A Dodgers Favorite Returns After Manuel Margots to Minnesota

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dodgers traded for Tyler Glasnow this offseason, he wasn’t the only player the Rays sent west. Manuel Margot also joined Los Angeles, where he would to fill Jonny DeLuca’s old role as a righty-hitting outfielder capable of playing any of the three spots. Yet, Margot wasn’t exactly a snug fit for the Dodgers; his inclusion in the trade felt more like a way for Tampa Bay to shed salary. It seemed likely that Los Angeles would flip him to another team before the start of the season.

That’s exactly what happened on Monday, when the Dodgers sent Margot and minor league infielder Rayne Doncon to the Twins in exchange for minor league shortstop Noah Miller. Los Angeles also agreed to cover $6 million of Margot’s $10 million salary for 2024, along with the $2 million he’d be owed if Minnesota doesn’t exercise its team option for 2025, as Aaron Gleeman reported. So, in trading Margot, the Dodgers are saving $4 million; naturally, they promptly turned around and signed Enrique Hernández to a one-year, $4 million deal.

You can almost analyze the Dodgers’ side of this trade in a box, because the things being exchanged are so similar. In fact, to make my analysis make sense, you have to know how close the prospects are in value, so let’s start there. Doncon is a 20-year old middle infielder who spent 2023 at Single-A Rancho Cucamonga struggling against older pitchers. Want a prospect novel? Eric Longenhagen has one for you:

Doncon was a 2021 and 2022 backfield prodigy who looked like he could become a slugging middle infielder. His bat speed, body projection, as well as his struggles on defense and with chase, prompted Alfonso Soriano pipe dreams and more level-headed Esteury Ruiz comparisons at the time. Doncon had a mediocre 2023 with the bat – .215/.283/.368, albeit with a career-high 14 homers – but looked much better on defense. He currently has the actions and arm strength for shortstop, but he’s still young and has a lot of room on his frame, which means he may yet outgrow that position and move to either second or third. Doncon’s pitch recognition is not great, and he’s a bit more chase and whiff prone than is ideal, but he has good power for a hitter his age and is probably going to grow into more. The longer he can stay at short, the better chance he gives himself at being a useful big leaguer despite his flaws. The Twins have two seasons to develop Doncon before they have to decide whether to expose him to the Rule 5 draft, and realistically, they have another year or two beyond that to let him barbecue on the 40-man if they really want to. He adds an element of upside to their system as well as an element of risk. He is not likely to have a meteoric rise. Instead, he is a slow-burning, high-variance prospect.

That’s pretty close to the textbook definition of a dart throw. He might pan out into something great, but he probably won’t. On the other side, Miller is a year older and played a level higher in 2023, but he put up a similarly lackluster batting line. Eric again:

When Miller was the 36th overall pick in 2021, there was hope he’d develop enough strength to be an everyday shortstop. The defense and contact components were already in place. That hasn’t happened. The 21-year-old has been below average overall on offense at every minor league level because he has roughly 30-grade power. He’s still a terrific and precocious shortstop defender with fantastic actions and arm accuracy. A switch-hitter with above-average plate skills and bat-to-ball ability, there’s enough offense here for Miller to be a lower-impact utilityman.

In other words, Miller is a different kind of minor leaguer despite playing the same position. He’s more likely to reach the majors but less likely to do so as an impact bat. Overall, I think their values are close enough that they’re more about shifting organizational priorities than anything else. Maybe Miller has more power in there somewhere. Maybe Doncon will take a big leap in his first post-teenage year. Most likely, neither of them will affect the arcs of their teams very much.

With that out of the way, our next stop in understanding this trade is Minnesota, because its side of the deal is easy. Here’s the Twins’ projected starting outfield as of Monday, with my notes on them appended:

Twins Starting Outfield
Position Player Bats Notes
LF Matt Wallner L 21 wRC+ in 64 career PA vs. LHP
CF Byron Buxton R Played 0 innings in CF in 2023
RF Max Kepler L Is already 31. Can you believe it?

The Twins had a heavily lefty outfield before Monday’s trade, and one with injury risk to boot. Last year, they brought in Michael A. Taylor to spell Buxton in center, only for Taylor to end up as their everyday center fielder. They didn’t re-sign Taylor, and they plan to have Buxton back in center this season, but he is certainly no lock to stay healthy. Margot can handle that role; I have him down as a meaningfully worse defender than Taylor but a better hitter, particularly against lefties.

That second part is key even if Buxton stays healthy, because Wallner really shouldn’t bat against lefties. Before adding Margot, the plan was to use Willi Castro as Wallner’s platoon partner, but Margot is an upgrade and frees up Castro for a roving utility role. There’s also some prudent injury hedging built in; if Buxton misses time, Margot can move to an everyday starting role and Castro can handle short-side platoon duty.

This is a straight upgrade across the board, in other words. I don’t think the Twins could have gotten a player with Margot’s exact mix of talent and fit for one year and $4 million in free agency. They needed a righty who could handle center; maybe that’s Adam Duvall, or maybe it’s just no one. I think the prospect swap was basically a wash, but even if the Twins gave up a little bit in it, this deal fits them like a glove. The Dodgers had no use for Margot and were willing to make his contract attractive to move him, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. He just wasn’t a roster fit, and squeezing value out of other teams’ roster headaches is good business.

Speaking of that Los Angeles roster headache, it’s fairly easy to understand. The Dodgers ended up with too many outfielders. They moved Mookie Betts from right field to second base to help ease the jam, but the problem was still there. Teoscar Hernández, James Outman, and Jason Heyward are the team’s normal starting configuration against righties. Ideally, the team would spell both Outman (sometimes) and Heyward (almost always) against lefties, which means two more righty-hitting outfielders on the roster. But that would be a *lot* of players committed to the outfield, and would leave the infield depth too thin.

Some teams could employ a DH who can help cover the field from time to time, but the Dodgers have the ultimate luxury problem there: They have the game’s best DH, and the position in the field that he’ll help cover (starting in 2025) is pitcher. Yes, it sounds absurd that I’m saying Shohei Ohtani is a problem, and of course he’s not. But he does limit the team’s roster flexibility.

It gets even a bit more awkward than that. I think the team would ideally like to carve out some playing time for Miguel Vargas and limit Miguel Rojas’s at-bats; his 69 wRC+ over the last two years is grim. But Vargas can’t play short – honestly, he can’t even play second that well, which is why the Dodgers are giving him reps in the outfield this spring. There just aren’t enough infield backups to go around.

Chris Taylor is still there, but he can only cover so much. He’s 33, hasn’t hit 500 plate appearances in a season since 2021, and looked particularly hindered by injury last year. He’ll also spend his fair share of time playing third base against lefties when Max Muncy sits – unless he’s playing the outfield to spell Heyward. It’s just a tough puzzle to crack all around.

Here’s a great idea, though: What if Margot could play shortstop? He can’t – but in Enrique Hernández, the Dodgers constructed a reasonable approximation of that hypothetical. Calling his 2023 season disastrous would be an understatement. After a ghastly 2022 that left him right on the roster borderline in Boston, he came out and hit .222/.279/.320, good for a 59 wRC+, and ended up getting cut. He redeemed himself slightly in Los Angeles, posting a 96 wRC+ to close out the season, but there still wasn’t much market for him in free agency. That’s hardly unreasonable for a mid-30s utility player coming off two straight down years.

In a vacuum, I’d prefer Margot to Hernández, in fact. But the Dodgers are decidedly not a vacuum. The ability to spell second, short, and center field with one player is exactly what they were in the market for. Getting a guy they already know and are comfortable with because of his previous years on the team is just gravy.

Let’s ignore this trade and signing and just ask one question: Would the Dodgers prefer Margot or Hernández for 2024, all else being equal. For me, the answer is pretty clearly Hernández. The Dodgers have been built around positional flexibility and roster versatility for years. Taylor and Hernández have keyed that, sometimes as starters and sometimes as supersubs.

With Ohtani in the fold, and with the team quite reasonably wanting to lighten the load on Betts by having him mostly play one position, it was more important than ever for the Dodgers to make the rest of their roster more versatile. And that’s exactly what they did here. In effect, they transmuted Margot into Hernández at no cost. Meanwhile, the Twins are in a different position; more than positional versatility, they needed a righty bat who could credibly play center field. If I were only faced with that puzzle, I’d prefer Margot over Hernández, too. Everyone got what they wanted in the end – even Hernández, who got to break the news of his own signing himself. Who doesn’t love a Hollywood ending?

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 month ago

When it was announced that Margot was on his way to Minnesota, I suspected that Kike was returning.