If it feels like you’ve seen this article before, it’s because I wrote something similar two winters ago, following the 2016 season. Two of the main targets — Brian Dozier and Logan Forsythe — ended up being Dodgers, just not at the same time. Also, their time as Dodgers was disappointing.
Looking ahead to 2019 and beyond, the Dodgers have some decent second base options, but it’s also a spot that could be ripe for improvement.
I’ve long since been an advocate of getting Barnes out from behind the plate, but that was when he wasn’t one of the worst hitters in baseball. His value is now tied up in his defense and framing behind the plate, so he’s off the table. Hernandez and Taylor are the two best infield defenders of this quartet, but they might be better utilized in a true utility/super sub role. It would limit their exposure and, in theory, make them more valuable. That’s kinda weird to say about two 3-win players, but Taylor could pumpkin (and some of the peripherals don’t look good for his long-term prospects) and Hernandez forgot how to hit lefties again. If their exposure is limited, they may not put up as much WAR, but on a per 600 PA rate, they could be more valuable.
Then we have the wonderful, rectangular Muncy. He was a godsend in 2018, but let’s be real: He’s not an everyday second baseman. His numbers, in extremely limited time, were fine (0 DRS, 7.0 UZR/150), but I’d be willing to bet over the course of a full season, those numbers would be dramatically worse. If you look at his Inside Edge fielding numbers, he didn’t make any play that had a less than 60 percent chance of being made. Yes, he only had four chances, but we know he isn’t known for his range and his throwing from second base would be exposed if he played there on a full-time basis.
We can probably rule out Cabrera, Gonzalez and Lowrie. They’ll either be too pricey, aren’t good enough defensively and/or took a step back in 2018. Basically, I don’t think any would be worthwhile upgrades over what the Dodgers have internally.
That leaves Gennett, LeMahieu and Merrifield. Merrifield was a 5-win player on a bad Royals team. If they were ever going to sell high on him, now would be the time. However, I don’t think they will seeing as he’s cheap (last year of pre-arbitration) and is their best player. So, this comes down to one trade target in Gennett or one free agent signing in LeMahieu.
The Dodgers had interest in Gennett around the trade deadline, but a deal couldn’t be reached. Since leaving Milwaukee for Cincinnati, he has been one of the best producers at the position in baseball — 6.7 WAR, 125 wRC+ and a .303/.351/.508 batting line. His .205 ISO is behind just Jose Ramirez and Javier Baez. He has been reasonably productive against left-handed pitching (.277/.317/.426, 96 wRC+), but was even better in 2018 alone (.294/.335/.439, 107 wRC+). That’s a bonus as a left-handed hitter. Defensively, he wasn’t great in 2017, but he improved from below-average to about average in 2018. He’s going into his final year of arbitration (projected to make $10.7 million), so he’d be a solid 1-year gamble. The cost in prospects shouldn’t be as much as it would have been in July, but it’s going to take a couple quality ones to get a deal done. The Dodgers and Reds do have a substantial trade history in recent years.
The Dodgers are quite familiar with LeMahieu. He has been with the Rockies since 2012, and he has done some damage against LA in that time (.291/.341/.383). While Gennett falls more into what this front office looks for in a hitter (launch angle, dingers), LeMahieu is pretty much the opposite. He has a more contact-oriented offensive approach, and it has worked for him. He won the NL batting title two years ago by hitting .348 with a .416 on-base percentage. This season was his worst in terms of wRC+ (86) since 2014 (66), but there are some things to be hopeful about. His home/road splits in terms of wRC+ were even in 2018, but he has definitely benefited from playing half his home games in Colorado.
What I’m most interested in is his contact ability and defense. He puts the bat on the ball. Since he started playing full-time in 2013, he has the 22nd-best contact rate in the game at 87.5 percent. For context, the Dodgers’ leader in contact rate in 2018 was Chase Utley (88.7 percent), followed by Justin Turner (88.6 percent). In 2018, LeMahieu logged the 3rd-best contact rate of his career while decreasing his ground-ball rate, increasing his fly-ball rate (and hit a career-high 15 homers; 11 on the road) and had the 2nd-highest hard-hit rate of his career at 35 percent. His .298 BABIP was easily the lowest of his career. Perhaps the shift in GB/FB% is partly to blame, but he still got unlucky by his standards. His career BABIP before this season was .352, and to have it drop by more than 50 points is more than him just hitting a few more fly balls than ground balls. On defense, LeMahieu (18) was second to Kolten Wong (19) in DRS and has been one of the game’s best for more than a half-decade.
LeMahieu is a free agent who isn’t likely to get the qualifying offer. He seems like a guy a team could land for $11-13 million annually for 2-3 years. That would be a nice longer-term solution for the position in LA. It would also give opposing pitchers a different wrinkle in a lineup that has been highly focused on slugging over contact. And to be clear, that isn’t a bad thing — dongs are good. But the Dodgers’ lineup could be more complete if they added a contact guy or two (say, LeMahieu and Alex Verdugo) to go along with the rest of the powerful lineup.
I’m not sure the Dodgers do anything drastic regarding second base this offseason. Perhaps they just keep it internal with the likes of Hernandez, Taylor or Muncy. Maybe they really like Gavin Lux and don’t want to block him from taking that job (if Corey Seager‘s elbow holds up at shortstop). In that case, locking up LeMahieu might not be the most prudent of moves. Gennett might make more sense if they look outside the org, but if they want to shift or adjust their hitting philosophy (which isn’t clearly defined anyway), then maybe LeMahieu is the guy. Merrfield is the best option, but he’d also be the most costly.