The Major League Baseball offseason is nearly two months old. And yet, as NL clubs build their rosters for 2021, they don’t have clarity on whether their lineups will include a designated hitter again next season.
“It’s very difficult, I’m sure, for the executives and for everybody who’s trying to construct a roster, to put anything together right now,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ told WSCR’s Dan Bernstein on Thursday.
MLB and the players union instituted a universal DH this past season, among other negotiated rule changes for 2020 only. As of now, none of those rules are set to return.
"They’ve told us to plan without it. I think there's still a decent chance they have it," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Thursday of the DH. "But I think we've got to prepare for both right now."
Former Cubs prospect and current Brewer Dan Vogelbach has primarily been a DH in his career, but if there isn't one, he would be forced to play first base for Milwaukee to get playing time.
More than the 15 NL teams, uncertainty around the DH impacts free agents that teams may envision in that role, including guys who could provide big 2021 production, such as Nelson Cruz and Kyle Schwarber.
"That might be part of the battle, the DH,” Schwarber told The Athletic Thursday at a Players Alliance event in Cincinnati. “I view myself as an average to above-average defender, I’m going to play a solid left field and go out there and make the plays I need to make and throw some guys out with it.”
The potential problem could be getting enough NL executives to agree with that.
“There’s a number of guys that are in that spot,” Happ said. “And there’s a number of those guys who are going to impact teams, are going to be a great impact on teams, but you’re taking away five to 10 teams on the NL side that start to get cold feet because they’re unsure about their ability to have a DH and to move some of those guys around and it gives them less flexibility.”
All indications suggest the players and owners want the universal DH to return. But per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, owners want the union to negotiate an expanded postseason field in exchange, which, according to Happ, the Cubs’ union rep, isn’t a fair trade.
“It’s frustrating that there's always something that has to be tied to something else to get anything done,” Happ said. “And I think the idea that the DH should be tied in any way to expanded playoffs is ridiculous.
“They’re not comparable, and the DH makes the sport better.”
Pitchers batting provides a certain strategic element to the game, but they've arguably never been less competitive at the plate. The DH also protects them from sustaining injuries off the mound — like when Cubs reliever Pedro Strop strained his hamstring running to first base in 2018.
“We have to protect pitchers all we can and that means keeping them off the bases — pulled hamstrings, getting hit by pitches — all those things,” agent Scott Boras said on Monday. “The time has come now where pitching is so valuable and necessary that we really need to create a league that takes every precaution for pitchers.”
MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after next season, so a universal DH may be coming soon in any case. But it makes too much sense not to bring it back in 2021, rather than asking pitchers to hit after a year away.
“We should have roster limits right away,” Boras said. “We should have notice of the DH right away so that clubs, presidents, general managers know what to do. This deals with safety and it deals with building teams.
“I think it would really, really aid the game to have those early concepts defined. We did it in ’20 and it worked successfully, and we should do it going forward.”