how we’re going to get the most out of our ball club, you could argue that it’s competition,” Roberts said. “I don’t think we’ve really had that — which you can argue is good or bad — in years past. A little competition, earning playing opportunities, is a good thing.”