For the first time ever, MLB has instituted a universal DH for the upcoming 2020 season. This year is an experimental season on many fronts, but the universal DH is here to stay, and this change will have some big ramifications for NL teams. Besides the fact that pitchers will no longer be forced to hit, teams with good positional depth will get a major lineup boost. On the other hand, some top-heavy lineups will be behind the curve.
On an individual level, the DH will give certain National Leaguers a major opportunity to make a difference at the plate. For aging or injury-prone players to those who are a liability on defense, the DH will allow teams to focus on getting the best bats in the lineup every day, without worrying about other factors.
Let’s take a look at some individual players who stand to benefit the most from the National League DH:
Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves
While Riley broke in with a bang last year, his prolonged stay in the majors exposed some major flaws in his plate discipline and questionable defense. Heading into 2020, the third base job seemed likely to land in the hands of more polished players like Johan Camargo or Adeiny Hechavarria, with Riley starting the year in AAA or on the bench. But now, with expanded rosters and a DH spot to play with, the 23 year old is all but guaranteed a crucial role on this young Braves team.
Seeing regular playing time at the major league level would be vital for Riley’s development at the plate. If he can improve on last year’s 36% strikeout rate and harness his 45% hard hit rate, he’ll be an offensive force. For the Braves, giving him time at DH would get his power bat into the lineup more often than not, which could go a long way toward replacing the production they lost when Josh Donaldson signed with Minnesota.
AJ Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers
This is less about Pollock, and more about how stacked the rest of the Dodgers’ outfield is for the 2020 season. Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts are both MVPs, and have spots absolutely locked in at center and right field. In left, Joc Pederson has established himself as the next-best option in the outfield, in both durability and production (149 games played, 127 wRC+). Had the Dodgers actually traded Joc to the Twins in February, this spot would have belonged to Pollock, but the deal fell through and Pollock was looking to come off the bench in 2020.
In addition to being the fourth outfielder, the 32 year old Pollock is by far the oldest and most injury prone of the Dodgers’ outfield unit. He hasn’t played more than 120 games since earning MVP votes in 2015, including a brutal 2016 season where a broken elbow and strained groin limited him to just 12 games.
The ability is still there though, and Pollock has shown flashes of brilliance when healthy. As he enters the second year of a lucrative 4-year, $55 million deal, spending most of his time as the designated hitter would give the Dodgers a safe place to put Pollock to get the most out of him as he continues to age.
Yoenis Cespedes, New York Mets
Cespedes is in a similar position as Pollock — he’s missed more than 200 games over the past two seasons, and the Mets outfield has been filling up in his absence. With younger players like JD Davis and Brandon Nimmo deserving everyday playing time, Cespedes would be a perfect fit for the DH role.
When he makes it on the field, Cespedes has still put up exceptional numbers at the plate. Ever since he was traded to New York in 2015, he’s had an .890 OPS and a 137 wRC+. The productivity is there, but the durability is not, and the DH would certainly help with that. The Mets, with a healthy Cespedes and Jacob deGrom leading the pitching staff, could make a run at the playoffs this year.
Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
Carpenter is aging too, entering his age-34 season. Rewind back to a terrific 2018 season, one of the best offensive years of his career — he had a 140 wRC+ and hit a career-high 36 homers. He played significant time all over the infield for the Cardinals, and led the team with 5.0 fWAR.
He followed that up with an incredibly underwhelming 2019, accompanied by career-worst marks in exit velocity, strikeout rate, and xwOBA. Carpenter is a naturally streaky player, but last year was much more than that. It was a year-long slump punctuated by two trips to the IL, and by September he was starting barely half of the team’s games.
Heading into 2020, Paul Goldschmidt has first base locked down, while Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman have basically taken over at second and third, having both had breakout 2019 seasons. The Cardinals simply ran out of spots for Carpenter, which is why the DH will be so good for him. Instead of starting the season on the bench, Carpenter has the opportunity to get back on his feet and have a bounceback year.
The entire Cincinnati Reds outfield
The Reds outfield is packed with talent. They can already fill an outfield with young, talented bats that deserve playing time, using Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Aristides Aquino. This offseason, they only added to that with two more valuable signings, Nick Castellanos and Japanese rookie Shogo Akiyama. Without a DH, the Reds would have way too many outfield bats to fit in a starting lineup. Aquino was even left off the Cincinnati summer camp squad, seemingly making him the odd man out despite his historic rookie season.
It’s as if the Reds planned on having a DH spot this season. Castellanos and his defensive woes make him an immediate favorite to see most time there. In 2019, he was worth negative X outs above average, making him the X-worst rated defender. Recently though, Castellanos expressed his desire to play right field. In that case, the majority of the starts at DH could fall to Winker or Aquino.
However the Reds decide to split up DH time among their offensive assets, having that extra spot gives them as big a boost as any other team in the NL.
Featured Photo: Jim McIsaac, Getty Images