Opportunities, optimism ahead of Dodgers' Cactus opener
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Dodgers’ clubhouse received an influx of new faces, complicating the puzzle of positions and lineups for 2023. But this is a challenge that manager Dave Roberts anticipated for months, and one that he’s excited to try and figure out.
"A lot of the lineups that you’ll see [on Saturday] and the days forthcoming, they’re to get guys at-bats regardless of pitcher," Roberts said on Friday. "I like that it’s hard to go wrong, it’s going to be kind of fun to see how this lineup construction plays out."
When the Dodgers face the Brewers on Saturday, it will be the first time that they’ll introduce a slew of veterans into the mix, filling the gaps left in the batting order by the likes of Trea Turner, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger, who all found new homes after last season. Entering were outfielders Jason Heyward and Bradley Zimmer, both on Minor League deals, designated hitter J.D. Martinez and outfielder David Peralta in free agency and Miguel Rojas in a trade with the Marlins.
Their arrivals combine with a familiar crop of contributors, creating a Jenga tower of names to place into the lineup. But Roberts believes that this is a good problem to have, feeling that the inclusion of players like Heyward and Martinez should provide stability to position players.
"It’s always important to get the right players and the right people," said Roberts. "I think for me, [what] I’m really excited about [with] this team is that we have a lot of dependable players, and that means a lot of things. Whether it be preparation, thinking and saying the right things, or playing the right way."
In terms of who plays where and when against Milwaukee, Gavin Lux will likely be paired up the middle with rookie infielder Miguel Vargas, who hasn’t been swinging due to a hairline fracture on his pinky finger, but he should play about five innings. David Peralta could be in the lineup as well. Aside from knowing that starter Michael Grove will be the starting pitcher on Saturday, there are still questions brewing, especially with lineup construction.
"I’ve thought about it, you know," said Roberts, when asked about how much time he’s spent on lineup combinations. "It’s just trying to figure out, you know, Mookie [Betts] at the top, is it best? Where to put J.D., where to put Will Smith, where’s Max [Muncy]? I don’t think there’s a right answer. As we have conversations and let things play out, it’ll show itself a little more."
One specific position group to pay attention to as the Dodgers’ spring ramps up is the outfield. While right field is held down by the six-time All-Star Betts, there’s a bevy of options to fill the other two spots. Trayce Thompson (who slashed .268/.364/.537 in 74 games with L.A. in 2022) and Chris Taylor (who player 74 of his 118 games in left field) will be joined by Heyward, Peralta, Zimmer, center fielder Steven Duggar and Andy Pages, baseball's No. 81 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline. It’s a crowded room, but one that induces excitement in these early days.
"It’s an extremely accomplished group," said Thompson. "You know, we’ve got three Gold Glovers out there. It’s about being locked into every single pitch. For me, the guys that I’ve been around do it the best."
These spring days are a good opportunity to learn from teammates, too.
"Now we’re starting to get to know each other and bounce ideas off each other," said Zimmer, who spent 2022 with the Blue Jays and Phillies. "We’re starting to come together as a group, which is the biggest thing. There’s a lot of experience out there, so we’re just trying to find ways to make each other better."
Ahead of the first game, Roberts explained that there will be plenty of opportunities for each of the outfielders to get playing time, noting that Betts and Peralta leaving for the World Baseball Classic will open up more avenues in their absence. And for these players, the eve of Cactus League action still presents jitters, but also the beginning of establishing their process.
"That first game is tough, you never know how it’s going to go," said Thompson. "It’s good to enter with goals, trying to control what you can control. As a hitter, consistently being on time, getting those reps, and getting yourself in shape to play, having that mental conviction to focus for three-and-a-half hours. After that, everything kind of takes care of itself."