Occasionally lost the hubbub about the pending free agency signing period is that we are looking down the barrel of some contentious labor negotiations. And an oft-cited potential ramification is the institution of the designated hitter in the National League.
To be frank, I don’t really get it. This isn’t because I have a strong ideological animosity towards the DH, but rather because I’ve never quite bought the logic that the designated hitter is some kind of win for the players. Rosters are kept the same size, after all, and while the DH does create a sense of urgency for teams to pay for a ninth position player worthy of starting, it also devalues pitchers and (probably more significantly) potential secondary bench bats, incrementally so, but there’s a lot more of them than there are designated hitters. Especially if you adjust for the fact that the New York Yankees were by far the richest team in baseball since well before the DH was invented, there isn’t some major gap between National League and American League payrolls–after all, the richer team in the Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco Bay Area markets are uniformly the NL ones.
But let’s say it happens–the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly will be in need of a new starting player, and last season exposed a lack of offense coming off the bench–the immediate decline of Matt Carpenter was a large contributing factor. Paul DeJong and Edmundo Sosa are both players I think are reasonably worthy starters, but a huge part of their value is they play a mean defensive shortstop–neither is a great hitter by the standards of a designated hitter. And while Lars Nootbaar was a pleasant surprise, he was still barely above league-average at the plate, with a wRC+ of 101 (though it is also quite possible that in that event, he would play right field and it would be Dylan Carlson play designated hitter, though I am less certain of that).
None of this is exceptional for a National League team–a DH bats far more often than a pinch hitter, so teams don’t invest nearly as much in the latter. But in the event that this changes, the Cardinals will need to adjust to the rule changes.
One thing that I think should be stressed is that a true, every single day designated hitter is somewhat rare in 2021. Less than half of American League teams had one player accumulate 300 or more plate appearances at the position, and the number can be whittled down even further considering that one of the two (along with Nelson Cruz, a legitimate DH) with over 500 plate appearances was Shohei Ohtani, who by all accounts could play right field quite well if he were not having his energy conserved for his role as a full-time starting pitcher. J.D. Martinez, the third-most prolific DH, still played in the outfield in 38 games for the Boston Red Sox, while #4 Giancarlo Stanton is in a somewhat unique situation of being a career-long right fielder acquired by a team that already had a (better defensive) MVP candidate right fielder in Aaron Judge because We’re The Yankees That’s Why. As much as fans with less exposure may instantly associate the position with a David Ortiz type, it is more common for a player to fall into a DH role after years of defensive decline or for the position to be treated to some extent like a place to give players off-days. If you, like me, watch a large percentage of your American League baseball during the postseason, where off-days don’t really exist, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking otherwise.
So let’s look at some candidates.
All that said about the diminishing use of the full-time DH, as far as “National League teams searching for full-time designated hitters” are concerned, the Cardinals would, relatively speaking, make a ton of sense. The Cardinals won five of the National League’s eight non-pitcher Gold Gloves, and while you could certainly nitpick some of the winners, particularly Tommy Edman, all five are widely accepted as very, very good fielders at the very least. Yadier Molina, a finalist, will of course be locked into the catcher position (though, if we’re being honest, he might sneak in some DH days too rather than taking any home games off during his swan-song season), and either the aforementioned DeJong or Sosa have been statistically strong in the field at shortstop. Dylan Carlson’s fielding isn’t elite, but in right field, he seems to be functional, and given that both Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader picked up Gold Gloves this season, it’s not as though he is being counted upon to do a lot.
The Cardinals could shuffle guys into the DH spot as pseudo-off-days, but by and large, these are guys who derive a significant amount of their value from their glove. While I will defend Cruz’s legendary misplay of David Freese’s 2011 Game 6 triple forever as being not nearly as egregious as its reputation suggests, Nelson Cruz is a true designated hitter eleven seasons later, but the guy is also still a masher. Last season, Cruz had a wRC+ of 122 and it was his worst offensive season in eight years–among Cardinals, only Goldschmidt and O’Neill hit better in 2021, and only Goldschmidt projects to be a better hitter per Steamer in 2022.
An interesting wrinkle, both a pro and con to Cruz, is that he would be the oldest player on a team that already has Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina–he will turn 42 during the 2022 season. The cons are obvious–his age suggests decline and he has played a grand total of one game in the field (at first base) over the last three seasons. But because of his age, Nelson Cruz is certainly the most promising offensive threat who would be willing to sign a one-year contract with a team. The inherent problem with locking down a designated hitter for multiple years is that your aging position players have nowhere to go from there. This won’t be a problem for the 2022 Cardinals–a large, 34 year-old first baseman is the prime candidate generally speaking, but given that Paul Goldschmidt was just a deserving Gold Glove winner, his defensive decline probably won’t arrive next season–but the future is uncertain beyond that.
The mostly DHs
This group includes the likes of Nick Castellanos, Mark Canha, Andrew McCutchen, Jorge Soler, and perhaps most notably, Kyle Schwarber. It should be noted that only two of these players, Schwarber and Soler, spent material time in 2021 as actual designated hitters (Soler began his season in the American League and Schwarber concluded his there)–Canha, McCutchen, and to a lesser extent Schwarber (thanks to J.D. Martinez) were consistently left fielders, while Castellanos was a right fielder. But in any event, unlike Nelson Cruz, all five of these guys can play positions other than designated hitter, to varying degrees of competence. This is a valuable asset for a team even if a player is in an all-DH world, because it means, for instance, that if Tyler O’Neill needs a breather or is hobbled by injuries, Andrew McCutchen can take his place for a day or two in left field.
Mark Canha’s fit with the Cardinals probably depends on whether new manager Oli Marmol is a believer in Tyler O’Neill–Center Fielder. One area where Mike Shildt confounded me a bit was his insistence on playing Dylan Carlson, a guy still finding his footing in a corner outfield spot, over Tyler O’Neill, a fleet-footed Gold Glove left fielder, in center field on days when Harrison Bader could not play. Maybe there is a reason, physical or psychological or superstitious, that O’Neill (who has played center field in MLB–just not very much and not at all since 2019) cannot fill in at the position, though on paper it would make sense, and if that ends up being the case, the Cardinals would have minimal need for a backup center fielder, and Canha’s greatest virtue relative to the other potential DHs is demonstrable recent competence in center field (Andrew McCutchen, a Hall of Very Good center fielder over the course of his career, has only played corner outfield over the last four seasons, with the exception of 15 games in 2019).
McCutchen and Castellanos are, at this point, probably similarly “yeah he can play either corner spot, but I wouldn’t recommend it regularly” types, which adds some value, but I’d rather focus on Schwarber and Soler. Soler is the riskier bet to be good in 2022, simply because he wasn’t very good in 2021–his World Series MVP turn notwithstanding, Soler was a sub-Replacement Level player and merely a league-average hitter. He did take a major offensive leap forward with the Atlanta Braves (where, um, he didn’t play DH), and unlike Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler is likely more inclined to accept a shorter contract, since he is not, October aside, not exactly at the apex of his value.
Schwarber, on the other hand, is–his 145 wRC+ was far and away the highest mark of his career. He even added a little bit of first base to his repertoire, and while his clumsy play in left field over the years with the Chicago Cubs was a one-man campaign against sabermetric defensive evaluations that graded him out fairly well in the field, he has genuinely shown a strong arm and more range than you might expect. To be clear: Kyle Schwarber is not in the same neighborhood of Tyler O’Neill defensively, so on an everyday basis, Schwarber would and should DH. But in a world where Harrison Bader is out of commission, a Schwarber-O’Neill-Carlson outfield wouldn’t likely be a complete disaster. But Schwarber, who will be just 29 on Opening Day 2022, is going to demand at least four or five years as a free agent, and do the Cardinals want to commit to a designated hitter whose pre-2021 offensive track record was relatively uninspiring by the very high standards of a full-time DH? In 2022, the Cardinals would love Kyle Schwarber, but does he mark a substantial enough improvement over internal options to justify the potentially steep downsides down the road?
Open up the Juan Yepez floodgates
Juan Yepez, the Atlanta Braves prospect that the Cardinals acquired in 2017 so that they could keep Mike Matheny from playing Matt Adams in left field anymore, turning into a legitimate offensive prospect is one of the funnier St. Louis Cardinals developments of the last half-decade. But apparently not playing baseball in 2020 turned him into a superhero–in 357 plate appearances last season at AAA Memphis (he also had 77 in AA Springfield and was awesome, but I don’t want to bury the lead), Yepez hit 22 home runs and showed tremendous plate discipline–his final season numbers came out to a .382 on-base percentage and a .971 OPS.
The drawback to Juan Yepez, who is on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, is that he is primarily a first baseman, with some ability to play third base and left field, and that he is thus primarily playable in the field at positions currently held by Gold Glove winners who are firmly entrenched in the lineup. Without a designated hitter, Yepez, who is just 23 and will be 24 by Opening Day, would be an obvious trade candidate, but he instead could have immediate value at DH while also functioning as a backup for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado (who rarely take days off, and thus investing in a full-time backup for them is largely a waste of money) and perhaps getting some playing time in a corner outfield spot.
Per Steamer’s projections, Yepez already projects to be the fourth best hitter on the St. Louis Cardinals in 2022, trailing Paul Goldschmidt and barely trailing Tyler O’Neill and Nolan Arenado. But this is also a player with less than a full season facing AAA pitching who has never faced Major League pitching–there is some risk involved with him. His 154 wRC+ in AAA last season is obviously quite appetizing, but one of the handful of players to outpace him last season was Johan Camargo, the formerly touted Braves prospect who couldn’t stick in the Majors because of his terrible offense, with a 59 wRC+ in 391 plate appearances over the last three seasons. In the previous AAA season of 2019, Yepez’s 154 wRC+ was matched by David Freitas, who hasn’t managed to stick in Major League Baseball despite the pronounced advantage of being a catcher who can wRC+ 154 in triple-A.
But the Juan Yepez route does not mean giving him an extension before his career starts. Being dissuaded of a prospect because sometimes prospects do not work out is pessimism for its own sake if also ignoring that being good at lower levels of baseball has a really strong correlation with being good at higher levels. If Yepez simply reaches his projection, one which is not a far cry from the designated hitters they could pursue as free agents, then the Cardinals will have been wise to stick with him and devote resources to improving greater areas of need. But if he doesn’t, consider once again Kyle Schwarber. Jorge Soler is a bit unfair–the return the Kansas City Royals got for him at the trade deadline was comically low, but he was also having a truly horrible season. But Kyle Schwarber was not, and all the Washington Nationals got in return for him was Aldo Ramirez, the #22 prospect on the Boston Red Sox.
A designated hitter, or simply a defensively mediocre player, can be found rather cheap to fill a hole–sure, you’d rather not give up your #22 prospect if it can be avoided, but is it really going to destroy your organization? Jesús Aguilar will likely be available at the 2022 trade deadline. As will Trey Mancini. As will Wil Myers. The exact options are hard to know for certain right now, but they always seem to emerge. And even if scrambling next July for a designated hitter feels like sloppy team management, it would likely be less costly than devoting big money to a positionless bat this winter.