Baseball felt back after pitchers and catchers reported, but now games are due to start this weekend, and it’s probably the most interested I’ve been in the Spring Training contests themselves for the Dodgers in years. That’s because usually most of the starting spots are written in pen and I just watch to see prospects in a big-league environment, but this year there are actually a lot of battles being fought for key roles.
A pair of open spots in the outfield
Mookie Betts has right field locked down, but what then? There’s an open competition for two starting spots in center and left, which is as many meaningful Spring Training at-bats for outfield slots since maybe 2015 or so.
In center, there’s potentially Chris Taylor, James Outman, Trayce Thompson, and even Jason Heyward, while in left there’s David Peralta, any of the center field guys moving over, and maybe even Andy Pages and Michael Busch. Should disaster strike in center, it would even open up the possibility of Steven Duggar or Bradley Zimmer sliding into the picture.
Rosters spots are also up for grabs, as last year they primarily only had to rely on four guys, but this year there’s going to be more platoon/matchup situations considered, which probably necessitates five guys getting playing time. Of particular note on that front are Heyward and his revamped swing, Busch trying to force his way onto the roster with a monster showing, and Zimmer being a dark horse if the Dodgers can tap into even a little of his first-round talent with the bat.
Spots in the infield as well?
Going into the season the Dodgers brass have told everybody who will listen that the infield is settled, with Freddie Freeman at first, Max Muncy at third, Gavin Lux at short, and Miguel Vargas at second.
Hopefully that’s the case, but while Freeman is a lock at first and I honestly don’t have many questions about Muncy at third, there are major questions for both Lux and Vargas. The obvious thing worth monitoring is their defense, as if both of them struggle mightily it could really shake things up in camp as the season approaches. But the bats are something to track as well, because while Lux was good last year he’s now bulked up and looking for a breakout, whereas Vargas has hit everywhere so far and is looking to prove he can do so in the bigs as well.
Busch is again a player to track, because while Rojas and Taylor are hovering around short and second should either player falter, Busch could hit himself into relevancy due to his ability to handle three positions (2B/1B/LF). Also, Vargas already has a pinky fracture, which is considered minor but a reminder that things can always go sideways in a hurry.
Noah Syndergaard‘s velocity
Velocity isn’t everything, but one of the reasons 2022 wasn’t Syndergaard’s big bounceback year was his velocity fell 3 mph from 2019 and 5 mph from his peak in 2017 when he was a front-rotation guy, leading to his whiff rate falling 4%, and finally his strikeout rate falling 8%. So yes, it’s nice that last year he showed he could manage a solid back-end rotation type season even without his best fastball, but he clearly came to the Dodgers looking to do more, and if he can get a few ticks back there’s no reason he can’t look more like a front-line starter again. It’s a rotation that very well may need that in what’s shaping up to be a fierce NL West race, and even for October.
The competition for 6th starter
Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, and Syndergaard are presumed to be the rotation to start the season. However, four of the five have had arm-related issues in the past couple seasons, and the Dodgers always seem to rely on a 6th or 7th starter to fill major innings needs anyway.
Just like with position players, the Dodgers are seemingly going with the kids to fill this out, and they have as good of a crop as any, as Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove, Bobby Miller, and Nick Nastrini should all be seeing extended looks this Spring.
Grove seems to be the preferred choice here as the Dodgers don’t mind Ross Stripling‘ing him, but Gavin Stone seems almost ready, and if Pepiot, Miller, or Nastrini can take the next step and consistently fill the strike zone with their excellent stuff, they can be relevant immediately.
Shelby Miller‘s progression
I wrote about Miller’s signing at the time it happened and cited reasons why he looked intriguing. With no closer, a guy with back-end potential is somebody worth watching in Spring Training, with special attention on that slider.
Daniel Hudson and Jimmy Nelson‘s health
Before tearing his ACL last year, Hudson was turning in an elite season in 2022 (arguably the best of his career), and the same could be said for Nelson in 2021. While Hudson might already be a bit behind schedule due to ankle soreness, Nelson reportedly has the green light.
I’m less concerned with how they perform and more watching to make sure they get through the early slate on schedule and don’t blow up on the field since they could play significant roles early on.
All the kids and … Jake Reed?
Other than all the other prospects already listed, there’s Diego Cartaya, who’s worth watching because … well, it’s Cartaya.
But Reed is also somebody I’m curious to see, specifically because he added a splitter. Color me intrigued.
Games kick off on February 25 against the Brewers at 10:10 AM HT/12:10 PM PT/3:10 PM ET on SNLA with Grove starting against … somebody.