Dodgers’ biggest problem isn’t Gavin Lux injury

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If anyone will figure a way to get to the playoffs from here, it’ll be the newly beleaguered, pared-down Dodgers — baseball’s best team in 2022 (even if they didn’t win the World Series) and arguably baseball’s best-run organization.

But today they are in something of a crisis, maybe for the first time in recent times.

The Dodgers find themselves in a sudden shortstop deficit after promising youngster Gavin Lux, who was slated to start in place of departed star Trea Turner, tore the ACL in his right knee while running the bases Monday and is out for the year.

Meanwhile, the rival mid-market Padres locked up superstar infielder Manny Machado, who briefly played shortstop for the Dodgers a couple years back, to a new $350 million extension, extending also their wonderful winter into spring.

The Dodgers did have the foresight to acquire Miguel Rojas, who’d been expected to fill a utility role — one of their bigger expenditures in their stunning winter of saving. He would appear to be the new starter — for now. That smallish Rojas deal turned out to be fortuitous. But it’s nothing like what the rival Padres are up to.

If you’re scoring at home (and you count Machado), the Padres have close to $1 billion in credible shortstops (also $340M for Fernando Tatis Jr., $280M for Xander Bogaerts and $28M for Ha-Seong Kim). With Machado’s $350M, that’s $998M.

Losing Lux is a major blow. Big picture, the Padres are an even bigger problem.

 Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux fields a ground ball during spring training
Losing Gavin Lux for the season is a Dodgers problem, but its far from their biggest issue.

Dodgers shortstop Miguel Rojas warms up during the third inning
Miguel Rojas will have a bigger role than the Dodgers initially intended.

There’s nothing they can do about their neighbor to the south, but the Dodgers are out looking for shortstop help, starting with the immediate signing of former Marlins and Mariners minor leaguer Bryson Brigman. Jose Iglesias remains on the market. Andrelton Simmons is still out there, too. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Jorge Mateo, Taylor Wells and Nicky Lopez are among several possibilities who could become available in trade (in IKF’s case, it may depend on whether he wins the Yankees’ job).

Though the idea of starting Lux was seen by some as a gamble, the Dodgers were sold enough on him to pass on four marquee shortstops this winter — including their own Turner, but also Bogaerts, Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson.

“We really believe in Gavin Lux,” Dodgers baseball president Andrew Friedman said a few days before the injury. “He was a top young player in baseball who we asked to move to different positions. He came up as a shortstop, played his whole life at shortstop.”

The Dodgers obviously wound up employing a rare pullback strategy, losing many veteran players while only spending semi-significantly on Noah Syndergaard and J.D. Martinez ($23M total) and reducing their payroll by about $40 million or so from a then-record (tied with the Mets) $300M before the Mets blew past that this year. One day we may fully understand the Dodgers’ shocking reduction in a robust market, but it appears to be related to several factors, including wanting 1) to cut back after consecutive winters of aggressive spending (Mookie Betts two winters ago and Freddie Freeman last winter), 2) to reset their tax, 3) to save for their expected try for Shohei Ohtani, and 4) to give their kids a chance — including Lux. And it makes sense to provide kids opportunities, as no one does better at drafting and developing, particularly when you consider how low the Dodgers draft annually.

Padres' Manny Machado walks to the dugout
The Padres locked up Manny Machado, their latest big-money splurge.

Anyway, their payroll is now lower than that of the Padres, something that was unthinkable until Padres owner Peter Seidler, interestingly from the iconic O’Malley family of the Dodgers, went on a shocking spending spree, gathering the type of superstar players that haven’t been seen in a Padres uniform since Mr. Padre Tony Gwynn retired. (Remember when they supposedly couldn’t afford Chase Headley?)

The Dodgers didn’t act quite that surprisingly this winter. They like their team, but they understand, following an 111-win season, they aren’t quite the same. Friedman didn’t dispute that his team’s chances aren’t quite what they were, saying, “I think last year our odds were maybe as high as they’ll ever be.”

The Dodgers are a strategic team that benefits by not setting an annual player budget but rather looks over a several-year timeline. So the payroll tends to fluctuate. Friedman flat out said the $300M payroll was “not sustainable.”

Dodgers pitcher Noah Syndergaard throws a pitch
Noah Syndergaard was one of the Dodgers’ few offseason splashes.

That said, they still look like a very nice team — with one obvious new hole. But they don’t look very likely to stay on top, not when the Padres — who knocked them out in a Division Series surprise last year — are fielding a virtual all-world team.

“I kind of like that people are writing us off some,” Friedman said. “I think it’s a really talented team that’s going to score a lot of runs and not give up a lot of runs. … I think we are a really well-balanced team that’s going to be really good.”

Knowing them, they will do as well as possible to figure out their new shortstop problem. The bigger issue is the sudden behemoth to the south.