LOS ANGELES — As he walked into a big league clubhouse that could soon be his home, Miguel Vargas was giddy.
He spotted his locker, tucked away in a back corner of the Dodgers clubhouse, and settled into a locker usually reserved for a two-time All-Star in Max Muncy. To his right was Diego Cartaya, a consensus top-100 prospect who Athleticism‘s Keith Law said: ‘No. 1 overall bullish outlook. And to his left, occupying the double-wide locker that usually belongs to Justin Turner, was the electric starting pitcher of the day in Bobby Miller, the Dodgers’ 2020 first-round pick.
So Vargas spotted a whiteboard between their lockers and scribbled down a message:
Arriving at the Dodgers clubhouse today for the Futures Game, Miguel Vargas went to leave a message for his fellow Dodgers prospect on one of the whiteboards: pic.twitter.com/9RtpqOlFbJ
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) July 16, 2022
Then he asked people to sign his Futures Game jersey, Miller included.
The Dodgers prospects are the latest the glittering farm system has sent to represent the organization in the Futures game — this time at their ballpark. All three landed starting nods in the festivities — Miller on the mound, Cartaya behind the plate and Vargas hitting in the middle of the order while playing second base.
“It was kind of a special moment,” Vargas said. “I hope we can do that soon in the future, with the Dodgers. … It was an emotional day. Being at Dodger Stadium, all the fans here, it’s probably the best time I’ve ever played baseball.
It wasn’t the only time Cartaya was able to catch Miller in this stadium. They hope it won’t be the last.
“It was awesome,” Miller said. “Hopefully one day it could be like that in the big leagues one day.”
Cartaya added, “Hopefully I’ll be here soon. It’s my dream, that I can play more here.
Miller’s whole game is loud, from the chain around his neck to the high-end Jordans he said he’s had in his locker for months waiting to step out for Saturday’s game to the 100 mph pure gasoline in his right arm.
But the key for Miller, whom Law ranked baseball’s 50th most preseason prospect, at Double-A Tulsa this year was to stay out of that heat. The Dodgers have made adjustments with the right-hander from the time they snatched him from Louisville in 2020, changing his approach from heavy fastball to four-seam lead, while working with him to add more real spin, or laugh, to the radiator.
All that warmer focus kinda hit him — in his first 15 starts (67 2/3 innings) with Tulsa this season, he posted a 4.12 ERA. So naturally, the Dodgers are re-emphasizing the other aspects of his arsenal.
“My curveball usage has increased a lot more than ever in my life,” Miller said Saturday morning. “Trying to lower the fastball percentage a bit, use my other pitches to protect my fastball to improve my fastball. So that’s kind of what I’m into right now.
He’s an arsenal of power, which generated plenty of strikeouts and saw multiple triple-digit speed readings when he started on Saturday. He allowed a run in his only inning of work, but landed three strikeouts — two on his substitution and another on the aforementioned curveball.
Cartaya, the 20-year-old backstop who coached him behind the plate, has drawn rave reviews dating back to how he handled a big-league staff at the 2020 alternate training site and placed him 13th in the Law’s preseason roster.
This pandemic year, along with back and hamstring issues last year, limited Cartaya to 80 professional games entering this season – and it’s been a learning curve ever since. Offensive production has been stunning, including a .937 OPS since his time at High-A Great Lakes. But the defensive grind of playing every day has been an adjustment.
“I’m trying to learn what it feels like, how to take care of my body,” Cartaya said.
Cartaya burned a ball on his first at-bat, immediately driving it 104 mph down the middle and racing to second when Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez dropped him. He would end the day with a groundout in his only other at bat.
But no one drew more immediate attention to the event than Vargas, the gifted Cuban hitter (No. 62 on Law’s list) whose smooth swing put him on the verge of a call-up with an .880 OPS in his first 395 plate appearances. this year with Triple-A Oklahoma City. His performance was tame – a four-pitch walk and a groundout – but his arrival could just come down to an opportunity. It’s the one the Dodgers are trying to generate by moving Vargas to left field (he also played third, second and first base).
He’s adapted well to this new place, adapting to the readings and ranking there quite passably – especially considering the bat.
Together, they exemplify the kind of stellar perspective depth that led Law to rank the Dodgers’ system as the best in baseball — and could find them in pre-deadline trade conversations, which just got hotter with the likes of Juan Soto potentially on the market.
“I’m just worried about doing my job,” Vargas said, “being consistent when I go out on the field and I don’t think about those kinds of rumors so much. I just want to think (about) and play baseball.
Cartaya added: “I only care about playing. I don’t really listen to what they say or speculate about me. I know I can play and I just want to play.
The Dodgers injured list could form quite a bullpen: Blake Treinen, Daniel Hudson, Tommy Kahnle, Brusdar Graterol, Victor González, Danny Duffy and even Jimmy Nelson (although the odds of him starting this season have always been slim).
Which only further illustrates the importance of a reliever the Dodgers landed in a little-heralded waiver request last August.
“Oh man,” manager Dave Roberts said of what his bullpen would be like without Evan Phillips, “it would be hard to imagine.”
The Rays initially singled out Phillips for assignment in hopes of sneaking him through the waivers and keeping him in the organization, exploiting a slider that has become one of the majors’ deadliest weapons. The Dodgers are the beneficiaries, with Phillips becoming their most valuable reliever in the first half.
They continue to remodel his arsenal. Phillips, 27, who has posted a 1.50 ERA in his first 36 appearances this season, has already added a cutter at the request of the Dodgers this spring training, giving him a complementary weapon to use against left-handed hitters – he is allowed just seven hits, all singles, in the field all season.
He also added a new two-seam fastball recently. It’s a suggestion that dates back to the first two weeks of the season, helping Phillips become less predictable with his slider-heavy approach. Rather than having right-handed hitters who can sit on a fastball or a slider that Roberts says “turns left,” Phillips has a lead profile that can lean on their hands.
“I’m just trying to open up a little more space,” Phillips explained.
Phillips had thrown a brace dating back to the minor leagues before mothballing it in the majors. Over the past few months he’s been playing around with it, adding more of a sinker-like downslope. He became game-ready last month, and he’s slipped a few here and there since.
Considering the immediate dividends of working with the Dodgers’ pitching infrastructure, it was an easy sell.
“I’m willing to try anything because I know it’s in my best interest,” Phillips said. “From day one with these guys, they were just telling me they were interested in getting the best out of me.”
It paid off, making Phillips the type of reliever you’d typically imagine the Dodgers would have otherwise targeted at the trade deadline.
Tyler Anderson was not originally in the Dodgers’ plans. The southpaw signed late, even considering the surge of free agents that followed baseball’s lockout over the winter. And when they signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal in March, they really had no starting rotation spot for the longtime starter.
He opened the campaign as a long-relief option behind Tony Gonsolin, the promising but frustrating young right-hander who shook off his previous troubles to earn an All-Star selection for the first time this summer.
Now, after a last-minute change in plans by Anderson, he will join Gonsolin there as one of five Dodgers to play in the game at their home ballpark.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” Anderson said Saturday after being named to his first-team all-star replacement for San Francisco’s Carlos Rodón. Now he will have to redo his All-Star break plans after Roberts wakes up early on Saturday.
“To be able to go with these guys who are so amazing, it’s really cool.”
Anderson said he probably could have landed a starting role or a multi-year contract elsewhere before settling on the Dodgers. Armed with the club’s pitching resources and a revamped change, he responded with the best year of his career to date, posting a 2.96 ERA while leading the Dodgers with 97 1/3 innings pitched as a starter. in play on Saturday.
“I made the right decision to come here,” Anderson said. “Obviously I felt like that anyway.”
– Athleticismby Sam Blum contributed to this report.
(Top photo by (lr) Diego Cartaya, Bobby Miller and Miguel Vargas: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today)