With Mookie Betts’ Move to Second, Dodgers Infield Risks Coming Up Short

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Before the high-tide news of Shohei Ohtani’s free agency decision washed it away like a sandcastle on the beach, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made some waves with his comments to the media during the Winter Meetings. While his breaking of the omerta regarding the team’s pursuit of Ohtani received most of the attention — in part because the rest of the narrative pickings out of Nashville were so slim — Roberts divulged the team’s plans regarding their middle infield situation by announcing that Mookie Betts would be a full-time second baseman in 2024. This came on the heels of GM Brandon Gomes stating that the Dodgers plan for former top prospect Gavin Lux to be their everyday shortstop.

Betts, who turned 31 on October 7, is fresh off an MVP-caliber season in which he set a career high with 39 homers, posted a 163 wRC+ (his highest since his 2018 AL MVP-wining campaign) and finished tied with Ronald Acuña Jr. for the major league lead with 8.3 WAR. Betts also split his time between right field, where he’s won six Gold Gloves (most recently in 2022) and the middle infield. His foray onto the dirt came about because Lux, whom the team planned to shift from second base to shortstop last year in the wake of Trea Turner’s departure, tore his right ACL in late February. Amid a winter of cost-cutting, Lux’s move to shortstop left second base in the hands of 23-year-old rookie Miguel Vargas, with Max Muncy moving to third base to replace the departed Justin Turner, and Chris Taylor in the outfield mix after Cody Bellinger was non-tendered. Lux’s injury left Taylor and light-hitting veteran Miguel Rojas the most viable shortstop options.

Betts mainly played second base in the minors, but in Boston he was blocked by Dustin Pedroia, hence the move to right field. Even filling in for Pedroia after he suffered a season-ending injury in 2014 (Betts’ abbreviated rookie campaign) and spotting there occasionally in subsequent years, he made just 30 major league appearances at the keystone before 2023, including 25 starts; he had seven of the former and five of the latter in both 2021 and ’22 with the Dodgers. In 2023, Roberts quickly put him into the mix, and the rejuvenation of Jason Heyward — whom the team signed to a minor-league deal after he was released by the Cubs with one year to go on his eight-year, $184 million contract — gave the Dodgers some additional flexibility.

Though Rojas hit for just a 69 wRC+ and Vargas an 85 wRC+ before being optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City at the All-Star break, Heyward and Betts helped to salvage the situation. The 33-year-old Heyward hit .269/.340/.473 (121 wRC+) while taking about 93% of his 377 plate appearances against righties, and finishing with 5 DRS, 5 RAA, and 1.0 UZR in 79 starts and a total of 624 innings in right field. Betts held up his end of the deal with his glovework as well as his bat. In 62 starts and a total of 485 innings at second base, he finished with 6 DRS, 1.0 UZR, and -1 RAA. He even made 16 appearances (12 starts) at shortstop, a position he hadn’t played professionally since 2013, and then just 13 games in Low-A and two innings in the Arizona Fall League.

The Dodgers recently re-signed Heyward to a one-year, $9 million deal. He’ll again platoon in right, but while Betts may spot out there, he and the team are entering the season with the assumption that he’ll be more or less full-time at second. According to the manager, Betts feels more engaged in the action from pitch to pitch and believes that playing second base puts less wear and tear on his body, a questionable assertion given the dangers of the infield, particularly while pivoting on a double play. Back in 2016, Betts said so himself: “There’s more running in the outfield, but as far as physical abuse, the infield has a lot more of it.” If the point needed further underscoring, just over a year after he said that, Manny Machado’s overly aggressive takeout slide injured Pedroia’s left knee and hastened the end of his career.

Even if moving Betts turns out to be the correct call, the shortstop situation feels unsettled. Lux was drafted as a glove-oriented shortstop, but as he got stronger and bulkier during his time in the minors, he stiffened up and looked less and less likely to stay there. He dealt with a variety of injuries even before the ACL tear, as well as rashes of throwing inaccuracy that appeared more mental than physical. Lux and the Dodgers acknowledged many of these issues when it looked as though he was finally on the other side of them. He began to turn a corner offensively in 2022, when he posted a 114 wRC+ in 471 PA as the starting second baseman (with left field mixed in). Lux hasn’t played shortstop regularly since a two-month mid-season stretch in 2021, and before that not since the first half of ’19. Now he is also coming off a major knee injury. We went back to watch a bunch of Lux at shortstop during that 2021 window (and more besides), and other than a 15-game stretch in which he committed five errors, he looked playable, if a bit unsteady:

To be fair, Lux’s defensive metrics thus far are at worst a mixed bag:

Gavin Lux in the Middle Infield
Season Pos Inn DRS UZR RAA
2019 2B 178.0 4 -0.4 1
2020 2B 143.0 5 -2 1
2021 2B 206.0 4 0.4 3
2022 2B 819.2 3 -2.2 2
Total 2B 1346.2 16 -4.2 6
Season Pos Inn DRS UZR RAA
2021 SS 471.1 0 -2.1 -3
2022 SS 31.0 1 -0.4 1
Total SS 502.1 1 -2.5 -3

That said, we don’t know how Lux will look post-injury, how long it will take him to jell with Betts as a combo, or whether the increased physical demand of their new positions will impact their offensive output. With Ohtani now in the fold and so much riding on this era of Dodgers baseball, those risks need to be mitigated, and the current makeup of Los Angeles’ roster does not do that. The Dodgers have put up with “playable, if a bit unsteady” when Muncy has played any position but first base during his tenure. With Ohtani and Freddie Freeman entrenched at the DH and first base spots, Muncy will be forced to play third base every day; his metrics there last year (-3 DRS, -5 RAA, -7.7 UZR) suggest that it could again be a bumpy ride. If Lux is substandard, the left side of LA’s infield defense will be particularly weak.

Then there is the question of depth. Rojas and Taylor each have shortstop experience, but both are well into their mid-30s. Vargas and bat-first Top 100 prospect Michael Busch are below-average athletes who are each below-average defenders, especially Busch; the latter also struggled at the plate in his first exposure to major league pitching, hitting for a 49 wRC+ in 81 PA. Prospect Jorbit Vivas, who reached Triple-A last year and who’s currently ranked no. 11 in the system, should really only play second base due to a lack of arm strength.

Update: Following publication, the Dodgers traded Vivas and left-handed pitcher Victor González to the Yankees for shortstop Trey Sweeney in order to clear 40-man space for Ohtani and the recently re-signed Joe Kelly. Below you will find Eric’s report on Sweeney from the forthcoming Yankees prospect list, where he’s evaluated as a 40 FV prospect:

The 20th overall pick in 2021, Sweeney adjusted to pro ball pretty quickly despite his small school pedigree, and is a .248/.361/.429 hitter in the minors. Though the Yankees have only ever deployed him at shortstop, Sweeney is slower and heavier-footed than the typical big leaguer at the position. Some of the sweet-looking plays that he makes at the very extremes of his range would look more routine for an average big league shortstop. Sweeney is built like Josh Jung, and it’s rare for an athlete that size to be an impact shortstop defender. Here, Sweeney is evaluated as a below-average shortstop defender, and his ultimate role will likely be a heavier mix of second and third base, based on his skill set.

This has been the crux of Sweeney’s defensive evaluation at FanGraphs since his draft year, and now I’ve also cooled a bit on his bat. His hands have so much pre-swing movement that I worry he won’t consistently be on time against major league fastballs, and stiffness in Sweeney’s lower half makes it difficult for him to scoop lower pitches. His underlying bat-to-ball performance — like his 8% swinging strike rate in 2023, propensity for airborne contact, and consistently excellent plate discipline — is evidence to the contrary. Sweeney tracks pitches very well and checks a lot of heuristic boxes (left-handed, performed immediately as a pro despite his small school background) that I tend to like, but he doesn’t play a premium position well or have an impact tool, so he profiles more as a reserve infielder.

If their roster remains as it’s currently constituted, the Dodgers are exposing themselves to some disastrous low-end outcomes, where their infield defense is meaningfully bad. They need an external addition to stabilize things. There are less splashy ways for the Dodgers to protect themselves, though with a relatively thin shortstop free agent class most of them are going to come via trade. We agree with Ken Rosenthal’s suggestion that a trade for Milwaukee shortstop Willy Adames, a stellar defender, makes a lot of sense for both sides. The Orioles have a shortstop surplus (Joey Ortiz, Jorge Mateo), while the Twins, Rangers, and Blue Jays all have several acceptable utility-type options.

With the arrival of Sho-Time in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers’ lineup boasts three of the majors’ top six hitters by wRC+ in Ohtani, Betts, and Freeman. That embarrassment of riches shouldn’t obscure the team’s remaining needs, and while they start with a rotation that has shed Clayton Kershaw, Lance Lynn, and Julio Urías, they shouldn’t neglect the work to be done on their infield.





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sadtrombonemember
4 months ago

I’m glad that you wrote about this–the Dodgers have been moving towards a disaster regarding infield defense for a while now, in what seems like slow-motion. Max Muncy playing 3rd base? Could be fine. Gavin Lux playing shortstop while Max Muncy plays 3rd base? That’s a bad idea. At least Betts is likely to be better defensively at second base than Vargas was–the original plan of a Muncy-Lux-Vargas infield was a terrible idea. Last year that was only averted by Lux getting hurt and them playing Rojas, who was great defensively but terrible at the plate.

Betts was only about average at second base last year, so there’s some banking on him being better now with more time there (which seems likely but not guaranteed). With Muncy locked into third base, they probably need a much better shortstop than Lux next to him. Based on last year, I suspect that they’re going to roll with Lux at shortstop unless / until it’s super-obvious it won’t work. I’m not sure they’re going to be going to trade any of their favored prospects for Adames. That’s not usually how they do things.

I don’t know if this would be quite so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that their starting pitching is also a mess. The run prevention side of the Dodgers is really frightening right now. One half of their defense is probably comfortably below-average, and their rotation plan requires oft-injured (Buehler and Pepiot), inexperienced (Sheehan, Stone, Pepiot again, sort of Miller too) to hold down the fort. Could be a lot of high-scoring games on both sides this year.

frankenspock
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I mean, I expect them to add pitching in either a trade or through free agency. A package deal of Burnes and Adames has also been discussed, which would be high in prospect cost but address two of their biggest needs at once (while also making it clear Milwaukee is in a rebuild).

Also I find it interesting that everyone seems to assume Kershaw won’t be coming back. He usually does, he just does on his own schedule.(I also challenge the idea that Buehler is “oft-injured”; outside of the two TJ surgeries that bookend his career, he’s been pretty reliably available.)

Philmember
4 months ago
Reply to  frankenspock

Kershaw won’t be back for a while even if he resigns – he was pitching through a shoulder injury at the end of last season, and while the ERA was great, everything else wasn’t – and reality caught up hard in the NLDS.

If he resigns, and if he is healthy, he will be a good option at some point – but not at the start of the season.

sandwiches4evermember
4 months ago
Reply to  frankenspock

Due to his shoulder injury, Kershaw won’t be available until mid-season at earliest, as far as I recall.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago
Reply to  frankenspock

That would be an astronomical prospect cost. I’m not even sure the Dodgers are willing to go high enough for Adames, much Burnes (or both). The Dodgers historically have decided which guys they’re willing to move on from, and then only trade them and no one else even if it means missing on their target. Jose De Leon being the prototypical example, and also a good example of why their method is probably correct even if it leads to worse short-term outcomes.

But fringe starting outfielders like Verdugo and O’Neill are returning the sorts of prospects the Dodgers typically like to trade, and a lot of their better prospects from a year ago had bad years or are hurt or both (Busch, Cartaya, Pages, Stone). I don’t know how Lux figures into all this either, he’s a low-power second baseman coming off a major injury. All you need is any of the Orioles, Padres, Twins, Rangers, Blue Jays, or Marlins rolling up and none of Burnes, Glasnow, Adames, or any of the other rumored targets are no longer there.

I think this year is going to be messy.

PC1970
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Lux for Adames challenge trade? That seems like a good fit, though I think Milwaukee would have to fork more over…Or Lux as centerpiece of a Byrnes/Adames trade?

Adames would make Lux superfluous. As a bonus, Lux is from Wisconsin.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

I don’t think Lux is terribly good, so I would reject that if I was the Brewers (and definitely make it if I was the Dodgers). But Adames is coming off a particularly rough year at the plate. So maybe?

Cromulentmember
4 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

That could be interesting from the Brewers’ standpoint. Lux could fit at 2B, slide Turang to SS. They get more years of team control, offensive upside, and a local kid to boot.

tz
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Somehow, I think Luis Guillorme will end up in Dodger blue and end up being their third-most-valuable infielder.

Heck, if he does sign with the Dodgers, count this as my Wild Prediction for 2024.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago
Reply to  tz

I realize his batted ball data isn’t great and he’s coming off a lousy year. But you would think that a guy with a career wRC+ of 95 and a history of backing up multiple infield spots with good defense would get someone more respect. But the Mets decided to sign Joey Wendle* instead, and Guillorme is still looking for work.


**who also had an awful year, but can play shortstop in a pinch

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 months ago
Reply to  tz

This is a pretty good call. The Dodgers could really use a RHH 2B/SS type who can actually hit, but barring that they absolutely need a defensive replacement who can cover the middle infield and 3B. I guess the former is basically Kiké Hernandez and the latter is Guillorme as a backup plan/25th man.

jtricheymember
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I feel like we should actually see Lux play short in the majors before declaring him a pile of s***.