A Divided NL: Which Teams Should Be Rooting for and Against a DH in 2021?
The 2021 Major League Baseball season will reportedly start on time, yet there's still uncertainty surrounding whether the National League will have the designated hitter again.
As for which NL clubs should want the DH for the coming season, that part is complicated.
We've addressed which Senior Circuit teams should be rooting for or against the return of the universal DH. Though it wouldn't be a bad thing for any of them to have a spot for an extra hitter, some teams would benefit more directly than others.
Allow us to explain in more detail, starting with the National League East.
No National League team benefited more from the universal DH in 2020 than Atlanta. It was Marcell Ozuna's home for 39 of his 60 starts as he went off for a 1.067 OPS and 18 home runs.
Alas, Ozuna is a free agent now. And without him, Atlanta's options for a universal DH in 2021 aren't inspiring.
The top candidate for the job would probably be Johan Camargo, who's put up just a .645 OPS over the last two seasons. Another would be Drew Waters, who's currently our No. 21 prospect. But because he's known more for his speed than his power, he'd be an odd-fitting DH.
Ironically, not having the DH for 2021 could make it easier for Atlanta to re-sign Ozuna. If the universal DH returns, his currently cold market could effectively double in size. If not, Atlanta might be able to sign him as a left fielder at a price to the club's liking.
Miami Marlins: For
Though they nonetheless made the playoffs in 2020, the Miami Marlins are going to need better things out of an offense that posted a below-average 92 OPS+ last year.
To this end, the return of the universal DH would have clear benefits for them.
In Jesus Aguilar and Garrett Cooper, the Marlins have not one, but two defensively challenged sluggers who would fit well at designated hitter. Depending on which one of them fills the job on a given day, the Marlins would have an opening for one of their many young hitters at first base or right field.
Lewin Diaz, who slugged 27 home runs in the minors in 2019, would be a candidate to fill the former. The latter, meanwhile, could be filled by speedster Magneuris Sierra or top prospect Jesus Sanchez, who ranks as our No. 54 talent on account of his upside as a slugger.
New York Mets: Against
As of now, the New York Mets might have the best lineup in the National League.
They led all of MLB with a 122 OPS+ last season. And while Robinson Cano is now absent from the mix by way of his 162-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, newcomer stars Francisco Lindor and James McCann can make up for that.
However, the return of the DH would be a mixed bag for the Mets. Designated hitter is the best place for Pete Alonso, who's posted minus-seven outs above average at first base in two seasons. But while Dom Smith could take his place at first base, the Mets would lack a compelling candidate to take his spot in left field.
Of course, the big picture will change if the Mets sign free-agent center fielder George Springer. But that's not a given—and perhaps not even likely now as the club is only engaged with him in a "loose sense."
Philadelphia Phillies: For
Sans star catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius, who are both free agents, the Philadelphia Phillies offense no longer resembles the one that put up a 109 OPS+ in 2020.
Concerning the possible return of the universal DH, still another issue with the Phillies offense is that the club doesn't have any obviously gifted hitters stuck on its bench or elsewhere on its depth chart. Maybe Kyle Garlick, but he likely has too much swing-and-miss in his game to be an impact regular.
Nevertheless, there's one way in which the DH could bring about a net positive for the Phillies.
In light of his consistently negative defensive ratings, the DH spot would be an ideal home for veteran star Andrew McCutchen. The Phillies could then play Adam Haseley in left field. Since he's a sturdier defender than McCutchen, a defense that posted minus-eight outs above average in 2020 would be upgraded accordingly.
Washington Nationals: For
As of last week, the Washington Nationals didn't have a clear candidate to DH if the position indeed goes universal again in 2021. But they do now.
On Saturday, the Nationals agreed to a one-year deal with former Chicago Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber. He fits in their lineup as an everyday left fielder for now, but there isn't much question that he ought to be DH'ing. To wit, he's put up minus-22 outs above average since 2018.
If the Nats indeed have the option of using Schwarber as their everyday DH this year, Andrew Stevenson could fill his shoes in left field.
Though the caveat is that he's done so in only 45 total games, he's impressed with a .366/.464/.620 batting line over the last two seasons. He's also a better athlete than Schwarber and would thus at least be capable of holding his own alongside defensive-wiz center fielder Victor Robles.
Chicago Cubs: Against
The Cubs have taken a staggering number of hits since the offseason began, yet they might be able to contend in 2021 if their offense improves on its subpar 90 OPS+ from last year.
Granted, the loss of Kyle Schwarber won't make this easy. It could nonetheless happen if Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo live up to their track records and do dramatically better than the .669 OPS they combined for last season.
The reintroduction of the universal DH, however, wouldn't do much for the Cubs.
None of their eight projected regulars is an obvious fit for an everyday DH role, and the club's bench is presently littered with light-hitting types such as Max Schrock, Ildemaro Vargas and Phillip Ervin. The Cubs likewise lack major league-ready prospects with serious offensive potential.
Cincinnati Reds: For
The Reds did, however, have at least one truly excellent hitter in Jesse Winker.
He put himself on the map with a .932 OPS and 12 home runs last season, and most of the action—i.e., 35 of 48 starts—that he saw was at designated hitter. He could serve as Cincinnati's de facto DH again in 2021, with veterans Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos also getting reps there.
In turn, the Reds would have leeway to get Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino regular at-bats. The former is a once-elite prospect who's a post-hype breakout candidate for 2021. The latter famously smashed 19 homers in only 56 games in 2019 before he was buried on the Reds' depth chart in 2020.
Milwaukee Brewers: Against
Because their roster previously didn't have a clear space for veteran slugger Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers were one of the NL's big winners when the league got the DH in 2020.
This year would be a different story.
Braun and fellow veteran Jedd Gyorko—who quietly put up an .838 OPS last year—are out of the picture now, and Milwaukee's offensive depth is worse for it. And while the Brewers would have the option of playing big-bodied slugger Daniel Vogelbach at DH, there wouldn't be an obvious replacement for him at first base.
Like the Cubs, the Brew Crew is also short on MLB-ready offensive prospects who could step in by way of the universal DH. Corey Ray, maybe, but Milwaukee should and surely does want to see him conquer his disastrous swing-and-miss issues in the minors first.
Pittsburgh Pirates: For
Following a 19-41 effort in 2020, the Pittsburgh Pirates are perhaps the one team in the National League that absolutely, positively won't be contending in 2021.
So, what's it to them whether the NL has the DH this season?
Well, it's a good place for Colin Moran if nothing else. He's going to be trade bait this summer, and his value may only climb higher if the Pirates are able to use the DH to hide his defensive shortcomings.
Given that this year will be a bridge to a hopefully brighter future, it also wouldn't hurt the Pirates to have an extra spot with which to give various youngsters a closer look. One such youngster is 26-year-old Will Craig, who hit 43 home runs at Double-A and Triple-A between 2018 and 2019.
St. Louis Cardinals: For
The St. Louis Cardinals posted a subpar 90 OPS+ last year, and they're now without key regulars such as Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong and Brad Miller.
Even still, they could make use of the universal DH in 2021.
Matt Carpenter has always been a designated hitter in an infielder's body—and even more so now that he's 35 years old. Dexter Fowler will likewise turn 35 on March 22. The two veterans would make for a good platoon at DH, which would open doors at third base and right field.
Tommy Edman could play third base regularly, allowing defense-first infielder Edmundo Sosa to see regular action at second base. Right field could go to any one or some combination of Tyler O'Nell, Austin Dean and Justin Williams, each of whom has put up numbers in the minors in the past.
Arizona Diamondbacks: For
The Arizona Diamondbacks had one of baseball's worst offenses in 2020, finishing with an 87 OPS+ and just 58 home runs.
Yet they could make that ancient history if regulars like Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar—whose combined OPS slipped 237 points from 2019 to 2020—bounce back in 2021. The universal DH would also help.
It could be a spot for Wyatt Mathisen, who had a 1.004 OPS in the minors in 2019 before getting a cup of coffee in the majors late last year. It could also be filled by Josh VanMeter, who put up a 1.097 OPS in his most recent stop at Triple-A in 2019.
Even better, the right-handed-hitting Mathisen and left-handed-hitting VanMeter could platoon at designated hitter. In any case, anything Arizona could do with them at DH would be preferable to keeping them on the bench.
Colorado Rockies: For
Though their situation isn't quite as dire as that of the Pirates, the Colorado Rockies are nonetheless a long-shot contender for 2021 after back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the NL West.
But if the DH comes back to the National League, the Rockies' chances will look at least a smidgen better.
It's high time they gave Brendan Rodgers, who was a consensus top-100 prospect annually between 2016 and 2020, a chance to show what he can do in an everyday capacity. That could happen if the Rockies can open up second base by shifting Ryan McMahon to first base and Josh Fuentes to DH.
Or, the Rockies could push Charlie Blackmon—whose defense has deteriorated—into an everyday role at DH. That would clear a spot in their outfield for Yonathan Daza, whose speed and defensive ability would be assets in Coors Field's huge outfield.
Los Angeles Dodgers: For
The Los Angeles Dodgers didn't have a go-to DH in 2020, opting instead for a revolving door that involved 11 different players getting starts at the position.
That the defending World Series champions nonetheless got a .786 OPS out of the DH spot speaks to how deep their offense was last year. If the universal DH makes a comeback for 2021, more of the same would be in order.
Though Justin Turner and Joc Pederson are free agents now, the Dodgers still have a packed offensive depth chart in which former top prospect Gavin Lux isn't guaranteed regular action. Ditto for Matt Beaty, Zach McKinstry and DJ Peters, who are qualified hitters in their own right.
Moreover, having the DH option would make it that much easier for the Dodgers to reunite with Turner. As it is, re-signing the 36-year-old is reportedly a priority even though he's no longer cut out for everyday duty at third base.
San Diego Padres: For
The San Diego Padres were one of baseball's top offensive teams in 2020, finishing with a 119 OPS+ that trailed only the Mets and Dodgers.
Now, they have Ha-Seong Kim, who was a top hitter in the Korean Baseball Organization. Most recently, he hit .306/.397/.523 with 30 home runs during the 2020 season.
The only downside to Kim's signing for San Diego is that it left Jake Cronenworth, who might actually have underachieved in posting an .831 OPS in 2020, without a place to play every day. Having the DH again for 2021 would be a fix for that.
The return of the universal DH could just as easily create an opportunity for slugging prospect Jorge Ona. Though he's only hit 24 home runs in 232 minor league games, there's clearly legitimate power potential packed into his muscular 6'0", 235-pound frame.
San Francisco Giants: For
By way of their 115 OPS+, the San Francisco Giants quietly had one of the best offenses in baseball last year.
Wilmer Flores did his part by racking up an .830 OPS with 12 home runs. He did so while making 21 of his 50 starts at DH, so having that position available to him again in 2021 would certainly be preferable to his current status as a reserve.
Outfielders Austin Slater and Jaylin Davis are two more non-regulars who could get more at-bats if the DH returns to the NL. Or, the Giants could mostly use the position to get veterans like Buster Posey and Brandon Belt off their feet on a regular basis.
Notably, that would make it easier for the Giants to find playing time behind the plate for Joey Bart, who ranks as our No. 13 prospect.