If 2010 was the year of the pitcher, it is only natural that it was the worst year in recent history to be a designated hitter.
Jim Thome of the Minnesota Twins and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox had their usual strong seasons, but for over half of the American League, having a DH did not seem to do much good at all.
American League designated hitters posted a .758 OPS in 2010, worse than the average AL left fielder, right fielder or first baseman. To put that figure into perspective, DHs in the AL had averaged an OPS of at least .775 in every season since 1993.
For a bunch of guys paid purely to hit, the junior circuit's slugging mercenaries did not do much damage in 2010.
As a result, a number of AL teams are looking for new men to fill their DH roles this winter. The Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, Twins, Athletics, Mariners, Rays and Rangers are all actively in the market for new designated hitters, and most of the rest of the league has some interest in an upgrade. Of course, there are always plenty of DH candidates out there, so the market could still be buyer-friendly.
At least a dozen viable big league sluggers are available to teams seeking a DH for 2011. Read on for the top 10, with predictions on where each will land.
Career Stats: .270/.401/.443, age 32
Prediction: Tampa Bay
Johnson had a rough season in his return to the organization from whence he first came, the New York Yankees. He missed the lion's share of the season (which is getting to be an unfortunate Johnson signature) and showed only one skill: He can, as he has always been able to, draw a walk.
He can really draw those walks, though. Johnson gets on base more consistently than almost any other player in baseball, at least when healthy. He will be cheap this offseason, which is why the walk-happy, cash-strapped Rays are a perfect fit.
Career stats: .248/.311/.491, age 34
Thames does not do much else well, but he has always been able to hit for power. He cranked 12 home runs and drove in 33 in 237 plate appearances for New York this season.
Like Johnson, playing for the Yankees represented a homecoming for Thames to his original organization.
Brian Cashman and his staff seem focused on more pressing matters, like signing Cliff Lee and retaining Derek Jeter, than adding a top-tier bat to the squad, so Thames should be back—though he will likely be displaced to the bench at some point in the season by either Jesus Montero or Jorge Posada.
Career stats: .234/.330/.490, age 35
Branyan's best days are behind him, and none of the teams in need of a DH are exactly hurting for the strikeouts or walks he provides. He has prodigious power but makes so little contact that it is not as though he will suddenly tap into it and hit 40 home runs.
Career stats: .287/.355/.436, age 37
Prediction: LA Dodgers
Damon is not the hitter he used to be, as age and leg injuries have sapped the speed he regularly used to make singles into doubles and doubles into triples.
He can still hit, but his athleticism will likely lure an NL team into paying a bit more to put him in the outfield than an AL team would to slot him in as the DH.
The Dodgers are a perfect fit for Damon because they have a vacancy in left field. To boot, they lack a true second hitter, and that has (at various points in his career) been Damon's best spot in the order. If LA falls out of contention, though, or if an AL contender's DH goes down early in the season, Damon could find himself right back in the AL as a DH by Aug. 1.
Career stats: .296/.409/.545, age 35
Berkman would prefer to return to the NL and play first base or a corner outfield spot, but he has wisely kept his options open.
Since NL teams have better options (the defensively superior Carlos Pena or the offensively superior Adam Dunn) available to them, Berkman will probably land somewhere in the AL.
Oakland has already shown interest in Berkman, and the potential for Jack Cust to be non-tendered this week would open the door for Berkman as the full-time DH for the A's.
Career stats: .313/.411/.586, age 39
Prediction: Involuntary Retirement
It happens every year to one rundown, one-dimensional former superstar or another. Given Ramirez's baggage, his contract demands and the evaporation of his power over the final three months of 2010, this looks like his year.
The White Sox are a vacuum for this kind of thing, or so it would seem: Jermaine Dye went through the same painful ostracism last winter after an even more startling drop-off in the second half of 2009.
Career stats: .320/.383/.563, age 36
Slashing his way back into the hearts of baseball fans everywhere after not such a long absence, really, Guerrero recovered from his worst year as a big leaguer in 2009 to swat 29 home runs and bat .300 for the Rangers in 2010.
The Rangers declined his option and may try to find a better fit on the open market, but these two sides go too well together not to hammer out something in the end.
Career stats: .280/.356/.498, age 35
Prediction: Chicago White Sox
Like so many Chicago baseball fans, I am all for Konerko returning to the Sox. He is one of baseball's true good guys and had a tremendous year in 2010. For the love of everything good and holy, though, will someone please take away his first baseman's mitt?
Konerko is devastatingly bad with the glove, and at a very easy defensive position. The Sox would do well to make their offensive upgrade simply by retaining Konerko and beef up their defense at first.
Career stats: .278/.404/.559, age 40
An ALDS sweep at the hands of the Yankees brought a cruel end to the happy days in Minnesota, but Thome figures to stick around for another go at it in 2011.
He isn't going to get substantially better offers than the ones the Twins will put on the table, and he has a very genuine way about him that suggests a certain feeling of loyalty.
After the season he had (a 1.039 OPS and 25 homers in just 340 plate appearances), Thome deserves decent money, especially in light of his contributions to the clubhouse. The Twins have plenty of new stadium cash with which to lock him up, though.
Career stats: .250/.381/.521, age 31
Prediction: Chicago Cubs
Of all the free agent DH types, even those with over a decade of experience at that spot, Dunn is the best-suited to it: He is a better overall hitter than any of them (at least for 2011; Thome, Ramirez and Guerrero were once better, of course) and as bad a fielder as any.
Unfortunately, Dunn loves the game just a little too much, and he would likely take a bit less cash in exchange for the right to play first base or left field every day. The Cubs, Nationals and Dodgers all could be better fits than any AL club, of whom Dunn would certainly be wary.