The 2020-21 MLB offseason has presented its fair share of challenges for teams trying to construct competitive rosters before next spring.
Front offices are working with uncertain budgets, analysts are tasked with making sense of numbers derived from a shortened 2020 campaign and scouts must rely more heavily on video after being barred from traveling to other ballparks last season. On top of all that, National League teams face another disadvantage: not knowing how many lineup spots they have.
According to The Athletic, MLB issued a memo to clubs in early December instructing them to operate as if there will be no universal designated hitter in 2021. MLB allowed NL teams to add a DH to their lineups last year to account for the challenges of playing amid the pandemic, but it’s still within the realm of possibility that the league and players union will eventually come to an agreement on extending the rule change for another season.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo spoke with reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday for the first time since the offseason began. He’s pushing forward as if the Nationals won’t have a DH next season.
“We’re going to make some assumptions,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to assume that we’re not going to have the DH in the National League this year. That’s just the way we’re planning it and if that changes like it changed last year, we will make an adjustment. But that’s kind of how for our preseason planning stages, that’s how we’ve done it. We’re going to build a National League-style team without a typical designated hitter involved.”
The lack of a DH likely takes the Nationals out of the running for free agents such as Marcell Ozuna and Nelson Cruz, who boast tremendous offensive upside but would be a liability in the field. It also makes a possible reunion with Howie Kendrick more uncertain after he started 19 of his 25 games at DH last year. Rizzo said he would “love to have him back” but the two sides haven’t spoken since Kendrick announced his intention to play in 2021.
Washington’s top priority of the winter is to sign an impact hitter or two who can fit in alongside Juan Soto and Trea Turner at the top of the order. The team has slow-played the offseason thus far, but Rizzo said Nationals ownership has given him the “budget to get a championship-caliber club.”
If they do indeed have money to spend, the Nationals will use a significant chunk of it to address their first base and corner outfield spots. Without a DH, they may go for someone who can play both to add some positional flexibility. Some free agents with offensive upside who fit that mold include Joc Pederson, José Martínez, Derek Dietrich and Danny Santana.
Another option could be Kyle Schwarber, who the Chicago Cubs non-tendered earlier this offseason. Schwarber is a former-catcher-turned-outfielder who is athletic for his size but doesn’t have the speed to be more than an average defensive corner outfielder. The Nationals could offer to shift him over to first base, where his skillset may actually play better.
If MLB does change course and install a universal DH for 2021, the Nationals will just have to get creative with the roster they end up with. For now, they’re building a roster the old-fashioned way.