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Making the Most of a Universal DH

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Like it or not, the DH is coming. Probably this season and probably forever. How can the Cardinals make the most of it in 2020?

St. Louis Cardinals v. New York Yankees

I want to begin today’s article with the same group of assumptions that we used in my article earlier this week: “Rethinking the Rotation for a Compressed Season”. If reports are to be believed, MLB has a proposal they are sending to the MLB Player’s Association that will outline how baseball might return. Details of that proposal have not been released. However, previous leaks outlined a framework that makes sense. The following assumptions are based on these leaks and will guide today’s conversation:

  1. Three divisions – East, Central, and West – with no games outside of regions.
  2. 100-game season.
  3. One double-header every week on the same day of the week.
  4. Active rosters will be expanded to more than 26 but less than 40.
  5. Limited or no off-days.

Today, I want to add another assumption:

6. There will be a universal DH.

If you’re a National League purist, I would suggest that you just go ahead and skip this article. I have no intention of arguing the constitutionality of AstroTurf or the designated hitter. Not here. Not today. Let me just talk straight with you instead.

Do I like the DH? No, I do not.
Do I want MLB to go to a universal DH? No, I do not.
Do I think that if MLB incorporates a universal DH in this unique this season they’ll never go back? Yes, I do.
Does MLB have any real choice but to implement a universal DH this season? No, they really don’t.

A compressed season with regionally-aligned divisions that span traditional AL and NL boundaries requires a DH. Expanded rosters, weekly double-headers, and limited off days all make the DH a practical necessity despite it being morally, ethically, theologically, biologically and philosophically reprehensible.

Yes, I’m exaggerating.

Now, how can the Cardinals make the most of the DH in 2020?

National League teams probably do not have a player on their roster who fits the traditional Edgar Martinez-like DH model – a player who rakes at the plate but can’t be played in the field. Jose Martinez was a close fit, but the Cardinals somehow translated him into top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore. Without a plug-and-play style DH, the Cardinals have to get a little more creative. I think they can approach the position on any given game day with one of two objectives:

1) Get a valuable bat into the lineup.
2) Get a valuable defender onto the field.

Do the Cardinals have a valuable bat that the DH would allow them to work into the lineup?

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The answer is an emphatic YES! If there is one thing that excites me about the possibility of a DH, it’s that it gives the Cardinals an excuse to promote Dylan Carlson to the major league club and play him regularly.

When Spring Training ended, Carlson was on his way to AAA. Despite having an incredible spring, the Cardinals would have gained an extra year of control over Carlson by pushing him to Memphis for at least a month.

With expanded rosters and likely limited or no minor leagues, the 2020 season as it’s rumored to exist all but eliminates the possibility of playing games with service time. Carlson will be with the club and the only way to ensure his continued development is to let him play regularly.

The DH provides that chance. That’s not to say that Carlson should serve in a DH role. Instead, Fowler – the weakest defender among the Cardinals outfielders – and perhaps O’Neill could rotate into the DH spot while Bader, Carlson, and occasionally Thomas cover the field. Of course, this alignment would need to be flexible. A compressed schedule with up to 8 games each week provides plenty of opportunities for every outfielder to get meaningful playing time. If Carlson receives 50-70 starts and 250-300 PAs this season between DH, CF, and the corners, I’ll be ecstatic.

Do the Cardinals have a valuable defender that the DH would allow them to work onto the field?

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

My answer is again an emphatic YES! Tommy Edman played just about everywhere on the field in 2019 and he flashed plus defense across the diamond. Edman was +3 in OAA (Outs Above Average) at 3b with a +2 DRS. He was +1 in OAA at 2b, with a +6 DRS in 204 innings. He also provided significant production with his bat in essentially half a season’s worth of PAs.

One of the biggest questions heading into this season was how do the Cardinals keep Tommy Edman on the field without cutting into playing time for other players the team wants to see? The DH provides the answer.

Notice I’m framing this question in the positive. The DH provides the opportunity to get a superior defender with a good bat onto the field instead of forcing a defensive liability to the bench. Matt Carpenter is the obvious defensive casualty, but not necessarily because he’s a bad fielder. Last year, by OAA, Carpenter was one of the better defenders at the hot corner with a +6. This might have been an aberration or perhaps it was the fruit of his focus on dexterity over strength training heading into the ‘19 season. Regardless, having the DH available allows the Cardinals to make good use of Edman’s superior defensive talents several times per week while giving Carpenter’s aging joints needed rest.

How can the Cardinals make the most of the DH?

The simple answer is to rotate Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter through the DH position. This allows two young and valuable players – Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman – the opportunity to regularly see the field. This scenario would improve overall team defense while giving plenty of space to veterans and for young, developing bats.

The same logic could apply to Yadier Molina and Andrew Knizner. With Molina recently expressing his willingness to entertain offers from other teams in order to play another two seasons, Knizner’s development has become an important issue in 2020. With eight games each week, even Molina will be forced to sit regularly. The club could potentially use him as an occasional DH, pacifying his desire to play every day, while giving Knizner regular opportunities to catch. I would personally give Molina at least one day off per week (probably the double-header game) and one day as DH.

Here’s an 8-game weekly schedule I would use as a guide:

3 games – Matt Carpenter DH, Edman at 3b.
3 games – Dexter Fowler DH, Carlson in RF.
1 game – Yadier Molina DH, Knizner at C.
1 game – DH to provide rest for an everyday player.

What would you do? Let me know in the comments!