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The National League Could Use a DH Right About Now


Ken Rosenthal, followed by Jeff Passan, Joel Sherman, and Jayson Stark, recently reported on negotiations between MLB and the Player's Association, especially regarding the rulebook. One of the most provocative pieces in the overarching story has been the possibility of the designated hitter coming to the National League as soon as this coming season. *cue sad trombone

Rob Manfred squashed that idea, saying it won't happen until 2022 at the earliest when the CBA is negotiated, but this story is a reminder that the DH is coming to the NL eventually. That could lead to a massive domino effect on rosters all over the league and change the landscape of free agency as well.

Now, this is a fantasy baseball article, I promise. We're going to look at three different elements of how a DH would benefit players in the NL this year, for current free agents, players on existing rosters, and the teams in the best shape to benefit.

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Free Agent Market

Several hitters whose best defensive days are behind them (or were never in front of them) would love to see a DH rule instituted right now: Evan Gattis, Lucas Duda, Adam Jones, and Carlos Gonzalez. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado then become more palatable to NL teams with the sudden need for an extra hitter.

Yes, presumably people would lose jobs too. The good news--for you, not for them--is those are relief pitchers who weren't fantasy relevant anyway.

Gonzalez, Duda, Jones, and Gattis were neatly almost-average hitters in 2018: their wRC+ were 96, 97, 98, and 99, respectively. Gattis is entering his age-32 season and the others 33. Gattis also hit 25 home runs last year in just 451 PA which also featured a .232 BABIP that is 34 points below his career mark. Given that performance plus his age, as well as the fact that he did it as a full-time DH for the Astros, make Gattis likely to be the biggest beneficiary were the DH to come to the NL. What would that do for his 609 ADP? Could it bring him all the way up to Adam Jones range (304)? Carlos Gonzalez is between them at 484, and Duda is a complete afterthought at 739.

Gattis seems like the only one of the four free agents who would become fantasy relevant, even though he'd be hurt by likely utility-only eligibility.

As for Harper and Machado, they'll be fantasy relevant no matter what. Doubling the DH just expands their potential market.

 

Players Who Would Gain

Even though 15 full-time hitting spots would need to be filled, there probably aren't 15 free agents out who would be signed to take those roles. Some teams would be able to use currently-rostered players in a way they otherwise would not.

The first player profile that comes to mind is Ryan Zimmerman. Not only has Zimmerman been a defensive liability for years, but even when healthy in 2017 he got several days off in order to preserve that health. The DH would provide a way to keep a player like Zimmerman in the lineup instead of giving him an entire day off. As a player, Zimmerman sort of fits the same profile as the free agents looking for jobs.

Would anyone benefit as a full-time DH that is already on a roster? Given the evidence that hitting without fielding makes the job harder (for example, see Jeff Sullivan here in February 2018), perhaps not. Zimmerman is one type who might do it. But part of Zimmerman's deal is injury proneness that forces the team to start him less often.

So what about plain bad fielders?

Nine NL fielders last year posted -10 or worse by Fangraphs Def. They were: Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Derek Dietrich, Josh Bell, Eric Hosmer, Jose Martinez, Paul Goldschmidt, Ian Desmond, and Charlie Blackmon. Not all would necessarily be more valuable as a full-time DH, but even small benefits could accrue, such as an extra PA late because they wouldn't need to be pulled for defense in those games in which they did DH.

 

Teams Who Would Gain

A third type of player who would gain from extra DH positions is those on teams with a glut of players that are either possible starters or young guys who need an extra look. There is an obvious overlap between the teams who would benefit and players who would benefit: there are just more plate appearances to go around with a DH, so the players who get those PA benefit. That said, a few teams pop to mind with several hitters and possibly not enough lineup space to go around unless they got an extra hitting spot.

Sticking with the Nationals, if Bryce Harper were actually to return there, then Victor Robles also benefits, because the Nats would no longer necessarily have to trade Adam Eaton to make room for Harper.

Other teams with position player logjams include the Padres and the Mets. Between Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, Franchy Cordero, Franmil Reyes, Travis Jankowski, Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, and their apparent interest in Bryce Harper, the Padres have a lot to work with, and a DH could really help give some of the younger players a larger at-bat sample to prove themselves with. On the other hand, there is also defensive development to worry about. Just because Cordero was their worst defender in a tiny 323-inning sample by DRS and UZR doesn't mean you want to consign him to mostly only hitting by age 25. The Mets, meanwhile, only gave Brandon Nimmo, for example, 115 starts. Jay Bruce may be gone, but Robinson Cano has arrived and Todd Frazier is getting older too. They also still have Yoenis Cespedes.

The Phillies, after the J.T. Realmuto trade, still have room to get Harper or Machado, and a DH would only make them more enticing.

 

Conclusion

It's actually arguable that every team would benefit from a universal DH, and several players as well. The latter is probably why the union wants it. There are several more hitters that, if given the chance with a DH, could prove themselves more valuable than a fringe or specialty reliever.

For fantasy purposes, the first year with a universal DH would be one to keep a particularly close eye on the waiver wire for. As April turns to May, actionable patterns would develop that would not necessarily be apparent in draft season. It's impossible to predict in advance who exactly would get those extra PA and how many, or who would fit in the role and who would be taken out of the right state of mind when not taking the field between plate appearances. Even if there is no DH in 2019, some of the above names and teams will still be important to look at once the DH does arrive. Or perhaps this article will at least help you look at the proper factors if you do try to predict who would do well for themselves given a DH. It does seem like only a matter of time before the DH arrives in the NL, so it's not too early to try and get ready.

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