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Dodgers mailbag: Mookie Betts’ versatility, MLB trade deadline, LA payroll

Pittsburgh Pirates v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

We asked for Dodgers questions, and you came through. So before the post-All-Star-break schedule gets underway let’s dig into some topics.

Do you think the Dodgers will (or try to) acquire a player(s) by the deadline that can play SS and/or 2B that would be the primary starter at either/both of those positions, or do you think they just stick with the rotation of Rojas, Vargas, and Betts? —WhiteDevil67

This question was asked before Miguel Vargas was optioned to Triple-A on Sunday, but it’s unlikely he’s banished to the minors for the rest of the season and could still very well factor into the middle infield mix if he turns things around offensively.

At the trade deadline I think the Dodgers need a starter-quality bat, preferably that hits right-handed. If that happens to be a middle infielder, great. But another outfielder would be fine, too, because of Mookie Betts’ versatility. After only occasional appearances at second base in recent years, this year Betts has regularly played infield, which has and will impact so many fantasy leagues. But in real baseball it’s helped the Dodgers as well because of his versatility.

So far, Betts has started 19 games at second base and 12 games at shortstop, the latter for his first time ever in the majors, in addition to his 54 starts in right field, where he’s won six Gold Glove Awards. The only other Dodgers players to start at least 10 games at second base, shortstop, and right field in the same season are John Hummel for Brooklyn in 1909 and Enrique Hernández in both 2018 and 2019. Imagine that uncommon versatility coupled with an MVP-level bat. That’s Mookie Betts right now.

Asked last weekend if Betts could be a full-time infielder this season, manager Dave Roberts said, “That’s a possibility. I don’t want to box us in right now, but showing what he’s done, it gives us options. ... He gives us more flexibility.”

Last year at this time, did you ever think with a straight face that Mookie Betts would be the best Dodgers SS and 2nd baseman in 2023 while also still being the best RF in baseball not named Acuña? —Phil Gurnee

No, I did not expect this at all! I looked at Mookie Betts’ previous dalliances at second base — totaling 11 starts and 100 innings from 2020-22 — were occasional indulgences to keep Betts happy, but that it was foolish to waste Betts’ tremendous defensive talents in the outfield.

I was wrong.

It took a semi-broken and top-heavy yet incomplete roster to force Betts into more infield duty, and damnit if he isn’t pretty good at both second base and shortstop too, the latter a position he hadn’t played in over a decade. Betts is rated plus-three at second base by both Defensive Runs Saved and Total Zone Rating, and a dead-even zero Outs Above Average. At shortstop, he’s average in DRS and plus-one in Total Zone Rating, while OAA has him at minus-two.

This could change depending on whom the Dodgers acquire at the trade deadline, but the Dodgers’ current best lineup against right-handed pitchers includes Betts in the middle infield with the three lefty hitters — David Peralta, James Outman, Jason Heyward — in the outfield.

For one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, where would they be best served by a big splash trade (right-handed bat, starting pitcher, bullpen)? Is this a rebuild year or will they have what it takes to compete for the World Series? Braves and Rays look yards better this year. —Long Live Vin

The Dodgers looked and were yards better than the Padres last year, too, but that didn’t help much in the National League Division Series. How LA plays in the postseason will determine how they do in the postseason, nothing else. But they also have to get there, and absolutely need help on the pitching side.

They need at least one starting pitcher, ideally one who could start in October, but also just to augment the depth on a staff that currently has two rookies (well, technically three until Clayton Kershaw returns). They’ll need at least one extra reliever, maybe two. And they very well should require a starting-level right-handed bat, and no Jake Marisnick doesn’t count.

It’s hard to see if there is even a big splash trade out there, but there are still plenty of deals that could get done to help the team. Think pending free agents Lucas Giolito or Jordan Montgomery, to name a few potential starting pitchers. Not necessarily splashy, but enough to keep them afloat.

Is it possible to get an update on the Dodgers 2023 CBT payroll projections in relation to the various tax thresholds? Are any of these thresholds likely to influence Dodgers trade deadline acquisitions? —55leonards

The estimate at the start of the season was that the Dodgers payroll for competitive balance tax purposes was roughly $246.8 million. Nothing much has changed since, other than all the various call-ups getting major league pay as the injured list roster rises. Let’s say six extra roster spots over the full season are needed to cover IL time — just as an estimate — each somewhere near a minimum salary of $720,000. That adds another roughly $4.5 million to the pile.

The CBT threshold in 2023 is $233 million. As a third-time tax payer, the Dodgers will pay 50 percent on the first $20 million over. For the next $20 million — from $253 million to $273 million — the Dodgers would pay 62 percent. But if they get past $40 million over the threshold again, they would see their first draft pick in 2024 drop 10 spots, like it did in both 2022 and 2023.

Giolito is making $10.4 million, so even if they trade for the White Sox right-hander on Saturday, that would mean he has roughly $4.4 million remaining in salary. The Dodgers could afford to add two, maybe three Giolitos and still be under a $273 million CBT payroll.

Will Dodgers exercise Muncy’s 2024 option? What position will Lux come back as? —obliterate

Muncy has a club option for 2024 that started with a base salary of $10 million. He’s already added $250,000 for both 50 and 250 plate appearances this year, and enters Friday at 299 PA on the season. He’ll had another $250,000 for each of 300 and 350 PA, $500,000 for each of 400 and 450 PA, plus $1 million for each of 500 and 550 PA.

At most the option salary will be $14 million, with no buyout.

On the whole this season, Muncy has been an above-average hitter with a 118 wRC+, even though his batting average starts with a one, hitting .198/.331/.476 with 21 home runs. But he’s also hitting .179/.291/.387 with a 86 wRC+ since May 1 and turns 33 in August.

My first guess is it’s likely Muncy will be back in 2024, because he’s like the safety blanket in the lineup, taking walks even when he’s not hitting for average and hitting enough home runs to be productive. But if he keeps up his May-June numbers for the rest of the season, the decision is less clear. There’s also the thought of having third base open for one or both of Michael Busch and/or Vargas, though as we’ve seen this season, that path isn’t always smooth.

I have no reason to believe Lux will be anything other than a shortstop when he returns.