In what will be Major League Baseball’s weird, wild and wacky 2020 season, the National League – for the first time in its over 140-year history – will use a designated hitter in every game.
This is, obviously, a big change compared to previous years, where a DH was only used playing at American League parks, and what was expected entering the year before the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training and delayed the regular season by four months.
But here we are, a 60-game season (pending another shutdown) with a universal designated hitter.
Another anomaly of the 2020 season will be that the Milwaukee Brewers will only play teams in Central divisions.
With this knowledge, we wondered who the designated hitters might be on each of the NL Central teams, including the Brewers. Managers might opt to use the slot as a way to rest players but we’ll go on the theory of using a full-time (or nearly full-time) DH. We give our best conjecture for each club below.
Milwaukee seems well-positioned at DH. The pre-coronavirus plan had Ryan Braun perhaps trying to learn first base and/or playing some in the outfield as the Brewers juggled days off with Lorenzo Cain, Avisail Garcia and Christian Yelich. Now, Braun can slot in right at DH and Milwaukee can field one of the better outfield trios in the game on an everyday basis.
The addition of free-agent signing Justin Smoak helps lessen any worries at first base. By the way, Braun did play 17 games at first in 2018 – he went 9-for-48 (.188) with two home runs.
Braun has limited experience as a DH, 23 games, and has done reasonably well, batting .266/.324/.511 with five homers in 94 at bats. If there’s cause for concern, though, he was just 1-for-14 in three games as a DH in 2019 (the one hit was a homer, his first as a designated hitter since 2015) and in his career is 17-for-80 (.213) with two home runs as a pinch hitter, including 4-for-28 last season.
The Brewers have other options beyond Braun, of course.
Manager Craig Counsell could opt to put Keston Hiura, who has had his struggles at second base, there – Hiura began his pro career as a DH as he recovered from an injury. Brock Holt or Eric Sogard could fill in at second in that instance.
With an expanded early roster, perhaps Ryon Healy gets some at bat, or maybe left-handed hitting Logan Morrison, who has 83 starts in his career as a DH. Morrison, however, is not on the 40-man roster.
In St. Louis’ 10 games in which it used the designated hitter in 2019, the Cardinals used only two players – Jose Martinez, who DH’d eight times, and Matt Carpenter. Martinez was dealt to Tampa Bay in the offseason, which puts the bull’s eye on Carpenter.
While Carpenter’s defense at third base has been average at best, in his (small-sample size alert) eight career games as a DH he’s just 7-for-31 (.226) with two extra-base hits, both doubles. However, putting Carpenter at DH would help get Tommy Edman (.305/.350/.500) in the lineup at third.
Of course, Edman could also be the designated hitter. Or he could go to the outfield, where he did play in 13 games in 2019, and allow a power hitter like Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill and/or Lane Thomas be the designated hitter.
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If you think Braun is the perfect candidate to be a DH might we introduce you to Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber?
The power-hitting isn’t exactly known for his defense, which has more often than not come in left field. Schwarber was used as a designated hitter only two times in 2019 but has appeared their 22 ties in his career, going 26-for-87 (.299) with nine home runs. His OPS as a DH is 1.046.
Interestingly, Schwarber has not fared as well as a pinch hitter, with just two hits in 44 at bats.
The Cubs do have a new manager this season in David Ross, who has no managerial experience … anywhere. So, there’s a lot of unknown here how he’ll handle his team and the lineup. But Schwarber is the obvious DH candidate in Chicago.
Pittsburgh might be one of the tougher teams to project at DH in the entire National League.
Josh Bell might be the easiest answer – a power-hitting, first-base type often is considered your prototypical designated hitter. But if Bell is DH, who is at first? Would the Pirates put Colin Moran there and slot third-base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes into the lineup?
Pittsburgh added outfielder Guillermo Heredia this past offseason, but he’s a career .240 hitter with 17 homers in 382 games. There’s not a lot of outfield depth in Pittsburgh.
One longshot is the Pirates using Will Craig, the team’s first-round pick (No. 22 overall) in 2016 and who is 25 years old and yet to play in the majors. Craig fits the stereotype – he plays first base and has power (23 homers in 2019 for Triple-A Indianapolis). Starting his major-league clock would likely be more ideal (based on his age) than Hayes’.
The Pirates aren’t projected to be very good – and this will be a tough division with the top-four teams all looking pretty decent on paper – so why not have a little fun and give a guy a chance instead of some retread?
Cincinnati has a likely glut of outfielders and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see manager David Bell rotate players in and out of the Reds’ designated hitter spot.
In the offseason, Cincy added free agents Shogo Akiyama (a 32-year-old who is coming over from Japan) and Nick Castaellanos to go with Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Travis Janikowski, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker.
Senzel, who has been bounced around the infield and outfield in his pro career, might be the early odds-on favorite to get in the lineup. He also can play second or third if the Reds opt to use Mike Moustakas (another free-agent signing) or Eugenio Suarez at DH.
Once Cincinnati’s top prospect, Senzel has had injury issues since being taken No. 2 overall in the 2016 draft. He played in 104 games as a rookie last season, slashing .256/.315/.427 with 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases. It seems like he’s the kind of guy the Reds should be trying to get in the lineup instead of squeezing out, as their offseason acquisitions might have done in a normal situation.