There are those of you out there who will read this post with a hint of sadness, maybe some denial, but you should know that the designated hitter is coming. The designated hitter has been around for 43 seasons now in the American League, and while there has been some shouting for the designated hitter to come to the National League for some time, it is the recent whispers that are more telling. The Cardinals need to be ready when it is introduced.
In Derrick Goold's article in the Post-Dispatch, John Mozeliak offered some insight on the designated hitter in the National League:
He said there's "more momentum" for the DH in the NL.
"I do feel like there were times I could look all of you in the face and say it's a non-starter, it's not being discussed at the owner level or GM," Mozeliak said Saturday during an expansive discussion with the media at the team's 20th annual fanfest. "But over the past year it has. I'm not suggesting you're going to see a change but I definitely think the momentum (has changed)."
Those comments emerged as talking points, but Mozeliak, as he is wont to do in almost every case, urged caution as to its adoption. Then Commmissioner Rob Manfred talked to the press earlier today:
Manfred also said NL adopting DH is gaining momentum. Expect it to be addressed in upcoming CBA, so could be for '17 season. #mlb— David Lennon (@DPLennon) January 21, 2016
Neither the Commissioner nor the owners are going to come right out and say they want a universal designated hitter. As the tweet above acknowledges, it is something likely to be addressed in the upcoming CBA between the players and owners. The owners likely see the designated hitter as a bargaining chip as needing an additional starter for National League teams is likely to cost owners just slightly more than they are paying their current bench. That said, if they are willing to discuss the possibility, it seems very likely to happen sometime in the fairly near future, perhaps as soon as 2017.
With the designated hitter coming, here are three ways the Cardinals can capitalize on its implementation.
1. Retain Matt Holliday
Matt Holliday is entering his age-36 season after injuries decimated much of his 2015. Holliday has been a fixture in left field for the Cardinals, and while his glove is better than many give him credit for, he is likely to face a considerable decline in the field over the coming years. Even though Holliday was lacking in power last season, he still contributed with the bat due to a high walk rate than consistently got him on base. The Cardinals have a $17 million option on 2017 with a one million dollar buyout. If Holliday is a reasonable facsimile of his old self even with a decline (Steamer projects him for .274/.367/.440 while ZiPS has him at .268/.358/.430), picking up that option is a lot easier when he will not be blocking a younger outfielder or a liability in the field. It would also mercifully put an end to the Holliday to first base discussion.
2. Continue to focus on pitching
This might seem counter-intuitive. The designated hitter adds offense to the game, and so the focus will likely be on adding an extra hitter to keep up on offense. On the other hand, pitching will get more difficult in the NL with the addition of an extra hitter and the removal of an automatic out. No longer will pitcher trying to hang on to their careers choose to seek the somewhat safer haven of the National League. It will be more important than ever to have a lot of good pitchers who are capable of getting turning over a full lineup. It will not be the team with the extra good hitter who benefits the most from the DH in the NL, but the team that is best prepared with a pitching staff that can handle the increased level of difficulty.
3. Get younger and more versatile, not less
This one might seem a bit counter-intuitive as well. Adding the designated hitter allows a team to stock an aging or defensively poor slugger on a team with no defensive penalty. While the Holliday example above is a good idea, it is an exception, not the norm. Holliday could be had on a one-year deal with a decent amount certainty regarding expectations. Adding players who can later be stashed at DH is a recipe to get into a bad contract to begin with. The best way to prepare for the designated hitter is no different than it was without it: accumulate as many good players as possible. Versatility is important, David Ortiz-types are a rarity, and having players who can hit and field allows for more mixing and matching that can help keep all players fresh and contributing.