Dodgers roster moves: Jason Heyward returns to lineup, Max Muncy joins injured list

Jason Heyward bats against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium

The Dodgers knew for a while they had one big roster decision to make.

On Tuesday, an unexpected injury forced them to make two.

The Dodgers activated outfielder Jason Heyward and called up former top infield prospect Miguel Vargas. They optioned outfielder James Outman to the minor leagues and put third baseman Max Muncy on the 10-day injured list because of an oblique strain.

Manager Dave Roberts said that Muncy, who is batting .223 with a .798 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, nine homers and 28 RBIs in 40 games and has shown dramatic improvement on defense, suffered his injury during batting practice before Thursday night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds.

“He felt it grab a little bit on his swing, so he cut his batting practice short,” Roberts said. “He had an MRI [Friday] and it showed a mild strain, Grade I, but I think we got ahead of it. He’ll need a handful of days to recover, and he won’t swing a bat for a few days, but the hope is he’ll be back on the 11th day.”

Heyward’s activation wasn’t a surprise, after manager Dave Roberts announced Thursday the veteran had completed his rehabilitation assignment after a six-week back injury.

Outman’s demotion to the minor leagues wasn’t a huge shock either, with the second-year player batting .147 with a .516 OPS, three homers, 10 RBIs and 40 strikeouts in 36 games.

Read more: 'He’s on a mission': How Max Muncy quelled concerns about his defense at third base

It had become apparent in recent weeks that, upon Heyward’s return, either Outman or slumping veteran Chris Taylor (who is batting .083) probably would be moved off the roster.

A key difference between the two was that Outman had minor-league options, while Taylor has almost $30 million left owed on a contract that doesn’t expire until the end of next season.

But Outman also placed third in National League rookie-of-the-year voting last season, batting .248 with a .790 OPS, 23 homers and 70 RBIs in 151 games.

“It was a tough one — I don't think any of us expected to be in this position, given last year and our expectations for him this season,” Roberts said of Outman. “But with the inconsistencies, the struggles, Jason coming back, Andy [Pages’] play in the last six weeks, we just felt James needed an opportunity to go down and play every day.

“There's something to getting out of this performance-based environment and just going out there and playing baseball. Once we can get him back on track, then we can get him back here.”

In Muncy’s absence, Roberts said Kiké Hernández and Miguel Rojas will split time at third base. Pages will take over as the primary center fielder. The left-handed-hitting Heyward will reprise his part-time role in right field, and Teoscar Hernández will be the primary left fielder. Teoscar Hernández will likely move to right field against left-handed starters, with Vargas and Taylor splitting time in left field.

Kiké Hernández, Rojas, Vargas and Taylor all bat right-handed, so who plays third base and left field each night will be based primarily on performance, Roberts said.

“I think the defense across the board is pretty good with all those guys, but I don't think any of those four has earned the opportunity to play every single day,” Roberts said. “So now, it's about when you get opportunities, go out there and play well to create more opportunities for yourself.”

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The Dodgers hope to benefit from the hot bat of Vargas, giving the 24-year-old a chance to bounce back from last year’s rookie struggles.

Vargas, who came up through the minor leagues as a third baseman, was moved to second base to open the 2023 season, but he struggled defensively and often looked overmatched at the plate.

The native of Cuba suffered two injuries to his right (top) hand, one in spring training and one in the first week of the regular season, and hit .195 with a .672 OPS, seven homers, 15 doubles, 32 RBIs, 61 strikeouts and 38 walks in 81 games. He was demoted to triple-A at the All-Star break and never recalled.

“I feel like the injuries I had last year really affected my swing,” Vargas said before Friday night’s game. “I was doing a lot of bad habits, putting the ball in the air a little bit more, and it was hard for me to get back to what I wanted to be.”

Vargas, who converted to left field this spring, was much more productive in 39 games for Oklahoma City this season, batting .295 with a 1.019 OPS, eight homers, 14 doubles and 38 RBIs, and he had more walks (34) than strikeouts (30).

"He's back to being who he is, and I hope that carries over,” Roberts said. “He has a lot more clarity. He's taking better swings, better at-bats, much better production. We felt that he needed a change in environment [last season] and to his credit, he's dominated down there, and he's created an opportunity for himself.”

In other roster news Friday, the Dodgers freshened up their bullpen by calling up Ricky Vanasco and optioning Nick Ramirez. Earlier in the day, the team also announced it had acquired left-handed pitcher Anthony Banda from the Cleveland Guardians in exchange for cash considerations.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.