One of the things that has distinguished the Los Angeles Dodgers during their decade-long streak of playoff appearances has been their remarkable depth. Plenty of times, the organization has been forced to turn quickly to the next man up to find an alternative. This is how the Dodgers have continued to win, despite injuries in recent seasons to everyone from Clayton Kershaw to Mookie Betts.
Their vulnerability now, following Gavin Lux‘s season-ending knee injury, is highly unusual in the Dodgers’ universe — particularly at such a crucial position, shortstop, in the first year of restrictions against the defensive shifts that helped to cover for defensive liabilities.
The 25-year-old Lux seemed poised to ascend into an everyday role in 2023, after serving three seasons of apprenticeship for the Dodgers. But even he would have had a hard time making Dodgers fans forget Trea Turner, who was an All-Star and a Silver Slugger winner for the team in 2022 before departing as a free agent. With Turner absorbing the bulk of the playing time at that spot for L.A., the Dodgers ranked third in the majors in shortstop WAR last year; now, it might be a challenge for the Dodgers’ shortstops to rank higher than the bottom third.
These are some of the alternatives that manager Dave Roberts and the organization must consider, in the eyes of industry evaluators who talked and texted Tuesday evening after news of Lux’s extended absence broke.
The internal options
Miguel Rojas. The Dodgers have dramatically reduced their payroll since last season, in what is being interpreted by other organizations as preparation for the pursuit of Shohei Ohtani in the upcoming offseason; L.A. players confirm this has already been discussed within the walls of Dodger Stadium. It’s one reason that, when Turner departed, the Dodgers did not really consider replacing him with one of the more expensive shortstops on the free agent market. They bypassed Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson, placed their trust in Lux, and focused on functional depth. They spoke to the Yankees during the winter about the availability of Isiah Kiner-Falefa, among others, before settling on Rojas in what rival execs perceived to be a salary dump by the Marlins.
Rojas just turned 34, and last year, he batted .236 with a .323 slugging percentage; over the past two seasons, he has a .303 on-base percentage. Those kinds of numbers run counter to what the Dodgers typically emphasize, but they needed someone with experience. Roberts said on Tuesday that Rojas would take “the brunt” of reps this season (and Rojas announced that he would skip the World Baseball Classic to focus on the position) — but they almost certainly did not envision him as an everyday shortstop at the time of the trade, some rival execs said on Tuesday evening.
Chris Taylor. The veteran utilityman told reporters Tuesday that he has already adjusted his throwing program in case he is needed at shortstop, which is his natural position. He played shortstop for the University of Virginia, was drafted by the Mariners as a shortstop in 2012, and he has played 259 games as a shortstop.
But part of the reason he has thrived with the Dodgers is the flexibility with which Roberts can move him — to the outfield, to second base, to third. And Taylor is coming off a season in which he batted .221 with a .304 on-base percentage, and an adjusted OPS+ of 86, below league average.
The trade candidates
Kiner-Falefa. The Yankees presumably are ready and willing to talk about dealing IKF, in a spring in which he is competing with two high-end prospects (Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza) who are eventually expected to become permanent fixtures in the Yankees’ lineup. As the Dodgers pick up the threads of the offseason conversations, the Dodgers’ IKF questions might be about price, industry sources say:
1. What would the Yankees want for Kiner-Falefa, whose offensive production was very similar to that of Rojas?
2. Would the Dodgers be willing to take on IKF’s $6 million salary, or, at a time when they’re so close to ducking under the luxury tax threshold, would they work to structure the deal in such a way that the Yankees would absorb the salary? And if that kind of deal meant giving up a better prospect package, would that be too expensive?
Jorge Mateo. Baltimore staffers raved about his defense last season, when he played an important role in a surprising Orioles ascendance. But there’s an open question about how well the 27-year-old will hit in future years, and Baltimore is stacked with middle infield options — most notably Gunnar Henderson, the AL Rookie of the Year favorite in ’23, and Jackson Holliday, the first overall pick of 2023.
Mateo is making $2 million this season, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and so the Orioles might be motivated to capitalize on his current market value while his salary is low. Even if his bat fades, the Dodgers could feel confident that Mateo would play good defense and be good on the bases, in this first year of pickoff restrictions — he swiped 35 bases last year.
Paul DeJong. St. Louis has incredible positional depth, and with Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman, it’s unclear what role DeJong will have, coming off two seasons in which he has batted under .200, so the Cardinals would listen. But his salary would greatly complicate any talks — he’s slated to make $9.1 million this year, and he has an option buyout of $2 million for 2024. The Dodgers would have to believe that DeJong, who did a lot of work on his swing in the offseason, will be better, and they’d have to figure out the money.
The free agents
Jose Iglesias, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Villar, Alcides Escobar. Iglesias hit .292 for the Rockies last year, with his production on the road actually better than at home. But he is 33 and his defensive metrics have been in decline. It’s an open question whether he would necessarily be an upgrade over Rojas. Simmons has an adjusted OPS+ of 52 over the past two seasons, with three homers in 165 games. Gregorius hit one homer in 232 plate appearances last year, while batting .210, scoring only 17 runs and dealing with injuries — he eventually lost his job as the Phillies’ shortstop. Villar has played 35 games at short the past three years, while Escobar posted a negative WAR in 40 games for the Nationals last season.
The wild card
Over the past decade, the Dodgers have been a payroll monster, but they’ve also been one of the best teams in finding and developing talent. Taylor, for example, Justin Turner and Max Muncy. Can they find a hidden asset and strike gold again? The Dodgers’ evaluators could comb the rosters of other teams looking for similar players.
But in a season in which the Dodgers’ NL West preeminence will be pressed by the Padres, they might prefer a sure thing.