Thursday, May 26, 2022

MLB free agency: Universal DH will help several players on the market, including Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Soler

The collective bargaining agreement in Major League Baseball expired back on Dec. 2 of last year, as we’re all more than aware by now, and a new one isn’t yet in place. When it finally does get done, every expectation is that both leagues will finally be playing by the same rules for the first time since 1972. 

Yes, there will very likely be what has been called a “universal” designated hitter. Every team in baseball will be allowed to DH for its pitcher every game, regardless of opponent, joining basically every other level of organized baseball. This infuriates some and invigorates others, but we aren’t here to argue with either side. It’s happening, so it would be a waste of air. 

No, what we’ll do here is highlight some players who remain free agents that should — at least in theory — be helped by the DH extending over to the National League. 

It should be noted that the days of the DH specialist like Travis Hafner and David Ortiz are mostly in the past, save for a few exceptions, and instead most teams employ a variety of DHs in order to keep several position players fresh through the season. It’s a day of “rest” without actually being a full day of rest with the bat remaining in the lineup. 

Further, pretty much every player wants to play the field and prefers to not be a full-time DH. We saw J.D. Martinez in 2017 seeking a full-time outfield job while saying he was willing to DH, even if he’d rather mostly play the field. He signed with the Red Sox and started at DH 200 times the next two seasons compared to 94 outfield starts. 

All this is to say that I don’t consider many players here full-time DHs. I’m simply pointing out the addition of the full-time DH to the NL will help increase demand on the free agent market for these players. 

Nick Castellanos is coming off a monster year at the plate as he heads to his age-30 season. He’s one of those guys I discussed above who has publicly said he’d much rather play the field than DH. The problem is his defense hurts his team while his bat is a veritable mid-order force. He seemed to steer his market toward the NL last time around in free agency so they had to play him in the field most of the time. Now he won’t really have that choice and while he might want to play the field, it helps him financially that any NL suitors will know they have the option to use him like the Red Sox did J.D. after signing him. 

Using nearly any defensive metric that factors in range, Michael Conforto has rated out very poorly these last several years and in some he’s gotten drastically worse. For a player still south of 30 (he turns 29 on March 1), that’s not great. The timing of his down 2021 season was bad, too, heading toward free agency. But we’ve seen the offensive potential from the lefty-swinging slugger. Seeing 15 teams add a full-time DH to their list of needs this offseason certainly helps his prospects in landing a significant deal. 

Kyle Schwarber has long had to deal with the stigma that he was a DH miscast as an outfielder and he was long much better than his reputation suggested. Of course, that didn’t mean he was good out there. He just wasn’t the unmitigated train wreck many believed he was. This past season, he was tasked with learning first base on the fly with the Red Sox down the stretch, too. Still, the possibility of using Schwarber mostly at DH with spot starts in left field and/or first base will be much more attractive now to NL teams than before the rule change. Team that with his career-best season at the plate and he’ll get paid handsomely. 

Timing can be a hell of a thing. Jorge Soler’s breakthrough season with 48 homers and — given his history, more importantly — 162 games played came in 2019. He was hitting just .192 with a 76 OPS+ last season when the Royals traded him to the Braves as an afterthought in front of the deadline. For the Braves, he hit 14 homers with a 128 OPS+ in 55 games and then won World Series MVP. He’s not a good defender and team that with his injury history and he needs to stay at DH if he wants an everyday starter role. 

The NLCS MVP, Eddie Rosario, leaves a lot to be desired in a full-time outfield role, defensively. Having the option to rotate him through the corner outfield spots and DH, however, makes him much more desirable due to his offensive upside. His last three full seasons were 2017-19 and he hit .284 with a 114 OPS+ in those seasons while averaging 31 doubles, 28 homers, 88 RBI and 86 runs per year. 

Anthony Rizzo remains a superb defensive first baseman — his offense has left him more than his defense in recent years — and he should be playing the field whenever possible, but there’s an indirect trickle-down effect here. Let’s use the Phillies as an example. They are looking for an offensive boost and have a first baseman in Rhys Hoskins. Rizzo is a big defensive upgrade over Hoskins, however, so they could add Rizzo’s bat while improving the defense and moving Hoskins to DH. And if Rizzo’s back issues continue to hamper him moving forward, there’s a DH spot to keep his bat in the order while he rests on defense. 

This isn’t to say the Phillies are interested in Rizzo, will be, should be or anything else. It’s simply an illustration at how the DH coming to the NL full time could benefit someone in Rizzo’s position, where a team without the DH option wouldn’t have considered him at all but now there’s a chance to squeeze him in. 

Not much needs to be said here. Nelson Cruz is a throwback, full-time DH. It’s just that now the market for teams employing the designated hitter went from 15 to 30 teams. Since playing eight games for the Brewers in his 2005 debut season, Cruz has spent the rest of his career in the American League. Might an NL team sign him now? That’s kind of fun. 

Joc Pederson hasn’t really been able to stick in an outfield spot, defensively, on a consistent basis and teams have been trying for years. He has plenty of power (he hit 36 homers in 2019) and can crush righties, though, so getting a job where he can find multiple starts a week in the outfield and at DH isn’t out of the question. The DH expansion certainly helps his cause here. 

Corey Dickerson is obviously down the list of priorities for most teams at this point, but he did post a 110 OPS+ with the Blue Jays after being acquired via trade last July. He’s a lefty bat who could carve out a roster spot in pinch hitting against tough righties or serving as the lefty-side of a platoon, and this includes in the DH spot. 

Dan Vogelbach shouldn’t be a regular starter for anyone at this point, but his raw power is off the charts and the lefty has a career .357 on-base percentage against righties (it was .375 last year). It’ll be easier for him to find work now as a bench bat who gets the start at DH 1-2 times a week.  

Albert Pujols doesn’t want to retire just yet. The Cardinals might have some at-bats at DH against left-handed pitchers available now, right? RIGHT? 

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