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

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Gavin Lux watches a pitch during the second inning.

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 at second base.

Read more: Could throwing woes cost Dodgers' Gavin Lux a starting job? Dave Roberts weighs in

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 sitting out last season because of 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.

“We’re all on the same page here,” Betts said of moving to shortstop. “I genuinely do not care. I’ve said this a million times. I just want to win. You can put me wherever. As long as I’m on the diamond, I’m going to do the best I can do and we’ll see what happens after that.”

Betts did acknowledge being surprised at the decision. He also noted that, for all his experience playing shortstop in Little League and high school (he last played the position regularly as a senior at Overton High in Nashville), he doesn’t yet know exactly how difficult the transition will be on an everyday basis in the big leagues.

“Never done it so I don’t know,” he said. “We’re about to find out together.”

Another question in the wake of Friday’s announcement: How did Lux so quickly lose the starting shortstop role this spring?

All winter, the team had publicly proclaimed Lux as their best option at the position. As far back as the winter meetings, general manager Brandon Gomes said “our expectation is [Lux] is going to be our shortstop.”

Friday’s position switch came after only six exhibition — albeit miscue-riddled — games 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 to facilitate an acquisition for either establish big league pitching or an upgrade at shortstop.

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 areas 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.

Read more: 'The numbers weren't good' for Dodgers' Yoshinobu Yamamoto in second spring start

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.”

Roberts said Lux expressed some “disappointment” at the news, when he was informed by the manager Thursday.

But by Friday afternoon, Lux and Betts were on a Camelback Ranch backfield, taking grounders together at their new flip-flopped positions.

“I called him and said, 'Bro, nothing's changed, other than your view to home plate,’” Betts said of what he told Lux about the defensive change. “We're still up the middle together. We still are doing this thing together. So it doesn't really matter. We're going to the same place. We have the same goal in mind. I don't think anybody cares how we get there."

Sign up for more Dodgers news with Dodgers Dugout. Delivered at the start of each series.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.