If and when baseball returns in July, the National League will have a slightly different look than fans are used to seeing. For the first time in the league’s 144-year history, the lineups of each of the 15 teams who play in the NL will feature a designated hitter. They will join the American League, who adopted the DH in 1973, giving Major League Baseball the universal DH for the first time.
DH in the NL was originally part of the owners’ proposal for both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, but with MLB and the MLBPA not coming to an agreement and the commissioner imposing a 60-game season instead, the DH was kept for 2020 as part of the health and safety protocols that were put in place. It remains to be seen whether Jacob deGrom will be able to help his own cause at the plate again in 2021, or whether pitchers stepping up to bat has gone the way of the dinosaur.
Setting aside for a moment the debate raging among National League fans and baseball fans in general over the DH in the NL and in the sport, it objectively helps the Mets in 2020. The club, as it’s currently constructed, has several players who are perfectly suited to serve as the designated hitter. It’s important to note that this is not by design—since the DH was not originally in place, the team would’ve had no way to plan for this anyway—but it nevertheless could be a big boost to the team’s lineup and offensive productivity in a shortened season. In addition to that, the DH allows the team to give enough at-bats to a number of great hitters whose defensive shortcomings would otherwise keep them out of the lineup and relegate to bench roles for an extended period of time.
In his first year at the helm, Luis Rojas will have plenty of decisions to make once the season officially gets underway. Given the wealth of options, it’s very likely the team will rotate its DH rather than select one option for the entire year.
Including 2020, the Mets have four years remaining on Robinson Cano’s contract after acquiring him along with Edwin Diaz prior to the 2019 season. In the waning years of that deal, it is believed the team may have been banking on the universal DH after the new CBA in 2022 so that Cano could eventually move into that role, so it’s fair to think the team could view this as an early present and save some of the wear and tear on his body by plugging him into the DH spot.
For as much grief as many people gave the trade last year, Cano was reliable when he was healthy and could still serve as a useful bat in the team’s lineup, especially if the younger players contribute close to expectations. He finished the year hitting .256/.307/.428 with 13 home runs, a 93 wRC+, and 0.8 fWAR, but a slew of injuries limited him to 107 games after he played at least 150-plus games in every season from 2007 until 2017.
As he creeps up there in age, rest will be key in order to keep his bat productive, and giving him some DH starts this year could be a great way to do that without removing his bat from the lineup. While it’s likely he will see a majority of his playing time at second base, it would also be harmless to insert Cano into the DH spot, shift Jeff McNeil over to second base, and start J.D. Davis at third. The team is also likely to take a long look at Eduardo Nunez, who was brought in as an NRI, which gives the team additional infield options and could give Cano time as DH.
Yoenis Cespedes is perhaps the most obvious candidate to take on the roll this season. When healthy, Cespedes is pound-for-pound one of the most prolific hitters in the Mets’ lineup, and his power would pair nicely with Pete Alonso‘s bat. Cespedes is recovering for surgeries on both of his ankles, as well as a well-publicized, off-the-field injury he suffered on his ranch while recovering, and he hasn’t seen the playing field since that July performance at Yankee Stadium almost two years ago. However, all indications are that Cespedes will be ready for Opening Day in July.
Given the nature of his injuries, it would have been tough to expect Cespedes to play the field for an extended period of time, so the DH could give him a second life in 2020 and allow him to showcase his power without having to strain his legs. It’s hard to know whether he will be the same player who willed the Mets into the postseason in 2015 on the back of 17 home runs, a .942 OPS, and a 156 wRC+ in the final 57 regular season games and followed that up with an All-Star nod in 2016 after hitting 31 home runs and posting an .884 OPS, a 136 wRC+, and a 3.7 fWAR. Still, the team has always performed better with Cespedes in the lineup, and their record since acquiring him has been proof enough. If he’s healthy enough to play and the team is willing to pay him (as per the terms of the restructured contract), expect to see Cespedes getting plenty of at-bats as DH as long as he performs.
Davis was acquired in a trade with the Astros and enjoyed a breakout 2019 in New York, posting career-highs in just about every offensive category, including fWAR (2.4), wRC+ (136), home runs (22), and OPS (.895). He was acquired as a third baseman, but his defensive struggles (-9 DRS, -6.1 UZR/150) along with McNeil and Todd Frazier shouldering a majority of the load there forced a transition primarily to left field. While his efforts to play the outfield were commendable, the results were sadly not there overall (-11 DRS, -13.9 UZR/150), which left the Mets with a problem of getting his bat into the lineup without suffering on the defensive side.
The DH could be a huge boost to Davis and the Mets, giving him the chance to get consistent at-bats and prove last year’s production was far from a fluke. His power and knack for timely hits will especially be critical in such a short season, and his versatility to play both third and left will give the team options. At 27, Davis is still growing as a player, and his development could be critical to the team down the road, so they should give him any number of opportunities to prove he can produce at a level comparable to what he did last year, and DH may have given the Mets a way to do that.
Just kidding. There is still no timetable for Jed Lowrie’s return.
Wilson Ramos put up solid numbers last year, but his defense behind the plate left a lot to be desired. The Mets got lucky last year, as Ramos remained relatively healthy—a rarity in his career to date—and he was able to play 141 games. In a shortened season, the injury risks may not be as great as they would be in a 162-game season, but with the quick ramp-up to the start of the season, it remains a concern. In order to alleviate that worry, the team could take some of the weight off his legs (literally) by keeping his bat in the lineup as a DH rather than as a catcher for most of the year.
The inherent flaw with Ramos at DH is that the team doesn’t have anybody else on the depth chart whom you would want to give the bulk of playing time behind the plate. Defensively, Rene Rivera and Tomas Nido are much more sound than Ramos and could allow the team to put Ramos at DH to preserve his bat and save some of his worn-down body. However, that would also mean giving a lot of at-bats to two people who will struggle to put up anything close to league-average stats. The team can decide whether they want to make the trade-off in a short season, but it’s probably a long shot.
The DH may have preserved Dominic Smith’s tenure with the Mets. With Alonso taking the baseball world by storm last year, it seemed Smith’s days in New York may have been numbered, but the DH gives the team a place where they get Smith’s bat in there. Aside from being one of the easiest players to root for on the club, the defensively-sound Smith finally emerged as an offensive threat last year.
In his third season with the club, he posted a .282/.355/.525 slash line with 11 home runs, a 133 wRC+, and a 0.8 fWAR in 89 games. He was one of the best options off the bench for a majority of the season but failed to break the lineup because of Alonso’s emergence. With the Designated Hitter, Smith and Alonso can start in tandem rather than being an either-or situation. The number of appearances he gets at DH will likely depend on whether Cespedes is healthy enough to take the majority of at-bats at DH this year.