Dodgers adjust now that J.D. is 'the guy' at DH

Veteran presence likely means fewer at-bats for Smith in 2023

February 21st, 2023

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the designated hitter became permanent in the National League before the 2022 season, the Dodgers knew they wanted to keep some flexibility at that position.

The Dodgers were involved in talks with Nelson Cruz, who would’ve needed to be the everyday designated hitter in order to make a significant impact. Ultimately, Los Angeles went against having an everyday DH, instead keeping that spot open to give its regulars a day off from playing the field.

Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Will Smith were the primary options at the position. For Muncy and Turner, it was just a way to split playing time and keep them fresh. For Smith, it was a way to keep his potent bat in the lineup on days Austin Barnes caught Clayton Kershaw or when the Dodgers were playing a day game following a night game.

Splitting time at DH worked just fine for Los Angeles as Muncy, Smith and Turner all checked out as average or above-average hitters while manning the spot. This offseason, however, the Dodgers went in another direction.

Once became available, the Dodgers knew they wanted to add the 35-year-old designated hitter. He won’t play the outfield for L.A.; his role is going to be simple: Hit.

Manager Dave Roberts has already said Martinez will be the Dodgers’ everyday designated hitter.

“I don’t expect J.D. to DH 162 [games],” Roberts said. “But he’s going to be the guy who’s going to be in that position 99.9 percent of the time.”

If Martinez hits at the clip the Dodgers expect, there won’t be any issue with having the veteran in the middle of the order. But having a set DH does come with its pros and cons.

The pro is that Martinez should give the Dodgers an upgrade over Turner at the plate. Turner, a longtime favorite, was still a productive hitter last season, posting a .729 OPS from the DH spot. However, he was starting to struggle against high velocity, an area that was exposed in the NL Division Series loss to the Padres.

Martinez, on the other hand, made the All-Star team last season and has stood out so far in camp.

“The thing I like about J.D. is there’s an edge,” Roberts said. “I think that old-school part of it … this guy is obsessed with being great. I think holding guys accountable, that edge part of it is good for everybody.”

That could be good for everyone, except for Smith in the playing-time department. Having Martinez get most of the games at DH could result in Smith -- one of the best hitters at his position -- getting fewer at-bats and more time as a reserve.

Last season, Smith posted a 1.162 OPS in 25 games serving as the designated hitter, clear evidence that the catcher adjusted well to the change.

“You don’t have an opportunity to get a certain guy’s bat in there, to get him essentially a half-day off of the workload by running him out there,” Roberts said. “If you’re kind of locking yourself into one player taking those at-bats, that’s certainly a con.”

Working with a DH is something the Dodgers will have to monitor over the next six months. It’s still early in spring and things could look a lot different come October, but finding the right balance will be a priority this season.

“I think we’re just going to manage it and monitor it,” Roberts said. “I can say things [now], but things can change quite often.”