Now that the baseball Winter Meetings have begun, such as they are in this altered pandemic-form, some real moves are being made. Lance Lynn and Adam Eaton have joined the White Sox either via trade or signing, Carlos Santana has got on the Royals express to 72 wins, and rumors are flying after the non-tender deadline.
Yet, strangely, MLB still doesn’t have its rules in place. It has not been definitively stated whether or not the National League will have the designated hitter in 2021 as it did in 2020. This seems especially odd at a time when teams are, in theory, trying to shape their rosters. You would think they would like to have some idea what shape, exactly, they’re supposed to be in.
The cover story, as always, is that the league is waiting to see what the season will look like, and gauge how the DH in the NL fits into that, just as it did last year. Which, if given the minimal amount of thought, doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
The DH in the NL was advertised last year as an accommodation to the shortened schedule, but it’s not really clear how. Given the shortened run-up, it was pitchers that were being protected, which is what expanded rosters and the cutting off of extra-innings were supposed to address. If you squint really hard, to the point of headache, maybe the idea was to keep pitchers fresh by keeping them off the bases? Seems a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it? It’s not like pitchers are digging for third like Pete Rose after a few rails all that often. In fact, having the DH tends to leave pitchers in the game longer, as they don’t have to be pinch-hit for.
It’s not as if MLB is waiting around for consultation with the players. And it’s not like they don’t know. MLB wants a universal DH. This is a league struggling for offense, after all. They just don’t want to pay for it, plain and simple.
The effect is twofold. First, it’s 15 more jobs that MLB owners don’t have to pay premium prices for. If it was known the National League would have the DH now, at least some teams — the three or four that are actually trying to win — would have to pay a decent salary for a decent hitter. Or for a position player to move another player into the DH role. Among the AL teams last year, which were built with a DH while the NL teams weren’t, the players that took the most ABs at DH for their teams averaged $11.2M in salary. It bumps up to $13.5M if you switch out Shohei Otani for Albert Pujols in Anaheim. Now, even $13M shouldn’t be that much for a MLB team, but we’ve already seen teams run away screaming from players who were going to make less than that before the non-tender deadline (Wong, Schwarber, Rosario). They’re claiming that’s too much money these days.
Secondly, it shrinks the market for guys like Nelson Cruz. That’s 15 fewer teams, at the moment, whose interest Cruz can gauge and try to get working against each other. Kyle Schwarber is another who could broaden his market appeal with teams needing to fill a DH slot, even though he’ll adorably still bring his glove to spring training. Tommy La Stella, Justin Turner, Travis Shaw, and Michael Brantley are just a few others who could broaden their list of suitors if they could tell the 15 NL teams that they would either DH or take some at-bats at DH to provide flexibility. There’s another host of players that could squeeze out their last contracts doing the same.
Needless to say, the owners want none of this, which is why you’ll assuredly see the universal DH instituted either right before spring training or even during it. The players would love having 15 more well-paid jobs, or even the handful that it would end up creating, but to force the issue would probably cause them to have to give up something else, like expanded playoffs which they’ve been a little cool on.
MLB doesn’t care about looking clueless while the rules aren’t even settled during their offseason. It’s worth saving a few million that none of these guys would actually miss.