With Miguel Vargas at second base, Dodgers have 'an expectation he will get better'
The hesitation in his response when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was recently asked to assess the overall defensive play of rookie second baseman Miguel Vargas spoke volumes.
“I think it’s been … OK,” Roberts said, pausing to find the right description. “Part of having him take on this position this year is we knew there would be some growing pains. But there’s also an expectation he will get better. There are some plays I think we’d like to have back, but the bet is on the person, the player and the athlete.”
Vargas, 23, made only 27 starts at second base in five minor league seasons and was not considered an elite defender at his primary position, third base. So it seemed risky for the Dodgers to entrust the spot to him, especially with a new ban on infield shifts requiring second basemen to cover far more ground than they had in the past decade.
At 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, Vargas is taller, with longer levers, than most big league second basemen, and some talent evaluators wondered whether he’d have the quickness, range and athleticism to handle the position. And though he worked out regularly at second base in the minors, Vargas had very little game experience there.
But one month into his first season at a new position, Vargas has been … well, OK. He is neither an early Gold Glove Award favorite nor a glaring defensive liability.
Vargas has committed only two errors entering Saturday night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals, one on a bobbled grounder in the hole that led to an unearned run in a 3-2 loss to the Cubs on April 16, but he has looked good turning and starting double plays.
Advanced metrics are less kind to Vargas, who ranks 17th among 19 qualifying second basemen with minus-3 defensive runs saved in 25 games, according to Fangraphs, which appears to ding Vargas for his lack of range.
But the same site rates Vargas ninth with an overall defensive score of 0.5, which measures a player’s total defensive value relative to league average.
If Vargas can start driving the ball more consistently — he was considered the best pure hitter in the farm system, with a .313 average, .878 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 49 homers and 265 RBIs in 410 minor league games — he would likely offset any defensive shortcomings.
But the Cuban native entered Saturday with a modest .219 average, .705 OPS, one homer, four doubles, one triple and eight RBIs.
“Big kid like this who everybody thought would play third base, and now you get a guy who can hit the ball, drive the ball out of the park eventually, playing second? That’s good value for us and for him,” third base coach Dino Ebel said. “There are going to be mistakes [defensively], and he’s going to have to go through that process at this level.
“But he works hard. He’s mentally in tune. He slows the game down. He’s got a slow heartbeat, which I like. He doesn’t get excited in the moment. So I”m pleased with his performance so far. It’s only gonna get better.”
Vargas has been a constant in a middle infield that, because of injuries, has already seen four players — Miguel Rojas, Chris Taylor, Mookie Betts and Luke Williams — play shortstop this season.
Rojas, a 2022 Gold Glove finalist acquired from Miami in January, was expected to man shortstop after Gavin Lux suffered a season-ending knee injury in February, but hamstring and groin injuries have limited him to 11 games.
Vargas and Rojas, 34, have developed a good rapport on and off the field, a relationship that began when they began working out together in Miami in mid-January and continued through six weeks of spring training in Arizona.
“He’s one of the friendliest guys in the sport, and I’m really glad he’s here,” Vargas said. “He really helps me a lot as a young player, with things like my footwork around the base, making my hands work better on double plays, little things in the game. He’s given me a lot of information that I can put into play.”
Rojas, who has played all four infield spots during his 10-year career, helped smooth Vargas’ transition from a corner-infield spot to the middle.
“You’re not moving too much at first and third — balls get hit hard to you, and you’re mostly using reaction — but it’s different up the middle,” Rojas said. “You gotta move your feet and get into good fielding position, and you’re gonna have to make longer throws. You have to be aggressive toward the ball going forward as much as side to side.”
The Dodgers would like to see Vargas be a little more aggressive in the batter’s box, too. Vargas was among major league leaders with 13 walks in his first 11 games, but he had only two extra-base hits and three RBIs in that span.
Asked before an April 15 game whether Vargas’ patience was causing him to be too passive at the plate, Roberts said he would “do a little fly-by” Vargas’ locker to discuss the matter. Vargas singled in his first at-bat that night and doubled in a two-run ninth in a 2-1 walk-off win over the Cubs and hit .270 (10 for 27) over his next 10 games.
“I want him to be as aggressive as he can in the strike zone,” Roberts said. “I think for me, it’s just go out there and keep taking good at-bats.”
Vargas had one of his best at-bats of the season Friday night, jumping on an 0-and-2 curve from Cardinals reliever Chris Stratton and sending a two-run homer to left field in the seventh inning of a 7-3 win. The rookie hopes his first homer of the season helps unlock some of his power at the plate.
“Yeah, it feels great — that was my first homer in a while,” Vargas said. “Hopefully I’ll feel more confident at the plate, now that I’m thinking I can hit a homer.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.