We still don't know when the 2020 MLB season will begin, but it's clear it will be unlike any season we've ever seen. The COVID-19 pandemic will force temporary changes to the game, be it realignment or a new postseason format or something else entirely. The owners are presenting a return-to-play proposal to the union on Tuesday. MLB and the MLBPA will work to play as many games as possible and that will mean compromise, and doing things either side wouldn't otherwise consider.
Among the changes we are likely to see this season is a universal designated hitter. If MLB is forced to realign or alter the schedule drastically, the league will have no choice but to implement a universal DH because interleague play will be so common. Also, there's a self-preservation aspect. Pitchers may be at increased risk of injury following the shutdown and there's no reason to put them at even more risk by forcing them to hit. Keeping pitchers healthy is an obvious benefit of the universal DH.
These days American League teams seem to prefer the flexibility of a rotating DH rather than one set DH. Khris Davis was the only player to start at least 120 games at DH last year (Nelson Cruz would've done it too if not for a nagging wrist issue). Go back just five years and six players had at least 120 starts at DH (Billy Butler, Prince Fielder, Evan Gattis, Kendrys Morales, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez), and all six started at least 130 games. The DH spot is used differently now than it has been historically.
National League teams did not come into 2020 expecting to have the DH available, so they will have to adjust on the fly should the universal DH be implemented. Teams are expected to have expanded rosters when baseball returns -- again, MLB wants to protect pitchers -- so there will be enough bodies on the roster to fill the DH spot. I suppose teams could sign a free agent to be their DH, though the market has been mostly picked clean at this point. Yasiel Puig is the only notable free agent bat available.
How will each NL team use the DH when baseball returns in 2020? That's what we're here to figure out. In some cases it's very obvious. In others, not so much, and not only because a team may lack quality DH candidates. Some clubs are so deep they have multiple DH candidates. Here's how each NL team could use the DH spot in 2020, with a letter draft assigned for their situation. For a look on the fantasy side, click here.
It was a bit of a surprise the Diamondbacks retained Jake Lamb over the winter rather than non-tender him. Eduardo Escobar at third and Christian Walker at first means Lamb is not in the projected starting lineup, making him the obvious DH option. He's been hurt (missed 190 of 324 possible games) and ineffective (75 OPS+) since his 2017 All-Star season, but he does own a career .259/.345/.468 batting line against righties. At worst, he's a solid platoon option.
As for a platoon partner, Kevin Cron, C.J.'s younger brother, is an obvious candidate. Cron put up video game numbers with the juiced ball in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League last season: .331/.449/.777 with 38 home runs in only 82 games. Thirty-eight homers in 82 games! His .777 slugging percentage was the highest in the minors in at least 40 years. Cron slugged another six homers in 78 big-league plate appearances. Lamb and Cron could be a sneaky excellent platoon DH tandem. That B could become an A real quick. GRADE: B
The Braves currently have five outfielders for three outfield spots. Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna are going to play every game and Ender Inciarte is the team's best defensive center fielder, at least until top prospect Cristian Pache arrives. Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis are currently slotted in as bench players and platooning them at DH is easy enough. Markakis is still very effective against righties (.298/.371/.446 in 2019) and Duvall has always punished southpaws (27 homers in 525 career plate appearances vs. LHP). Atlanta could effectively rotate their outfielders through the three outfield spots plus the DH spot. That way Acuna and Ozuna could get off their feet for a day without taking their bat out of the lineup. GRADE: B
It's easy to assume the Cubs would just stick Kyle Schwarber at DH and that would be that. Chicago is a bit thin in the outfield, however. Jason Heyward and Steven Souza Jr. are expected to platoon in right with Ian Happ likely to hold down the center field spot. Albert Almora Jr. has more or less played his way out of the lineup, so Schwarber at DH means either Almora plays regularly, or Heyward and Souza both play every day rather than platoon.
I suppose the Cubs could put Kris Bryant in left field, a position he's played quite a bit, with David Bote at third base. That would make Bote the extra bat in the lineup. Another DH option: Victor Caratini. The backup catcher hit .266/.348/.446 with 11 home runs in limited action last year -- he hit so well at times last year that he started 11 games at first base -- and could be worth an extended look. Chances are every team will carry three catchers with expanded rosters (Chicago had Josh Phegley in camp as a non-roster invitee), so using Caratini at DH is plausible. The guess here is the Cubs will use a rotating DH rather than pick one guy (or two guys to platoon) in that spot. GRADE: C
Similar to the Braves, the Reds have five outfielders for three spots. Nick Castellanos will play every game, leaving Shogo Akiyama and Jesse Winker to platoon with Nick Senzel and lefty masher Phillip Ervin (career .313/.371/.536 vs. LHP). Don't forget Aristides Aquino. He set all sorts of home run records last August before crashing back to Earth in September. The power is real and I would expect him to be on an expanded roster whenever the season begins, so Cincinnati really has six outfielders for three spots. Castellanos is the only outfielder guaranteed to be an everyday player. The other five figure to platoon or simply stay in the lineup when they're on a hot streak. The Reds are in position to use their spare outfielders as a DH by committee. GRADE: B
For the Rockies, the easiest move would be putting Daniel Murphy at DH. He has little to no defensive value these days, even at first base, and it would maybe help keep him healthy too. Colorado could then slide Ryan McMahon from second base over to first, and install top prospect Brendan Rodgers at second. Rodgers had season-ending shoulder surgery last July and completed his rehab in time to appear in three spring training games before the shutdown.
If the Rockies want to be cautious with Rodgers in his first year back from shoulder surgery (understandable), Garrett Hampson would be the alternative at second base. Another option would be keeping McMahon at second and playing Ian Desmond at first base. Colorado could also use Murphy at first and put David Dahl at DH in an effort to keep him healthy. That would free up outfield playing time for Desmond and Raimel Tapia. I like the Murphy at DH, McMahon at first, Rodgers at second plan the most. Give the supremely talented young player a look. GRADE: C
The Dodgers, moreso than any other National League team, are equipped to use a rotating DH. They have more good players than lineup spots. Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts headline an outfield group that includes Matt Beaty, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, A.J. Pollock, and Chris Taylor. Beaty (first base), Hernandez (all over), and Taylor (all over) also figure into the infield mix, particularly on the right side along with Max Muncy and top prospect Gavin Lux. Los Angeles is flush with options.
Given their significant splits, keeping Pederson and Pollock in a strict left field platoon makes the most sense. Muncy has crushed lefties, so he doesn't need a platoon partner. I think the Dodgers would turn the DH spot into a Beaty-Hernandez platoon. Beaty has good lefty pop and punishing righties is what Hernandez does (career .266/.350/.478 vs. RHP). Of course, that doesn't mean they'll actually play DH when they're in the lineup. They can both play several different positions, so the Dodgers could move them around to get other players what amounts to a half day off at DH. Los Angeles is loaded with DH options. They'll get more mileage out of the extra lineup spot than any other team in the league. GRADE: A
An expanded roster figures to include Lewis Brinson, and if Brinson is on the roster, he might as well play. He hasn't hit much as a big leaguer (career .183/.238/.293 in 709 plate appearances), but he can really go get the ball, and his defense has value. Using Brinson in the field allows the Marlins to platoon the righty-hitting Garrett Cooper and the lefty-hitting Matt Joyce at DH. They could also just sit Brinson and put either Cooper or Joyce in the outfield, and the other at DH. That's an option too. Monte Harrison and Harold Ramirez could factor into the DH situation, though I wouldn't expect to see top prospects Jazz Chisholm, Lewin Diaz, and Jesus Sanchez in that role. It's too early for them. Miami has some perfectly cromulent DH candidates in Cooper and Joyce, with Harrison and Ramirez looming. GRADE: C
The Brewers may have the most straightforward DH situation in the National League. Ryan Braun at DH and Justin Smoak at first base, or vice versa. Boom. Done. Or maybe it's Smoak at first with Braun in left and Christian Yelich at DH on some days. Point is, Braun and Smoak were slated to share first base duty this season. With the DH, they can both be in the lineup every day. Others like Brock Holt and Jedd Gyorko could steal DH at-bats on occasion, sure, but, by and large, the DH would mean more Braun and more Smoak. Easy peasy. GRADE: A
The Mets have two very good young first basemen in reigning Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso and former first rounder Dominic Smith. The DH spot allows both to be in the lineup. Smith has played some left field in recent years just to get into the lineup, but the Mets are loaded with corner outfielders (Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis, Brandon Nimmo, etc.), so that was an imperfect solution. DH is the best possible solution. Everyone's in the lineup and not forced to play out of position.
Now, the wild card: Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes is still recovering from last year's wild boar-related ankle injury, but he was facing big-league pitchers in live batting practice prior to the shutdown this spring, so he is nearing a return.
The Mets and Cespedes reworked his contract, so they don't owe him as much money, but I still think the contract and his track record will get him at-bats once he returns. At age 34 and with major ankle and heel injuries in the not-too-distant past, DH is the place to get those at-bats. Hard to see Cespedes roaming the outfield regularly at this point. Until Cespedes returns, Alonso and Smith sharing first base and DH duty is the way to go. Things get a little more complicated once Cespedes is ready. I give the Mets a B for the Alonso/Smith plan and I reserve the right to downgrade it to a C with Cespedes. GRADE: B
The shutdown means Andrew McCutchen will be ready to play whenever baseball returns. He is coming back from last season's torn ACL and it makes sense to ease him back into action at DH. Jay Bruce could play left field in the meantime, then, when McCutchen is ready for everyday outfield work, Bruce can slot in at DH. The Phillies could also put Bruce in right and Bryce Harper at DH on some days, and Neil Walker at first and Rhys Hoskins at DH on others. With Philadelphia in win-now mode, calling up top prospect Alec Bohm and plugging him into a three-headed first base/third base/DH monster with Hoskins and Jean Segura would be awfully tempting. I suspect the DH would be post-torn ACL McCutchen initially, then Bruce and Walker in a timeshare. GRADE: B
I have no idea whether they're willing to spend money (probably not given the shutdown and their payroll history), but the Pirates would be best served signing a free agent to be their DH. If not Puig, then maybe Melky Cabrera? Their best internal DH option is utility man Jose Osuna, who has some power. He also has a .285 on-base percentage in 623 big-league plate appearances, so yeah, an upgrade would be welcome.
Truth be told, Pittsburgh's best DH candidate is Josh Bell, who is an All-Star level hitter and a replacement level defender with throwing issues at first base. Sticking only to players in the organization, the best plan likely involves putting Bell at DH, sliding Colin Moran over from third base to first, and plugging top prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes in at the hot corner. Hayes may not hit much initially, but he's a brilliant defender and would save runs with his glove. Would the Pirates start his service time clock on Opening Day just to fill the DH spot? Almost certainly not. Osuna is the likely answer here barring a surprise free agent signing. GRADE: F
The Cardinals are one of those "two first basemen for one spot" teams like the Brewers and Mets, except one of their first basemen (Matt Carpenter) has been shoehorned in at third base. The National League adding the DH allows the Cardinals to put Carpenter in at DH (or Paul Goldschmidt on certain days), Tommy Edman at third base rather than left field, and young slugger Tyler O'Neill in left. That's the most straightforward solution. Dexter Fowler would presumably get some DH at-bats as well, meaning Carpenter at third and Edman (or O'Neill) in the outfield. O'Neill would the primary beneficiary of the universal DH rule. Carpenter, Edman, and Fowler are going to play a lot with or without the DH (ditto Goldschmidt, obviously). O'Neill will get many of the suddenly available at-bats. GRADE: C
Give the Padres a truth serum and I think they'd tell you they don't want to use Wil Myers at DH, but that's the most likely outcome. He's owed $22.5 million in full season salary each year from 2020-22 and they're not going to pay him that to sit on the bench when there's a DH spot available. Myers has hit .249/.328/.447 in five seasons with San Diego, which ain't bad. It's not great, but it's not really bad either. His poor defense drags down his overall value and the DH would take that out of the equation.
The Padres have three other DH candidates worth mentioning. Veteran infielder Brian Dozier was in spring training as a non-roster player and he could get DH at-bats. Josh Naylor, a former first-round pick and top prospect, showed some promise in 94 games as a rookie last season and giving him a longer look this year is not unreasonable. There's also Ty France, who hit .399/.477/.770 in 76 games with the juiced ball in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. I mean, if a guy does that and you're gifted a DH spot the next year, don't you kind of have to give him a look? Myers would likely be the guy with Dozier, France, and Naylor also in the mix. Meh. GRADE: C
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi overhauled his team's outfield on the fly last season. Alex Dickerson (.290/.351/.529) and Mike Yastrzemski (.272/.334/.518) were acquired in minor moves that paid big dividends and will be back in 2020. Austin Slater is a decent enough platoon option against lefties (career .285/.356/.404 vs. LHP) and the Giants brought Hunter Pence back over the winter, so figure those four will share time in the two corner outfield spots and at DH. Nice and easy, right?
Another option -- not one I would call likely, I should note -- is installing top prospect Joey Bart behind the plate, and moving Buster Posey to DH. Bart has played only 22 games at Double-A (and none at Triple-A), however, and that would be a very aggressive promotion for any prospect, let alone a catcher given the position's learning curve. The Giants would risk stunting Bart's development. The four outfielders (Dickerson, Pence, Slater, Yastrzemski) plus maybe depth guys like Steven Duggar and Chris Shaw are the better bets for the DH spot. GRADE: D
The defending World Series champions are well-positioned to use a rotating DH. The starting outfield is set (Adam Eaton, Victor Robles, Juan Soto) and Michael Taylor is a fine fourth outfielder. The infield though? Aside from Trea Turner at short, no one is locked into full-time duty at any position. Ryan Zimmerman and Eric Thames will platoon at first, then the Nationals have Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick, and top prospect Carter Kieboom to use at second and third bases.
Washington's infield depth gives them four players (Cabrera, Castro, Kendrick, Kieboom) for three spots (second, third, DH). Kendrick was so good last season, and there's reason to believe his late-career resurgence is legitimate rather than a fluke, that I have to think he'll get regular at-bats. Kieboom may be given a chance to sink or swim, leaving Cabrera and Castro for the other spot. The Nationals have no reason to pick a set DH. Just rotate those infielders on through and keep everyone fresh and productive. GRADE: B