LOS ANGELES — The breadth of talent in the upper levels of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system struck Justin Turner early, in the preliminary stages of spring training, when the regulars played only a handful of innings before letting the prospects take over.
“It almost felt like we were putting better teams on the field when those guys were coming into games,” Turner said. “We knew we had a lot of talented players.”
A lot of that talent has already bubbled to the surface. The Dodgers’ new primary catcher is a rookie, as is one of their everyday outfielders. Two of their brightest pitching prospects helped make up the starting rotation at the beginning of this month. Another recent draft choice has developed into a valuable bench piece. And yet another is performing so well in Triple-A that he might force his way onto the active roster.
The Dodgers, who have attained uncommon sustainability, are essentially in tryout mode these days. They failed to acquire an impact player before the non-waiver trade deadline, hold an 18-game lead in their division and will use these next seven and a half weeks to analyze internal options for the ideal postseason roster.
A half-dozen rookies — none of whom possessed a tangible role when the year began — will play a major factor. Somewhere, the Dodgers hope, lies the Francisco Rodriguez of 2002, the Miguel Cabrera of 2003, the Jacoby Ellsbury of 2007, or the Madison Bumgarner of 2010 — first-year players who came out of nowhere to ignite championship teams.
Turner spoke to some of his teammates at the end of July, moments after the front office held on to its top prospects at the expense of missing out on an elite reliever. He sensed disappointment that the Dodgers couldn’t acquire the likes of Felipe Vazquez, Will Smith, Kirby Yates, Edwin Diaz or Brad Hand, but solace in the fact that no other team did, either.
“It wasn’t from a lack of effort from our front office,” Turner said, before alluding to the recent success of the Dodgers prospects who weren’t traded away. “You kind of appreciate still having those guys around.”
Below is a look at six key Dodgers rookies, ranked by their potential impact on October.
1. OF Alex Verdugo: The Dodgers spent a decent portion of the winter shopping Verdugo. When the season began, he was an outcast on their active roster, thrust into an everyday role only because A.J. Pollock required a lengthy stint on the injured list. Verdugo seized the opportunity, batting .285/.340/.437 since settling into a starting job near the end of April. He has produced against both righties and lefties. His arm strength has become an asset; his energy has become infectious. And when the Dodgers returned to full health after the All-Star break, it was Joc Pederson who learned a new position so that Verdugo could remain in the lineup. Verdugo is currently nursing an oblique strain, but he won’t be gone long. He will be a major catalyst in October — perhaps the way Yasiel Puig used to be.
2. C Will Smith: Dodgers catchers sported a .645 OPS on July 25, sixth worst in the major leagues. The next day, Smith was called up to replace Austin Barnes and essentially take over as the starter behind the plate. Since then, Smith has produced a 1.136 OPS while playing sound defense and quickly adjusting to the Dodgers’ veteran pitching staff. In just 20 games all season, Smith has thrown out three would-be base-stealers and has collected six home runs — five of which have given his team the lead. It’s the type of timely hitting that the Dodgers will desperately need in the playoffs.
3. SP Dustin May: The Dodgers have just four pitchers with solidified roles at the moment: Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker Buehler as starters, and Kenley Jansen as closer. The rest is up in the air, and May — the sport’s 13th-best prospect at midseason, according to ESPN’s Keith Law — will probably play a role. May is only 21, but he is 6-foot-6 and possesses four major league-ready pitches, an arsenal highlighted by an upper-90s sinker. He has allowed four earned runs in 11 1/3 innings so far and will draw at least one more start because Ross Stripling needs more time to recover from a neck injury. In October, he could be the Dodgers’ fourth starter or eighth-inning reliever or anything in between.
4. SP Tony Gonsolin: The Dodgers optioned Gonsolin back to the minor leagues because Ryu is ready to return from a brief bout with neck stiffness. The 25-year-old right-hander missed about six weeks earlier this season, so the Dodgers want to give him more reps as a starting pitcher this month. Eventually, though, they could convert him back to a reliever, the role Gonsolin assumed in his first full season of professional baseball. Experience out of the bullpen “definitely helps his case,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. Gonsolin can reach triple digits with his fastball if needed for only one inning; his splitter is a devastating secondary pitch.
5. UT Matt Beaty: On the surface, Beaty seems redundant on this roster. He is a left-handed hitter who plays primarily first base and left field. And yet, he is still here, having logged nearly 90 days of major league service and counting this season. A 12th-round pick in 2015 — a Dodgers draft class headlined by Buehler — Beaty is a high-contact hitter who can produce against righties and provide some positional flexibility. In 160 major league plate appearances, he owns a .292/.319/.487 slash line. But he is no better than the 13th position player if the Dodgers are at full strength. That may or may not earn him a spot on the postseason roster.
6. INF Gavin Lux: The Dodgers don’t just see Lux as a longtime contributor for their franchise; they see him as an instant leader in their clubhouse, even though he’s a 21-year-old who has yet to play his first major league game. But they do not see him as an option for this year’s postseason run, even though his Triple-A slash line — .452/.537/.841 in 149 plate appearances — is absurd. Max Muncy has proven he can adequately handle second base, a move that prompts Cody Bellinger to play first and Verdugo and Pederson to occupy the outfield corners against right-handers. If not Muncy, the Dodgers can use Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez or Jedd Gyorko, all of whom should soon return off the IL. But Lux was the one this front office basically refused to trade away. His talent will tantalize.
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