It’s been a fairly quiet offseason by Dodgers’ standards, as they have shied away from the top-of-the-market commitments they’ve embraced in prior years. Los Angeles re-signed Clayton Kershaw, brought in J.D. Martinez, Noah Syndergaard and Shelby Miller on one-year free agent pacts, and acquired Miguel Rojas from the Marlins to bolster their middle infield depth. They watched Trea Turner, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney and Cody Bellinger depart.
While it’s still one of the sport’s strongest rosters top to bottom, the Dodgers have a few more question marks than they’ve had in recent years. That’s especially true in the outfield. Mookie Betts is a superstar; the two other positions are more up in the air. Bellinger was cut loose after two straight dismal offensive seasons, leaving a center field vacancy the organization hasn’t subsequently addressed.
Their relatively restrained winter was seemingly tied to a desire to dip under the $233MM luxury tax threshold. That would have reset their payor status and avoid the associated escalating penalties if/when they went back above that mark next offseason. The reduction of Trevor Bauer’s suspension put more than $22MM back onto the books and pushed them narrowly back above the threshold, which they doubled down on with the Rojas trade. Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic suggested as part of a reader mailbag last week the team no longer seems likely to try to limbo underneath the tax line.
That theoretically opens the potential for further spending, since the Dodgers’ projected $238MM CBT figure is quite a bit lower than those of their previous two seasons. There hasn’t been much indication Los Angeles plans to make any meaningful additions between now and Opening Day though. The Dodgers monitored the center field market earlier in the winter but have come up empty. That’s now virtually barren, aside from a potential trade for Minnesota’s Max Kepler (who’s more familiar with right field) or a long shot deal involving Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds. The corner outfield market still has Jurickson Profar and depth types like Ben Gamel and David Peralta available in free agency and perhaps trade possibilities like Anthony Santander or Seth Brown. The Dodgers haven’t been publicly linked to anyone in that group.
If this is the outfield, the team will go into the season with more notable questions than they’ve had in the past couple years. Betts is still one of the top five players in the sport. His projected outfield mates all have talent but come with easy to spot downside. Let’s run through the group who could join Betts on the Dodger Stadium grass.
Taylor’s equally capable of playing the infield but seems ticketed for outfield work, particularly in the wake of the Rojas pickup. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM over the weekend that was the plan. Freddie Freeman, rookie Miguel Vargas, Gavin Lux, Max Muncy and Rojas figure to cover the infield if everyone’s healthy, with J.D. Martinez manning designated hitter.
A year ago, Taylor playing everyday in left or center field would’ve been a perfectly comfortable solution. While it might play out that way, it’s no longer as safe a bet after he struggled in the first season of a new four-year deal. For the first time in his six seasons in Southern California, Taylor posted a below-average slash line. He hit .221/.304/.373 with 10 home runs across 454 plate appearances, missing around a month midseason with a foot fracture.
Taylor still drew a decent number of walks with a slightly above-average hard contact percentage, but his contact rate cratered. He struck out in over 35% of his plate appearances, the highest rate of any player with 450+ trips. It was a similar story on a per-pitch basis. Taylor made contact on only 62.1% of his swings, again the worst mark among hitters who logged as much playing time as he did.
One poor season doesn’t entirely negate the .265/.343/.461 line he managed between 2017-21. He’s certainly talented enough to play better than he did in 2022. Yet given last year’s struggles, the Dodgers may need a contingency plan in the event he again battles significant swing-and-miss concerns. That’s particularly true given the Dodgers’ questionable center field composition.
Thompson is probably going to get the first crack at that job with the team not making any additions. In one regard, the 31-year-old is in the opposite boat as Taylor. He had an incredible 2022 season that belied his lack of an established MLB track record before last year. That said, the main concern with Thompson is the same as it for L.A.’s presumptive left fielder: strikeouts.
Acquired from the Tigers in a seemingly minor June trade, Thompson got into 80 games for L.A. down the stretch. He was given 255 plate appearances, his most in a big league campaign since 2016, and was one of the team’s most effective hitters. He put up a .256/.353/.507 line with 13 home runs. Thompson made hard contact on a massive 47% of his batted balls while walking at an excellent 12.7% clip. That kind of power and plate discipline are intriguing, though his 36.5% strikeout percentage was even higher than Taylor’s.
It wouldn’t matter that Thompson’s striking out at that rate if he’s reaching base and driving the ball the way he did last season. Whether he can maintain that kind of form over a full schedule is unclear. Thompson has never played more than 80 MLB games in a year and carried a career .208/.283/.405 line into last season. He’s shown the physical tools to impact a lineup at his best and enough swing-and-miss to result in an unplayable on-base percentage at his worst.
The 25-year-old Outman is probably the first man up in the event of an injury or performance struggles from Thompson. He played in four big league games last year but spent most of the season in the upper minors. It was a breakout year for the former 7th-round draftee. Between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City, Outman connected on 31 home runs and doubles apiece while posting a cumulative .294/.393/.586 slash in 559 plate appearances. He walked at a 12.5% clip while striking out 27.2% of the time.
Again, it’s an offensive profile driven by power and walks with concerning whiff totals. Outman is a good prospect, checking in 10th on Baseball America’s offseason write-up of a strong Dodgers’ system. The outlet praises Outman’s power and suggests he’s athletic enough to be an above-average center fielder. There’s a chance he’s an everyday player, though BA suggests he might be better suited in a role-playing or platoon capacity given his propensity for whiffs on breaking pitches. Even the latter outcome would be a great return on a 7th-round pick and a testament to Outman’s excellent minor league résumé but it raises concerns about his viability as an everyday player on a team with championship aspirations.
There are things to like about each of Taylor, Thompson and Outman. It’s certainly not an outfield devoid of upside. Yet it’s not as stable as the rest of the Dodgers’ roster or the outfields L.A. has run out in previous years. That’s reflective of Bellinger’s unexpected offensive collapse that led to his non-tender and the club’s comparatively modest offseason overall.
Barring a late-winter pickup, the onus may fall on skipper Dave Roberts to patch things together more than he’s needed in the past. A platoon of the lefty-swinging Outman and right-handed Thompson might suffice in center field. Vargas can play some left field on days when he’s not in the infield, and perhaps Martinez will log a little corner outfield work in addition to his DH reps.
Andy Pages is a quality power-hitting prospect who is already on the 40-man roster. He may still be a year away after a fine but unexceptional showing in Double-A. Michael Busch is another highly-regarded offensive player whose defensive questions at second base could push him to left field, but he’s barely played there as a professional. Jonny DeLuca is on the 40-man roster as a potential depth player. Veteran Bradley Zimmer will be in camp as a non-roster invitee and another minor league deal or two seems plausible.
There are plenty of players who could work their way into consideration. Outman, Pages, Busch and Vargas are highly-regarded prospects and highlight the kind of farm depth the Dodgers could leverage in trade midseason if the current group doesn’t pan out. While things are far from dire, the Dodgers look prepared to take more of a gamble in the outfield than they have in years past.