A new rule banning infield shifts will require big league second basemen to cover far more ground than they have for the past decade or so, when teams regularly position three infielders on the right side against left-handed hitters.
That could make it risky for a team with World Series aspirations to entrust the position to a rookie who made only 27 starts at second base in five minor league seasons and is not considered an elite defender at his primary spot — third base.
But it won’t deter the Dodgerswho will open spring training in Phoenix this week with a highly touted prospect Miguel Vargasthe best pure hitter in their farm system, penciled in at second base, Gavin Lux taking over at shortstop and first-time utility player Max Muncy Manning third.
Only veteran first baseman Freddie Freeman will return in the same spot he played last season, the winter free-agent departures of shortstop Trea Turner and third baseman Justin Turner leading to some major turnover in the infield.
“In talking with [third base coach] Dino Ebel, Max has become pretty comfortable at third base,” manager Dave Roberts said at the recent FanFest in Dodger Stadium. “And I think as far as the range, ability and foot speed, Miguel can handle [second base].
“He needs to continue to work low to the ground as an infielder, but with his baseball IQ, the jumps he gets on the ball, I think this is something that makes more sense.”
There is a consensus among talent evaluators that the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Vargas, a 23-year-old from Cuba who bats from the right side, is ready to hit in the majors.
Vargas has a .313 average, .878 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 49 homers and 265 RBIs in 410 minor league games and has plus pull-side power, advanced plate discipline and he can drive the ball to right-center – field gap.
Defensively, Vargas has good hands and a strong arm, but some scouts believe that slow feet limited his range and mobility in the infield earlier in his career. Vargas made 203 of his 291 minor league starts at third, committing 44 errors in 523 chances for a .916 fielding percentage.
But triple-A manager Travis Barbary, who had him for 113 games at Oklahoma City last year, is confident that Vargas can handle third base or second in the big leagues.
“I actually think he will be more comfortable at second than he was at third,” Barbary said. “He always said second base was his favorite position. He did a lot of pregame work on the right side and was positioned there a lot as the third baseman in the shift last year. He spent a lot of time around the bag, a lot of time in the four-hole, and I feel like he was able to show some of his athleticism.”
Vargas, who also plays left field and first base, started only seven games at second base last season but “seemed more focused and locked in because more things tend to happen in the middle of the infield,” Barbary said. “I think he took pride in the fact that he wanted to show everybody he could play second base and play it pretty well.”
Vargas also spent several days in Miami this winter working out at shortstop with the new Dodgers infielder Miguel Rojas, an elite defender who was acquired from the Marlins on Jan. 11 and is expected to play a utility role.
“We work at shortstop because I feel like if you can play short, you can play other positions — that’s my mentality,” Rojas, speaking at FanFest, said of Vargas. “He looks really good. He reached out to me, which tells me that he wants to be a good defender, not just a good player who is happy to get an opportunity.”
Both Roberts and Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, said during the winter meetings in December that Vargas’ best defensive position is third base and that he was the most likely among a group of five or six top prospects to impact the club immediately .
An infield of Rojas at shortstop, Lux at second and Muncy or Vargas at third would be the best defensive alignment for the Dodgers. But the trio of Vargas at second, Lux at shortstop and Muncy at third has more offensive potential.
“They didn’t tell me straight up [that I’d be playing second base], but I’m ready for it,” Vargas said at FanFest. “I’ve been working a lot and I feel a lot more comfortable there.”
Barbary is confident that the Dodgers will use scouting reports and spray charts to position Vargas in the best spots, but it will be up to the rookie to read swings and get a quick first step towards the ball.
“Even though he’s a long-lever guy and a little bit taller, he moved really well in the infield and showed more athleticism and range last year,” Barbary said. “I feel the one thing he will have to continue to work on is the double-play turn, the footwork around the bag.
“When he was in the shift as a third baseman, his feeds to second were always pretty consistent. But now the runner is coming from behind you, it’s a different look, and he’s going to have to get comfortable again with that 6-4-3 double play. I know Dino and [infield coach Chris Woodward] are going to spend a ton of time with him this spring, I think he will absolutely be fine.”
So it does JD Martinezthe veteran designated hitter who signed with the Dodgers on Dec. 29 and worked out with Vargas — under the guidance of Dodgers hitting coach Rob Van Scoyoc — for a few days in Fort Lauderdale in January.
The former Boston Red Sox slugger made such a first impression on Vargas that the rookie referred to Martinez as his “big brother” at FanFest. Vargas also made a strong impression on Martinez.
“Rob was telling me about this kid, ‘Vargy,’ and ‘how much he looks up to you and how much he idolizes you,'” Martinez said. “He brought Vargy to work out, and we kind of hit it off.
“He’s just a very humble kid, a great kid. You can tell he came from a good family and has a lot of talent. I’m excited about him. I think he could be something special. He’s got great tools and great ability.”
Times staff writer Jack Harris contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.