When baseball resumes in late July, the National League style of play will look significantly different. It will be welcoming the designated hitter, 47 seasons after the American League installed it. Well, maybe welcoming is the wrong word, but with a new collective bargaining agreement not far off on the horizon, the universal DH is probably here to stay.
Consider the math: Of the 186,517 total plate appearances accrued by hitters last season, 5,098 were by pitchers (2.7%). Narrowing that only to the National League, which didn’t have the DH, 4,770 of 93,238, or 5.1%, were amassed by pitchers. That also excludes the many pinch-hitter PAs for pitchers, opportunities that might now be absorbed by game-starting DHs. It’s worth pointing out that 9.9% of all National League plate appearances in 2019 were accumulated by No. 9 hitters, which is the spot in the order most commonly assumed by the pitcher.
That might not sound like much, but on a per-NL team 2019 average basis, each squad will absorb 318 PAs back into its DH spot with the elimination of the pitcher batting — a significant amount of playing time that can make waves in fantasy baseball. No longer will NL teams merely look at games in American League ballparks as an opportunity to sneak an extra bat in the lineup. Now, they can regard the DH as an additional role of its own, effectively adding a brand-new regular, perhaps to the extent of a 450-500 PA player in a typical 162-game season (which means 165-185 when prorated to 60 games) to their lineups.
That said, NL teams might adopt the DH strategy that many of their AL counterparts have been embracing in recent years — that of a rotational role, affording field-position players a chance at a “half-day off.” To that end, no player started more than 123 games at DH in 2019 — that was Khris Davis’ league-leading number — the fewest by the league’s leader in any non-strike season since 1987. Additionally, in the past three seasons, there have been only eight instances of any player starting as many as 120 games specifically at DH. Not that that’s a bad thing in terms of opportunity, as spreading the aforementioned 165-185 added plate appearances, using this approach, can turn several part-time players into near-full-time players. You’d be surprised at the difference 50 more PAs can make to a player’s fantasy value.
With all that in mind, here are the nine NL teams that should benefit most from the addition of the DH, whether we’re talking about just one individual player or perhaps having that opportunity spread across several individuals.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers: This roster was made for the DH. Dave Roberts’ squad takes a matchups-driven approach to lineup building, has a roster strong from top to bottom, and now gets an additional slot with which to stack its nightly order. In none of Roberts’ four seasons as manager has any individual Dodgers player started more than five (of the possible 10 per year) games at DH, and 16 different players had at least one such start, with Justin Turner (14) leading the way. Even if it’s Turner leading the way as Dodgers DH in 2020, that frees up field space for valuable mix-and-match infielders Matt Beaty, Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor. It could also benefit the crowded outfield, allowing A.J. Pollock to remain fantasy-relevant by picking up occasional starts against right-handers. In fantasy leagues with daily transactions, the Dodgers present a dream opportunity with the advent of the DH.
Fantasy beneficiary: Beaty, a left-handed hitter who slashed .282/.341/.469 against righties between the majors and minors in 2019, but previously lacked a place to play. Remember, the majority of big-league pitchers are right-handed.
2. Chicago Cubs: It’s the most universally assumed belief that Kyle Schwarber will become the Cubs’ everyday DH, and it’s not an outrageous thought, considering his career minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved in left field and .299/.367/.678 slash rates with nine home runs in 98 PAs as a DH (in a NL-leading 22 starts there from 2015-19). Still, Schwarber has brought his defense within the range of the league’s average, adding at least seven outfield assists in each of the past three seasons. In fact, he has expressed his preference not to be an everyday DH. It’s all semantics, as the advent of the DH probably will benefit Schwarber the most, even if it’s by opening up another lineup spot for the team’s crowded outfield, further bolstering his chances at everyday play following a 2019 second half when he finally seemed to figure out left-handed pitching. But let’s talk up some of the team’s other rotational candidates: Victor Caratini, who should be No. 2 catcher-relevant with the expanded roster giving Chicago the chance to squeeze third backstop Josh Phegley onto the roster; and David Bote, who could DH or bump a field-position player there.
Fantasy beneficiary: Schwarber, who could become a genuine star in an everyday role.
3. Cincinnati Reds: If we’re going strictly by defense, Nicholas Castellanos couldn’t be a more obvious candidate to slide in as an everyday DH, though without a guarantee of the rule sticking beyond 2021 (or Castellanos himself expressing comfort with it), the team might not yet want to fully commit. The Reds benefit most from getting an additional lineup spot with which to alleviate its crowded outfield, so Castellanos at least could serve in a DH rotation with fellow his outfield-mates, including Shogo Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Scott Schebler, Nick Senzel, Josh VanMeter and Jesse Winker. Note: That’s four righty and four lefty hitters, so there’s an air of “Dodgers lite” to this opportunity, something daily-league players can more freely exploit. Ideally, the Reds should figure out a way to get up-and-comer Senzel into their lineup every day, even if only to determine exactly what he is as a big-leaguer — and they could do it by rotating him among second base, third base, right field and DH, with Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez and Castellanos getting some half-days off.
Fantasy beneficiary: The popular choice will be Senzel, but this might ultimately be a mix-and-match win for righty Aquino and lefty Winker.
4. Milwaukee Brewers: This is a beneath-the-radar team with an obvious solution to the DH conundrum. Ryan Braun has a combined minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved as an outfielder over the past six seasons — not to mention another minus-2 at first base in 2018. He has also had his left-field role filled by free agent Avisail Garcia in the winter. Braun couldn’t be a more obvious everyday DH. Expect the Brewers to do a hint of the rotational thing, affording Garcia, first baseman Justin Smoak or right fielder Christian Yelich half-days off at times, but Braun might lead the NL in DH starts.
Fantasy benefactor: Braun, who slashed .333/.397/.636 as the Brewers’ most common DH across 17 games over the past five seasons.
5. Washington Nationals: Here’s another team that seemed to have an inkling that the universal DH was coming, having signed/re-signed Howie Kendrick (9 DH starts from 2015-19), Eric Thames (5), Ryan Zimmerman (5) and Starlin Castro (combined minus-19 Defensive Runs Saved between second and third base for his career) during the winter. Expect a hefty dose of the rotational approach, probably maximizing lefty/righty matchups, a boon once more to those in daily-transaction leagues. Defensively challenged Juan Soto could sneak in a start or three at DH, granting Michael Taylor a handful of at-bats.
Fantasy beneficiary: Kendrick, a .325/.373/.516 hitter from 2017-19 who qualifies at both first and second base yet started only 181 of 252 games during that time.
6. New York Mets: Drop this team into the “sleeper” DH scenarios, as the Mets have a pair of hitters who are obvious fits, in Yoenis Cespedes and Dominic Smith. The former is recovering from a serious ankle injury but is expected to be ready for the start of the season, the DH providing him a soft landing spot as he works himself back to full strength. The latter has his natural first base position blocked by Pete Alonso and is mediocre (to say the least) in left field, but posted 11 home runs and .243 isolated power in 197 PAs in 2019. The Mets will be one of the teams that will most need to be tracked during the brief “Spring Training 2.0” in terms of roles, the DH especially, but these candidates who were once $1 NL-only fliers are now definite late-round NL targets who, if a clear winner emerges, could get on the deep-mixed radar.
Fantasy beneficiary: My gut wants to pick Smith, but Cespedes’ past success in the role — .287/.328/.524 in 84 games — should not be ignored.
7. Colorado Rockies: In Colorado, it’s not the DH himself that warrants the spotlight. It’s the field-position players freed up to assume their previous spots. Daniel Murphy, an all-bat/mediocre-glove player, is an obvious fit, freeing up first base for Ryan McMahon and therefore second base for either Garrett Hampson or hotshot prospect Brendan Rodgers, expected to be ready for the resumption of 2020. Or, the Rockies could slide Ian Desmond and his minus-21 Defensive Runs Saved as an outfielder in 2019 into the DH spot, freeing up everyday at-bats for David Dahl and more starts for both Sam Hilliard and Raimel Tapia. Expect some rotational DH use in Colorado, but any added start for a Rockies hitter at Coors is a clear win in fantasy.
Fantasy beneficiary: Hampson, fourth in the majors with 30.1 feet-per-second Statcast sprint speed in 2019, should be much more widely drafted with more routes to regular starts.
8. Philadelphia Phillies: Would you believe that, from 2015-19 combined, Andrew McCutchen’s minus-46 Defensive Runs Saved in center field were third-worst by any big-league player at an individual position? Granted, he’s better off in left field, but he’s also recovering from ACL surgery, and might do well to serve as the team’s regular DH — at least until he proves he’s back to full strength. If not Cutch, then Jay Bruce has a DH look to him. The Phillies make the rankings list mainly because of the interesting possibilities freed up in the field by the DH: Speedy Roman Quinn squeezing in outfield starts, or perhaps Alec Bohm getting an early call to bolster the corner infield spots.
Fantasy beneficiary: Probably McCutchen, in that the DH should alleviate some of his risk for re-injury, keeping him in the lineup more regularly.
9. San Diego Padres: They’re another team that could use a rotational approach to the DH, but might ultimately opt for Wil Myers in the role. That would benefit Trent Grisham, presumably locking him into an everyday outfield role, but it would also boost the opportunities of both Franchy Cordero and Josh Naylor. If the Padres ultimately carry three catchers with the expanded roster, Francisco Mejia might be an intriguing, fantasy-relevant DH (with catcher eligibility at that).
Fantasy beneficiary: The Padres might divide up their added PAs most evenly of any NL team, but Naylor might ultimately see the biggest individual boost. He slashed .314/.389/.547 in Triple-A ball in 2019 and is a great NL-only late-round gamble.
Best of the rest
- NL teams in severe need of a DH boost might do well to sign Yasiel Puig, whose range had shrunk in recent years. The Rockies have the space to absorb him into their lineup, and were linked to him back in February. He’ll be a name to monitor as spring training camps resume.
- The St. Louis Cardinals have a pair of natural first basemen in Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter, the latter an obvious bet for 30-plus DH starts, bolstering the playing time of Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill and others.
- With first and third base occupied by better hitters, the Arizona Diamondbacks might do well with a natural DH platoon of Kevin Cron and Jake Lamb.
- Nick Markakis (13 DH starts from 2015-19) still packs enough points-league value to be fantasy-relevant there, but he might form a DH platoon with Adam Duvall. The Braves could also split up their Johan Camargo/Austin Riley third base battle into the position.
- Josh Bell, who has minus-25 Defensive Runs Saved at first base in the past three seasons combined, is a natural DH, which affords the Pittsburgh Pirates the intriguing possibility of shifting Colin Moran to first base and promoting defensively sound third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes.
- Buster Posey (20 DH starts from 2015-19) has been the league’s second most-common DH in the past half-decade, but Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval also look like natural DHs for the San Francisco Giants. The problem: There isn’t anyone with great fantasy relevance to fill their field positions. Wilmer Flores, Billy Hamilton and Austin Slater could each see a small bump in PAs.
- If the Miami Marlins fancy themselves wild-card contenders, they might want to take a run at Puig, because a Garrett Cooper/Matt Joyce platoon looks to be their most likely DH arrangement at present. The benefit: Another regular chance for youngster Lewis Brinson.
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