Dodgers move Mookie Betts to shortstop, Gavin Lux to second amid defensive struggles

After Gavin Lux committed one of his several defensive miscues this spring in a game against the Cincinnati Reds last week, one rival scout in attendance proposed a solution to the Dodgers’ growing defensive dilemma at shortstop.

“I say, try Mookie,” the scout said.

Barely a week later, the Dodgers arrived at the same conclusion.

In a drastic change of plans less than two weeks before opening day, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announced Friday that Mookie Betts will now be the team’s starting shortstop, and that Lux will shift from short to second base.

“Where we’re at on the calendar, just to make this move right now, it’s something that the entire organization feels is the right thing to do,” Roberts said, speaking to reporters shortly before a Friday night Cactus League game in which Betts was listed as the shortstop and Lux was lined up at second base.

Is the decision permanent, for now?

“Sort of, yeah,” Roberts answered, indicating this is the way the Dodgers will, at the very least, line up their infield defense to start the 2024 season. “I like that. Permanent, for now.”

Roberts tried to rationalize the decision in myriad ways.

He said moving Lux from shortstop back to second base, where he spent all of his breakout 2022 campaign before missing last season with a torn ACL, should ease the physical and mental toll on the former top prospect, whose defensive woes had become a glaring source of concern in the Dodgers’ build-up to the season.

“He’s such a great competitor and wants to perform well,” Roberts said of Lux. “But we just felt that, maybe taking [off] a little bit of that pressure to throw the ball across the diamond might help him.”

Roberts also said the team is confident in Betts’ ability to handle shortstop. It was the position the former MVP played predominantly as a youth player. It was also a role he returned to last year for the first time in the majors, making 16 appearances there during a wave of early-season injuries for the team.

“I think he’s excited about this,” Roberts said of Betts. “And I think that Gavin’s looking forward to getting over there and just playing. Like I said, the calendar, where we’re at, we got to make a decision. I think right now that’s best for the Dodgers.”

What the Dodgers haven’t explained as clearly: How Lux went from being the team’s publicly proclaimed starting shortstop for all of the winter — general manager Brandon Gomes said as far back as the winter meetings that, “our expectation is [Lux] is going to be our shortstop” — to losing the job after just six miscue-riddled games at the position in Cactus League play.

“He has worked his tail off,” Roberts said of Lux, who spent all of last year rehabbing after suffering his season-ending knee injury early last spring. “It’s not from lack of effort or preparation.”

But, Roberts added, “we have a lot of eyes on our players. And collectively, we just felt from what we’ve seen, it’s the right thing to do.”

In hindsight, it simply appears the Dodgers weren’t as committed to Lux being their starting shortstop as they tried to make it seem.

The club evaluated external shortstop options this offseason, according to people with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly. Milwaukee Brewers slugger Willy Adames is one trade target they have long coveted, though no deal materialized between the teams this winter, even with Adames entering his final year before free agency.

Back around the winter meetings, there was even a belief from some people in the organization and around the industry that the Dodgers would have been open to trading Lux, in order to facilitate an acquisition for either establish big-league pitching or an upgrade at the shortstop position.

Yet, when the team arrived at spring camp four weeks ago, Lux’s name was still atop the depth chart at shortstop.

His grasp on that role, however, was evidently weaker than it appeared.

While the Dodgers remain high on Lux’s offensive ability — he batted .276 with a .745 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2022, and has been particularly effective in his career against right-handed pitching — his defense has long been among the most inconsistent aspects of his high-potential skill set.

The former first-round pick battled throwing yips as a minor leaguer, then graded out as a relatively league-average shortstop defensively during his first three MLB seasons, according to defensive metrics from Fangraphs and Sports Info Solutions.

Lux seemed to find some comfort as the Dodgers’ everyday second base in 2022. While his .973 fielding percentage ranked just 17th out of 21 MLB second baseman (minimum 700 innings at the position), he was worth three “defensive runs saved,” per Sports Info Solutions, and earned praise from Dodgers brass for his performance in the field.

However, upon switching back to shortstop this spring, Lux’s fundamentals, foot work and throwing accuracy all looked off — prompting the Dodgers to begin discussing his position change around the middle of this week.

“From what Gavin did at second base [in 2022],” Roberts said, “you feel good about him going back there.”

That doesn’t mean, however, the news was easy for the 26-year-old infielder to take.

“His response was, ‘I just want to win. I just want to help this team win and be a part of what we’re doing,’” Roberts said of his conversation with Lux. “Obviously, there’s some disappointment. I’d be surprised if there weren’t. But he’s a professional and he’s gonna embrace being our starting second baseman.”

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