Los Angeles Dodgers trade deadline primer: 3 early storylines to watch

The Dodgers’ first 67 games of the season have yielded the status quo. They’ve won 42 of those games, four wins better than their pace a year ago. They’re one win off their pace from the 111-win season before that, and level with where they were in 2021.

The regular-season success has been a staple. Unlike much of the rest of the sport, they are able to make decisions strictly through what they will look like in October rather than just getting there.

Which makes the real question: What does the roster look like that gets there? With fewer than 50 days until the annual trade deadline on July 30, the focus has solidified.

Bottom of the order

Gavin Lux emerged from the visiting manager’s office at Yankee Stadium on Saturday’s office feeling encouraged. The 26-year-old second baseman was not summoned to speak to Dave Roberts as a disciplinary measure, but as a matter of reinforcement. His first season coming off a torn ACL in his right knee has not gone well. Some defensive lapses cost him the starting shortstop job. Despite being kept in the lineup for his bat, he woke up Saturday morning with a .538 OPS. Roberts’ message was still simple: You’re doing a lot of things right.

“I think the last like month or so I’ve felt a lot better and obviously the results haven’t shown (it),” Lux said Saturday after leaving Roberts’ office. It’s clear that if Lux is going to be a productive hitter again, it won’t be with his power but his bat-to-ball skills. The key, Roberts emphasized in that meeting, is “trying to attack the outside part of the plate.”

Lux hits against the Cincinnati Reds in a game last month. (Katie Stratman / USA Today)

“Just trying to drive the s––– out of the ball to left field,” Lux explained. Sunday, he collected a season-best three hits. The Dodgers have been patient with Lux because of his talent and the circumstance of coming off a major injury. He also hasn’t been the lone culprit of one of the most top-heavy lineups in the sport. Their top two hitters, Mookie Betts and Shohei Ohtani, have formed the best such duo in the majors. Their bottom three are 24th in baseball by OPS.

Being without Max Muncy has only made the issue worse. His return isn’t imminent.

The bottom three’s production has ticked up some over the last week, but is an issue that isn’t going away. They’ve committed resources and now playing time to let Chris Taylor try to figure things out, but only Martín Maldonado has a lower OPS in baseball among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances than he does (.314). Kiké Hernández had a solid weekend at the plate in the Bronx, collecting a homer and a double, but hasn’t quite found his footing yet. Finding another corner outfielder who can fill that end of a platoon opposite of Jason Heyward (who has a .720 OPS after missing a month) is a need.

Center field remains another area to monitor, though Andy Pages has shown solid progress over the last week. Despite a baserunning lapse and a dropped fly ball in Sunday’s series finale against the New York Yankees, Roberts called it a positive experience for Pages. He’s been hitting the ball hard. Since the Dodgers arrived in New York to play the Mets, he has a .944 OPS (entering Tuesday).

“I think his swing has gotten a little bit more flat,” Roberts said, touching on a recurring teaching point from Pages’ prospect days.

Bullpen help?

The Dodgers have gotten a combined 27 appearances from what, on paper, was supposed to be their bridge to closer Evan Phillips this season. Brusdar Graterol hasn’t pitched yet this season, though he’s progressed to throwing bullpens. Joe Kelly hasn’t pitched in a month with a shoulder strain. Ryan Brasier is more than a month into what will be at least a two-month absence due to a calf injury. That’s a lot for a bullpen that has still performed admirably in their absence. Attrition always remains a concern, however, especially with workloads building up for veteran options like Blake Treinen and Daniel Hudson, who have hardly pitched the last couple seasons.

So the Dodgers will survey the relief options out there. An early find: Anthony Banda has yet to allow an earned run in his first eight appearances while firing mid-90s velocity from the left side. That’s the market for relievers that the Dodgers usually shop in, and they’ve had success doing it.

Who’s at short?

Looking strictly at FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, only the Baltimore Orioles (4.4) have gotten more production out of the shortstop position than the Betts-led Dodgers. Among shortstops, Betts trails only Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson and Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr.

Seeing that, it’s hard not to see Betts’ run at the position as anything other than a success. But is it the solution the Dodgers roll into October with? Likely yes, but that’s not as certain. Betts’ defense remains a work in progress, depending on what metrics you look at. Only four players have committed more errors, as Betts has developed a feel for the new position; Outs Above Average grades him at minus-7 thus far.

It’s part of the learning curve that comes with such an audacious transition. His strides have been noted, even as Betts’ frustration with his miscues has mounted. Betts’ offense on the whole has provided a surplus at the position much like it did in previous years with Trea Turner and Corey Seager (though both came up at shortstop, and Seager in particular has graded just fine there defensively).

And the alternatives might be relatively difficult to find. Miguel Rojas certainly can handle the position defensively and is on pace for his best full offensive season (a .771 OPS through 107 plate appearances) but the circumstances behind his part-time role are a reminder of how cautious the Dodgers will have to be with the 35-year-old. Rojas has seen sparse starts for the last couple weeks due to lingering leg soreness, Roberts said this week.

Willy Adames has long made sense as an option. The Dodgers’ interest in him continued through this spring, when the club swapped Betts and Lux in the infield, and he’s having another strong campaign. But the Milwaukee Brewers’ firm status as contenders at least presents something of a hurdle.

Bo Bichette would make some sense, but has slumped thus far this season and the Toronto Blue Jays have positioned themselves as buyers, not sellers, for now.

Other options include Paul DeJong, who has had a bounce-back year with the Chicago White Sox. Amed Rosario, last year’s deadline acquisition, has bounced around with the Tampa Bay Rays. Luis Rengifo has been a Dodgers trade target in the past, but was also part of the last major potential cross-city trade between the Dodgers and Angels — one that got scuttled by Angels owner Arte Moreno and kept Pages a Dodger.

(Top photo of Willy Adames: John Fisher / Getty Images)

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