3 things to watch as Cactus League begins for Dodgers

February 23rd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Juan Toribio’s Dodgers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- After months of waiting and trying to predict the future, the Dodgers will finally play a real -- OK, kind of real -- baseball game on Saturday against the Brewers. 

When it comes to wins and losses, the next five weeks won’t matter to the Dodgers. Instead, with so many new faces and players getting used to new positions, all eyes will be on how this year’s team gels heading into Opening Day on March 30 against the D-backs. 

Let’s take a look at three things to look out for as Cactus League games get underway.

How does the up-the-middle defense hold up?

The Dodgers will have a new starting shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. That’s a lot of change for a team that won 111 games last season. 

Gavin Lux will slide over from second base to handle the everyday responsibilities at short, the position he played throughout the Minor Leagues. Lux sat behind Corey Seager and Trea Turner the past few seasons, but he believes he’s ready for the opportunity

With Lux vacating second, the Dodgers are turning to rookie Miguel Vargas to handle second base. Initially, most believed Vargas was going to play third base and Max Muncy was going to play second, but the Dodgers chose to go in the opposite direction. Vargas has been sidelined with a hairline fracture on his right pinky finger, but he’s expected to be ready to play in games by next week. 

Once Vargas takes the field, it’ll be interesting to see how he and Lux handle the infield together. It’s important to remember that with the new shift rules, more agile defenders will have the upper hand.

Can Syndergaard turn back the clock?

Noah Syndergaard took less money to sign with the Dodgers because of Los Angeles’ ability to help pitchers get back on track. Syndergaard didn’t have a bad season in 2022. He went 10-10 with a 3.94 ERA with the Angels and Phillies, but the right-hander wanted more. He wanted to get back to being the phenom he was early in his career with the Mets. 

A key for Syndergaard will be to find his fastball velocity. He averaged 94.1 mph with the four-seamer last season. According to manager Dave Roberts, Syndergaard has been around 94 mph in his first couple of bullpen sessions. That would suggest a pretty significant uptick in velocity once games get started. 

Velocity isn’t everything, however. Syndergaard got hit hard last season and struggled with command. How he looks this spring is one of the most intriguing storylines of camp.

Which young pitchers take the next step?

Barring injury, Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Syndergaard will make up the Dodgers’ starting rotation come Opening Day. But with Gonsolin, May and Kershaw all having lengthy injury histories, the Dodgers’ starting pitching depth will likely come into play at some point this season. 

The next wave of starters for the Dodgers includes Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove and Andre Jackson. Pepiot has impressed early in camp, and Grove will be on the mound in the Dodgers’ Cactus League opener on Saturday. 

Top prospects Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller will also be in the mix. Stone is the Dodgers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year and is the more polished of the two pitchers. Miller, on the other hand, hits triple digits with ease, and scouts fall in love with his ability to spin the baseball. 

“It’s going to be important,” Roberts said of the Dodgers' young pitchers continuing to develop. “They have to take the next step because we expect more from them this year than we did last year.”