Coming into 2018, even the most diehard Los Angeles Dodgers fans were only tangentially aware of Max Muncy‘s existence, if at all. After coming over as a free agent early in the 2017 season, Muncy put up solid numbers from Triple-A Oklahoma City, but it was nothing groundbreaking in the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League. Muncy’s .309/.414/.491 line was not even enough to earn him a spot on the 40-man roster.
That changed when Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner went down with a broken wrist late in spring training and his replacement, Logan Forsythe, struggled with a shoulder injury in early April. After letting Muncy play a few games at third base for Oklahoma City, the Dodgers called him up on April 17, his first big league stint since 2016.
Muncy played solid defense at third and showed the occasional ability to run into a pitch, but his overall batting line in his first 17 games was ugly: .190/.306/.357 with two home runs. Considering that Muncy hit just 62 homers in seven minor league seasons — and 45 of those came in either the California League or the PCL, two leagues known for their offense — there was no reason to think that a breakout was coming. Even after making the major leagues, Muncy was mostly an afterthought.
In Muncy’s next 46 games, he hit .308/.451/.734 with 18 home runs.
A slump (which started a couple weeks before he took part in the Home Run Derby, no matter what anyone wants to tell you) brought his numbers back to earth, but Muncy has put up a 1.063 OPS in the past three-plus weeks. He won’t finish the season with enough plate appearances to appear on leaderboards, but he currently has the highest slugging percentage in the National League among hitters with 400 plate appearances.
The problem is defense. Muncy’s defense was solid at third base when he first came up, but he has looked horrendous at times at the hot corner. In addition, third base mainstay Turner is healthy and productive, so there aren’t many opportunities there. Muncy has mostly played first base, with about a dozen games at second. He is the stereotypical “jack of all trades, master of none,” except that he’s only a jack of a few trades, and his mastery level is pretty low at all of them. The Dodgers have a much better defensive third baseman (Turner), a much better first baseman (Cody Bellinger), and a couple much better second basemen (Brian Dozier and Kiké Hernandez). As such, the Dodgers take a defensive hit every time Muncy is in the lineup, which raises the bar on how much offense he needs to provide to make it worth it.
The defensive situation might get even more crowded after this year. Shortstop Corey Seager should be healthy and ready to play a full season next year, and while shortstop isn’t one of the positions that Muncy has gotten time, Seager’s return could cause a ripple effect — especially if the Dodgers make an effort to retain Manny Machado in free agency. If Machado and Seager are both on the roster, that probably cuts second base out of the equation, as some combination of Machado, Seager, and Turner would likely fill second, third, and short. That leaves just first base, but Cody Bellinger is an elite defensive first baseman, and while he can also play the outfield, the Dodgers already have a logjam out there (including Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson, Alex Verdugo, and Andrew Toles, among others).
Obviously, a lot can change in one offseason. There’s no way to guess right now whether the Dodgers will re-sign Machado, or which of the outfielders listed will still be with the team when spring rolls around. But one thing we can probably guess with decent accuracy is that Muncy will still be a defensive downgrade at any position he plays.
The National League does not have the designated hitter (yet). Last year, the Dodgers traded Willie Calhoun, a great-hitting prospect whose defense made him unlikely to ever be a regular in the NL. Let’s be clear — Muncy’s defense is probably not at Calhoun’s level. Muncy has truly held his own for the most part, especially at first base. But on a team with outstanding defenders at all of his positions, it makes it tough to see where he will fit in.
Of course, the most obvious solution is to “sell high” on Muncy. “Hey, you know that guy who hit 32+ homers and led the league in slugging percentage last year? He can be yours for a steep price.” But selling high is tough, because it required (by definition) trading a guy who is currently very good. I’m on record saying that the Dodgers should have traded Kemp and/or Pederson midseason this year when their value was high, but I knew even then that it wasn’t a realistic expectation. Sell-high trades are easier in the offseason, because the great performance isn’t quite as recent and the future performance is still months away, but it’s still a challenge.
Maybe Muncy takes some reps in the outfield this winter and the Dodgers trade a couple of their logjammers. Perhaps he works on his defense at second base and forces the issue there. Or maybe the Dodgers just take the defensive hit and keep Muncy at his best position, moving Bellinger to the outfield full time.
Or maybe, the Dodgers sell high. Muncy has been outstanding this year, and it would be hard for Dodger fans to see him go. But when you’re a National League team with a DH on your roster, sometimes those tough decisions must be made.