The National League appears likely to implement the designated hitter in 2020 — much to the chagrin of many fans — suddenly giving 15 clubs the potential to bulk up their lineup with another non-pitcher bat. Several teams already have logical in-house options to fill that spot. However, there are a handful of yet-unsigned position players who’ll welcome the seemingly forthcoming influx of DH spots as they look to get another chance at the big league level. Let’s run through some still-available names…
- Yasiel Puig (29 years old): Puig was still a perfectly fine defensive right fielder last season, grading out as average via Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average. A team may not look at him as a full-time DH because of that, but a club with an already-set outfield could now switch a more defensively challenged option to DH and slot Puig into right field. Or, Puig could simply rotate through DH and the outfield corners on a new NL club. The Giants have been oft-connected to Puig and have a piecemeal mix of options in the outfield. At the very least, an added DH spot wouldn’t hurt his chances of landing in San Francisco (or anywhere else in the NL).
- Jose Bautista (39): Joey Bats generated some chatter this winter when word got out that he was contemplating a return as a two-way player. The former home run champ set the record straight last month, indicating that while he did throw some bullpen sessions with friend/former teammate Marcus Stroman this winter and would welcome the opportunity, he’s more focused on a return as a hitter. Bautista’s glovework declined quite a bit in his late 30s, but he walked at a 14 percent clip and posted a .168 ISO in his final two seasons in 2017-18. He’s kept himself in shape — could he have one more run left in him?
- Mark Trumbo (34): Knee problems torpedoed Trumbo’s 2019 season and much of his 2018 campaign as well, though he did return late last year to appear in a dozen games with the Orioles. While 2019 was a lost season, the slugger hit .261/.313/.452 in 358 plate appearances in 2018 (105 wRC+, 108 OPS+). Trumbo has never been much of an OBP threat, but he has massive power from the right side — evidenced by an MLB-best 47 homers in 2016. He was open about his uncertain baseball future back in November, but 15 new DH slots could give him an unexpected opportunity.
- Melky Cabrera (35): The Melk Man is still hoping to play another couple seasons, but deteriorating glovework has become increasingly difficult to overlook. That said, the switch-hitter hasn’t batted lower than .273 in the past decade, and his contact skills generally make him a source of a respectable OBP even though he doesn’t walk that much. Cabrera’s .280/.313/.399 slash with the Pirates last year was below-average on the whole (88 OPS+, 85 wRC+), but he was an average or better hitter in the three preceding seasons. Melky carried an .807 OPS into the All-Star break last year, but he hit just .231/.257/.306 down the stretch as his role shrunk. To his credit, he struck out at just a 10.3 percent clip last year.
- Hanley Ramirez (36): HanRam’s comeback attempt with the Indians last year was a bust. He homered in his second game of the season but went deep just once more, posting an ugly .184/.298/.327 slash in 57 plate appearances before being cut loose. Ramirez underwent shoulder surgery last summer, revealing that he’d been plagued by shoulder pain for several years and making clear that he hoped to play in 2020. He played in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, hitting .273/.298/.418 in 57 plate appearances. Ramirez has a lot to prove, but maybe an NL club would take a flier in a rebooted Spring/Summer Training and hope to catch lightning in a bottle.
- Lucas Duda (34): Nothing went right for Duda last year, although the Royals still gave him 119 plate appearances. In that time, he posted a disastrous .171/.252/.324 slash, and he wasn’t much better in Triple-A, hitting .202/.281/.303 in 114 PAs between the affiliates for Kansas City and Atlanta. Duda showed solid power while bouncing around the league in the two seasons prior, hitting .228/.318/.482 with 44 home runs in 253 games spread across five teams — including a 30-homer effort in 2017. Last year didn’t inspire any confidence, but he’s only 34 and could perhaps operate as a platoon option or lefty bench bat.
There are still some other unsigned players. Scooter Gennett never latched on with a team this winter. Tim Beckham remains unsigned, though he still has to serve the final 32 games of an 80-game PED ban. Russell Martin is a free agent. It’s doubtful that any of those players would markedly impact a team’s DH picture or see his market improved by the new presence of a DH (although any could draw increased interest as a bench option by virtue of expanded rosters). It’s also possible that some veterans on minor league deals could opt out or be cut loose once training camp resumes, thus entering the mix for potential DH work in the NL. Carlos Gonzalez, for instance, was reportedly unlikely to make the Mariners’ roster.
Most clubs will probably prefer to handle the DH spot internally rather than hand out more money at a time when revenue is already being slashed by the pandemic stoppage. But for the non-Puig veterans here who are simply looking for one more chance to revive their careers, a sizable commitment wouldn’t be expected anyhow. Whether it’s one final run for Joey Bats (with a bullpen appearance or two?), a Hanley Homecoming in Miami, a Trumbo resurgence or any number of other scenarios, there could be some fun storylines to follow.