Instituting the designated hitter rule in the National League, as is proposed in MLB’s latest plan to play the 2020 regular season, could have a radical effect on games. American League teams would have an advantage in interleague matchups since they were already planning on playing with a DH long before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the sports calendar (among practically every other aspect of life). Some National League teams are in a strong position to benefit from roster depth while others will struggle to field nine competent hitters.
Here are the best options for each NL team’s DH(s). In most cases, I tried to pick one player, even if several players will surely take turns at DH.
Atlanta Braves: Austin Riley/Nick Markakis platoon
The Braves arguably have the best outfield depth in the league, which should serve them well this season. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna are surefire starters. Three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte will likely get the first crack in center field, though top prospect Cristian Pache could take the job and run with it. That seemingly leaves beloved veteran Markakis and postseason hero Adam Duvall for a DH timeshare.
However, Riley was reportedly losing the spring training battle to replace Josh Donaldson at third base to switch-hitting Johan Camargo. If that happens, Riley should be the DH against lefthanders and push Duvall to a full-time bench role. Even after a prolonged slump to end his rookie season, Riley hit .262/.338/.646 with 7 homers in just 74 plate appearances against lefties. It’s a small sample size, sure, but I’d rather bet on Riley improving and give him more at-bats than rely on Duvall’s solid but unspectacular .240/.318/.473 career slash line against lefties.
Miami Marlins: Jesus Aguilar
Aguilar was claimed off waivers over the winter to play first base, where he’s been average defensively. But Garrett Cooper has been better with the glove in part-time duty at first, and Aguilar, who turns 30 on June 30, is the definition of an old-school DH. He slugged 35 home runs during his 2018 All-Star campaign in Milwaukee and should be the easy choice if he gets him back to that level this year after he hit just 12 last season.
New York Mets: Dominic Smith
Smith, a 2013 first-round pick, saw Pete Alonso supersede him as the Mets’ first baseman of the future in 2019 despite Smith himself recording a 134 OPS+ in 197 plate appearances with even platoon splits. Fortunately, the NL adopting the DH could give Smith a regular spot in the lineup, at least for this season.
The only man who could alter that strategy is Yoenis Cespedes, who’s on track to return this season after playing in just 119 games over the past three years. If and when he plays, he’ll probably push Smith to the bench or left field. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine the 34-year-old Cespedes and his rocket arm patrolling the outfield on his surgically repaired ankle. Damn you, wild boar!
Philadelphia Phillies: Jay Bruce
Andrew McCutchen could see some time at DH at the outset of the season as he recovers from the torn ACL he suffered last July, but the shutdown may give him enough time to return to full speed. Whenever that happens, he’ll take over in left for the lumbering Bruce, who can still hit for power and actually owns a higher career OPS against left handers (.713) than switch-hitting bench piece Neil Walker (.675).
Washington Nationals: Howie Kendrick
The reigning World Series champions are set in the outfield, shortstop and first base. That leaves four guys—Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Carter Kieboom—for second base, third base and DH. Kendrick was so absurdly productive during the regular season (.344/.395/.572) and clutch during the playoffs that the Nationals will find him everyday at-bats. Let him DH, with Castro and Cabrera switching off at second and Kieboom, the team’s top prospect, getting the nod at third.
Chicago Cubs: Victor Caratini
Kyle Schwarber has long been floated as trade bait for AL teams who want a long-term DH, but the Cubs don’t necessarily have enough outfield bats to simply shift Schwarber, no longer a defensive liability, into that role full-time.
Most teams will likely carry three catchers with expanded rosters this season, so backup catcher Victor Caratini would be a decent full-time DH option. He had at least a .775 OPS against both righties and lefties last year, totaling 11 homers in 279 plate appearances while hitting himself into 11 starts at first base.
Cincinnati Reds: Nick Castellanos
The Reds have quietly collected an impressive stable of outfielders following the signings of Nick Castellanos and 32-year-old Japanese import Shogo Akiyama, who impressed manager David Bell enough in spring training to nail down the leadoff spot whenever he’s in the lineup. They have a trio of former first-round picks in Nick Senzel (2016), Phillip Ervin (2013) and Jesse Winker (2012), with the left handed Winker expected to command most of the starts in left field. Then there’s Aristides Aquino, whose historically powerful August debut gave way to a September slump that saw him post a .619 OPS as he struggled with an increased diet of breaking pitches. Scott Schebler and Travis Jankowski are here, too.
It may sting to limit Castellanos to hitting duties after guaranteeing him $64 million over four years, but he’s the worst defender of the bunch. Cincinnati would be best served making the tough call and using him at DH.
Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
The signing of Avisail Garcia to play right field was going to push Braun into a first-base timeshare with Justin Smoak, even though Braun can still hit righties pretty well (.805 OPS in 2019) and Smoak is a switch-hitter. Instead, the DH rule will let both of them play every day, which seems like a pretty good outcome for Milwaukee.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jose Osuna
The Pirates may be the NL squad worst-equipped to add in an extra hitter every day. It hardly matters since they’re clearly in rebuilding mode. All-Star Josh Bell, despite his defensive limitations, will likely remain at first base. Pittsburgh won’t want to start the free-agent clock of top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, so Colin Moran will likely stay at third base. That leaves Osuna, a 27-year-old who was projected to back up Bell and the corner outfield spots, as the best choice to be Pittsburgh’s DH.
St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Carpenter
Carpenter logged career lows in every triple slash category (.226/.334/.392) last year after a top-10 MVP finish in 2018. His contract runs for at least another two years with an annual price tag of $18.5 million, so the Cardinals are going to let him work out his issues (the prescription is reportedly a re-worked swing and an emphasis on driving the ball to the opposite field). Why not let Carpenter do so with less defensive obligations after moving him around the diamond throughout his career and let promising youngster Tommy Edman take over at third base, opening up left field for either Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas?
Arizona Diamondbacks: Stephen Vogt
This is basically a battle between the backup catcher in Vogt and corner infielder Jake Lamb, who has had it pretty rough since his 2017 All-Star campaign. He was a non-tender candidate over the winter after shoulder and quad injuries cost him 190 games over the past two seasons. Even when he was on the field, he slashed just .208/.310/.350. Vogt, meanwhile, had a resurgent 2019 campaign in San Francisco, posting a career-high .804 OPS at age 34.
The problem is that neither guy can hit lefties. Kevin Cron, the younger brother of C.J., would be an intriguing option after recording the highest minor-league slugging percentage (.777) in 40 years with the help of the Pacific Coast League’s juiced ball. Before you get too excited, though, Cron also had an ugly 35.9% strikeout rate when he was called up to the majors, and the Diamondbacks don’t seem to have too much confidence in him after shuttling him back to Triple-A in March. He’ll likely make the expanded roster, but the D-Backs could use another more consistent righty bat who could also fill in at the corner outfield spots to spell lefty starters David Peralta and Kole Calhoun against southpaws. Paging Yasiel Puig … ?
Colorado Rockies: Daniel Murphy
Despite having the advantage of calling Coors Field home for the first time, Murphy, who’s entering his age-35 season, saw his batting average decline to a career-worst .279, marking the fourth straight year it’s fallen at least 20 points.
Despite that, having Murphy as the regular DH is the most simple solution for the Rockies. It’s what manager Bud Black usually did last year when the Rockies traveled to American League parks while Murphy was healthy.
Los Angeles Dodgers: A.J. Pollock/Matt Beaty platoon
Dave Roberts will have seemingly infinite permutations in which to configure his lineup with a DH, given all the versatility on the Dodgers roster. He should use the DH to shuffle starters through when he wants to give them a night off on defense. Los Angeles has more than enough capable bench bats on both sides of the plate to make that work.
But I’ll highlight Pollock here as a guy who should receive most of his at-bats at DH instead of left field, where the team currently has him slated to split time with Joc Pederson and LA’s many utility men. Pollock, 32, is five years removed from his lone Gold Glove campaign and has lost a step since then. His sprint speed in 2015 was an elite 29.0 feet/second, which was down to 28.0 feet/second in 2019. Speed isn’t everything on defense—and to be clear, that’s still faster than most of his teammates—but he recorded -10 defensive runs saved last season. Pollock shouldn’t be asked to roam the outfield very often with so many teammates (Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Kike Hernandez, Matt Beaty) who can fill in alongside Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts.
San Diego Padres: Josh Naylor/Wil Myers platoon
Wil Myers is being paid $22.5 million in each of the next three seasons and hasn’t been able to stick anywhere on the field, so the former top prospect may end up being the DH by default. His 95 OPS+ last season is passable albeit mediocre.
However, the Padres are trying to contend. They’re probably hoping former first-round pick Josh Naylor, who turns 23 in June, seizes the opportunity granted by the new rule. Naylor, a lefty who’s listed at 5’11” and 250 pounds, was one of the slowest outfielders in the sport last year and is probably best suited as a DH, anyway.
San Francisco Giants: Hunter Pence
Pence, who cemented his return to the Bay Area via a one-year deal, is the obvious choice after earning an All-Star appearance as a DH with the Rangers last season.