OK so… we’ve just had a major trade in Dodger land. AJ Pollock has been traded to the Chicago White Sox for All-Star reliever Craig Kimbrel. If you’re reading this, my “Part 4” of the season projection then you might have read the previous post talking about the Utility players in the squad. While Chris Taylor is still the most versatile for sure, you’d expect his everyday slot to now be found in left field. Today’s post will be on the infield and the characters that will tell this part of the story.
Freddie Freeman is returning home. The Los Angeles native is bringing his talents back to the city whose stars shine just a bit brighter. Freeman made it clear that after finally winning the World Series with the Braves and entering free agency that his priority would be staying with the club that drafted him back in 2007.
What he wasn’t interested in going through was one of the notoriously stringent contracts that had locked up fellow Braves stars Ronald Acuña Jr.and Ozzie Albies. He set reasonable demands for his AAV (average annual value) and he said he wanted six years.
To a player who has seen the entire turnaround of a franchise and become the cornerstone of a team, you should do whatever you can to lock that player up for life. Instead, the Braves traded for Matt Olson at first base, and Freeman had one other option that appealed to him, come back home.
Expectations for Freeman are pretty set; just be Freddie. Freeman was the 2020 MVP, finishing ahead of Dodger-debutante Mookie Betts, and has been a top player for the entirety of a decade. He’s played 162 games in a season three times and has a remarkably steady slash line.
Since Freeman has been an everyday player, his OPS has never dropped below .795 and has been above .840 in ten of the eleven following years. He’s hit over 20 home runs in eight of his ten full seasons. His 11-year, 162-game average slash line reads .296/.385/.510/(.894). We all fell in love with you putting the sword to the Astros in Houston in the World Series. Welcome home, just be Freddie.
I remember last year when Dodger fans started the campaign Max Muncy for MVP. Right as this started being picked up by the wider baseball media, he then got lasers shot into his eyes in New York, which was a convenient place that we can point to as the start of a slump for the following month.
Just as the MVP discussion got extinguished, Muncy started to pick up form again right in time for the playoffs. In the last game of the season that was treated as a must-win due to the potential of a game-163 with the Giants, Muncy got his elbow obliterated in an accidental collision with Jace Peterson, which took him out of the playoffs.
Muncy is returning to an infield that looks quite different. Freeman has strolled into the first base slot that Muncy held for the past three years. Trea Turner is expected to fill his natural shortstop position left open by Seager’s departure, and former top prospect Gavin Lux must get more starts this season at either of the middle infield slots. So, where does Max Muncy fit in?
The first base gold glove candidate has lost his space to a man that never takes a day off. Over the last three years, Muncy has appeared at first base in 1576 innings, in second for 856 innings, and third base for 396 innings. So even without an everyday spot at first, he can play the majority of the time at second base or maybe even platoon the third base role with Justin Turner as he ages and needs more days off.
Muncy has said that he always preferred playing second base, but that he feels his best contribution to the team, and what he enjoys most, is batting.
The designated hitter has finally arrived in the NL and this ensures Muncy remains an everyday player. Muncy, another player with great positional versatility and value with a bat is another cheat code for Roberts. Even when displaced from a position by a name like Freeman, Muncy will play 95% of the games when he’s fit.
Home runs are a weapon for Muncy, since he’s become an everyday player, in his three full seasons he’s hit 35, 35, and 36 home runs, batting in an average of 90.3 runs in those years.
It’s hard to predict exactly where he’ll get his starts but I’ll estimate it as follows. Fewer than ten starts at first, more than 50 starts at second, more than 30 starts at third, and more than 60 games at designated hitter (DH). Offensively I’d expect a season and 34-40 home runs and more than 92 RBIs. I don’t think he’ll have a start on the field for Opening Day, but I expect him to be our first-ever regular-season National League DH. That will be a trivia piece for years to come; make note of that!
A former top prospect in baseball, who destroyed the minor leagues at every level, the Wisconsin native has struggled for consistency with the Major League club. A prospective shortstop who so far has found most of his minutes at second base, due to the blockage once held by Seager and now Turner.
In the 2020 season, Lux was experiencing serious issues with his arm. Errant catches and poor throws to first haunted him and limited his appearances in meaningful innings. So he was pushed back out of the team and made his starts in bursts.
Lux has been a far below average hitter so far in his major league career with an 83 OPS+ for the last two seasons. But this is where his obvious talent lies. Some of his numbers collected in the minors seem otherworldly. At Triple-A, he had 18 extra-base hits through his first 15 games. Over the next six weeks, he batted to the tune of .456 and slugged .846. The only shortstop competition for him in the minors, Wander Franco, whose numbers pale in comparison.
“You get unconscious up there and you don’t think about anything,” Lux said about his approach at the plate during this spell in Triple-A. This, however, wasn’t his mindset when fielding the ball. The very first ground ball that came at him at Triple-A, he spiked the throw to first into the ground. Since then, the yips and errors have followed him around. Augie Schmidt, Lux’s uncle said that he was simply thinking too much, and that Gavin was always at his best as an instinctual player.
What Lux needs is consistency, he needs innings in the field and he needs plate appearances. If he gets these, the confidence with the glove will come and hopefully the rhythm with the bat will come too. With Chris Taylor surely taking a longer-term spot in the outfield following Pollock’s trade, the main competition at second base will be with Max Muncy.
Due to his struggles with the bat in the major league and confidence issues in the field, the obvious untapped talent makes him a prime option for a trade if these negatives aren’t ironed out. My targets for Lux would be 260 plate appearances by the trade deadline, and an OPS+ no lower than 98. If Lux delivers these, while playing tidy defence, Roberts will continue to see enough value and potential to reject the idea of him as a trade piece. If not, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him flipped before the deadline.
If Max Scherzer didn’t join the club at the deadline and instantly pitch to a Cy Young award level, his trade-mate Trea Turner might be discussed as the best deadline acquisition for the Dodgers in a long time. Turner arrived and understood that due to Seager’s status at the club, that he would be shifted right of second base to play second base, instead of his more favoured shortstop.
Despite losing his favoured shortstop, Turner established himself as the leadoff batter very quickly into his first months in LA. For those two months, he was probably the premier leadoff bat in baseball. His batting average was superb, even beating former Nationals teammate and on-base sensation Juan Soto to the National League batting title with a .328 AVG last year (.338 for his two months in Blue).
A contact king who accelerated with the speed of a wide receiver and ran the bases with the elegance of a figure skater. He led the National League in steals last year and had the ninth-best Stolen Base% with 86.5%. He accumulates bases with ease and is a very handy defender in the middle infield.
We get to judge him back at his favoured position and see how he can handle being the pressure of being the Dodgers’ shortstop. This is Trea Turner’s contract year; he hits free agency next summer in a very depleted free-agent class. Instead of going into the market alongside Seager, Correa, Semien, Story and Baez, Turner will sit alone at the top of the shortstop market.
I don’t believe he needs a career year, because his work so far more than speaks for itself, and a down year will be treated as just that. Nevertheless, Trea Turner is one of the few batters truly able to achieve a .300/.400/.500 season if he balances his walks and strikeouts a bit more. Ultimately I think he’ll fall short of that, but produce a season that projects him into the top player in all of the free-agent market. Friedman decided that Seager wasn’t worth the top contract; maybe Trea Turner is the shortstop for this franchise for many years to come?
If you’re after postseason hitting records for the Dodgers, there’s one name you’re going to see over and over again, Justin Turner. JT is the postseason leader for the Dodgers in games, hits, doubles, home runs, walks, and RBIs. He’s been the most consistent bat for the Dodgers over their nine-year postseason dominance and has cemented himself as a true Dodger great.
J. Turner tied career-best seasons for home runs and had his ninth season in a row with his batting average above .270. For the last eight years, all with the Dodgers, JT has had an OPS+ above 100, which is my favourite metric to examine if a batter is “good” as 100 OPS+ is the average among all players, over all years and all ball parks. JT is so valuable to this team because of this, reliability.
Coming into his age-37 season in what could be his last with the Dodgers, if the team option for another year isn’t activated, Turner will be as steady with the bat and as influential in the locker room as ever. Turner will chug along with over 500 plate appearances and over 135 starts, all with the guarantee of being a good bat. A coach’s dream.
Even after this profile many questions still linger. Can JT play a full season at third at age 37? Will we see more of Muncy in designated hitters or at second? Is this the year we really see what Lux can do? Will Trea Turner be the team shortstop for years to come? While they’re unanswered, don’t worry, the unknown is fun! I’m looking forward to seeing how and when these questions get answered along the way in this upcoming season.
Featured image by Photo by Harry How / Getty Images
Freddie Law-Keen is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @FLK_Sports