Set You Free: Designated DHs
Photo courtesy of nytimes.com
With Baseball’s Winter Meetings two weeks away in Dallas, Texas, it’s perfect timing to dive into the free agent pool. This is the first of a nine-part series entitled Set You Free* that will take a position-by-position look at this offseason’s free agency market. Today, Jesse Behr starts us off with designated hitters.
It was Opening Day, April 1973. Ron Blomberg sat in the visitor’s dugout at Fenway Park in what was likely utter confusion. Blomberg didn’t have a number penciled next to his name on the Yankees lineup card but rather two letters “D-H.” American League owners had voted to in introduce a “designated hitter” to every lineup for a three-year trial run. Blomberg, an underwhelming outfielder by trade, had committed 13 errors at first base for the Bronx Bombers in 1972. He had no position to call home because he wasn’t really cut out to play any position. Knowing that, Blomberg was the perfect test subject for the American League DH.
Blomberg split time at first (41 games) and as a DH (56 games) during the 1973 campaign to hit .329/.375/.481 with 12 HR and 57 RBI. Blomberg’s success didn’t quite branch out past the 1973-1974 seasons, but his infamy did as the first designated hitter in baseball.
Now, the designated hitter is incorporated at every level of the game: whether it be in high school, college, the minors, or the majors. Baseball’s had the reputation that no matter what shape or size you are, anyone can play the game. With the added DH, that reputation gained even further ground. Think about Big Papi David Ortiz, the best DH available, who’s listed at 6-4, 230 lbs. He’s big, he’s slow, and arguably he’s never been in shape. No one pictures Ortiz with a first baseman’s glove or imagines him turning a 3-4-3 double play (and if they do, they’ve got issues). What they think of is an absolutely terrifying hitter who back in 2004 redefined the sport’s definition of “clutch.”
Besides Big Papi (a Type A free agent), there are five players available that are qualified designated hitters:
Johnny Damon, Type B
Jason Kubel, Type B
Vladimir Guerrero, Type B
Hideki Matsui, None
Jorge Posada, None
As I said, Ortiz is undoubtedly the best DH on the market. Last year, Papi accounted for 4.2 WAR with 29 bombs and 111 wRC. Damon (37-years old) put together a solid season in Tampa (.261/.326/.418, 1.5 WAR) while Kubel (29) smacked 21 doubles and hit 12 home runs in only 99 games with the Twins (401 plate appearances). Vlad (37) slugged .416 and drove in 63 runs yet listed as a replacement-level player with 0.0 WAR. The drama that unfolded between Posada and the Yankees has left the veteran catcher teetering on the edge of retirement, even if he hit .259/.348/.466 while platooning against right-handers. Godzilla remains an ageless, DH wonder, even if his OBP did drop from .361 to .321 in 2011.
NESN reports that Wily Mo Pena will sign a two-year deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan that will give the veteran power hitter a seven-figure annual salary. What would a player like Pena — a “natural” DH — receive in this free agent market? Let’s take a look at values based off of 2011 statistics:
There are 14 teams currently in the American League but that does not mean there are only 14 spots available for a designated hitter. There are some teams like the Red Sox or the A’s that have predominantly had one DH, where others have had a type of ‘DH rotation’ in their everyday lineups. This strategy is adopted by multiple AL managers, including the Yankees Joe Girardi, who mixes in all his veterans (A-Rod, Jeter, Andruw Jones) to give those same players a “half-day” of work.
So Let’s Hear It: Regardless of what AL team you work for, what available DH intrigues you the most?
Side Question: If you were GM of the Astros, would you attempt to sign a David Ortiz or Vlad Guerrero to a two-year deal to lockdown the DH spot for 2013?
* Series title based on song of the same name by The Black Keys