This year’s Dodgers spring training will be more interesting than most, simply because there are so many questions left to be answered with the team. One of the biggest things manager Dave Roberts and his staff need to decide is who will be playing center field in Los Angeles this year. Let’s do our part by guessing who gets that job.
There are three guys on the current 40-man roster competing for the starting job in center field: Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson, and James Outman. There are also two viable options who aren’t on the 40-man roster: Jason Heyward and Bradley Zimmer.
Let’s start by trying to eliminate a couple. Heyward has played some center field in his career, but not on any sort of regular basis since 2019. He was solid there, but not outstanding, and age 33 would be a weird time to move a guy to the most demanding position in fair territory. If Heyward makes the team, it seems likely that he’d be more of a left-fielder who occasionally fills in in center and right.
Taylor also seems unlikely to start in center, simply because so much of his value comes from his ability to move around the field. The addition of Miguel Rojas makes Taylor’s infield flexibility a little less necessary, but still, having a guy who can play six different positions is a very valuable thing, especially if he can bounce back from last year’s lousy offensive season. So Taylor would probably be a “last resort” option to be the starter in center.
Moving on to the next least likely, we have Zimmer. Zimmer is a good defensive center-fielder, but he’s never hit at the big-league level. His best season came in 2021, when he posted an OPS+ of 85, but he also struck out 122 times in just 348 plate appearances (35.1%), almost exactly the same strikeout rate Taylor had last year. The difference is that for Taylor, it was an anomaly — his career K rate coming into 2022 was a much more reasonable 27.5%. Zimmer’s career mark is 34%. Simply put, for Zimmer to win the job, the Dodgers would have to do some magic to fix his swing. It’s happened before, but it’s still not smart to bet on it.
That leaves us with Thompson and Outman. I almost started this paragraph with “Speaking of strikeouts…” because these two guys both strike out a lot, too. Trayce had a successful season in 2022 because of a remarkably high BABIP — he hit .389 on balls in play with the Dodgers, while his career mark is .281. Thompson’s 36.0% K rate was higher than Taylor’s, and Roberts referred to CT3’s K rate as “alarming” midseason. To put it bluntly, if Trayce continues to strike out that much, his BABIP is probably going to normalize and he’s going to have a much worse season than he did last year.
Outman isn’t exactly Joe Contact, either. He went 6-for-13 in his very short time in the big leagues last year, but all seven of his at-bats that weren’t hits were strikeouts. His career BABIP right now sits at 1.000, and that’s the definition of unsustainable. In the minors, where we have a much bigger sample size, Outman’s K rate was 27.2% in 2022 and 26.4% overall in his four seasons in the minors. Those numbers are higher than ideal, but they’re definitely workable if he can play a solid defensive center field and hit the ball hard when he does hit it.
From the Dodgers’ standpoint, they’d love to have Outman come in and earn the starting job in center. It would give them more long-term stability there and let them use Thompson, Taylor, and maybe Heyward in other roles. So as we head into spring, the job is probably his to lose — not quite to the extent of Miguel Vargas, who has essentially been named the starter at 2B, but not too far off.
So we’re going with Outman as primary center-fielder, with plenty of other guys getting some time there.