Major League Baseball has announced that the abbreviated season tentatively set to begin on or around July 23 will have a few changes to rules many fans have gotten accustomed to in the National League. The main difference between the American League and the NL is the designated hitter.
During the proposed 60-game season, both leagues will employ the DH instead of the pitcher batting for NL teams. This puts the AL at a distinct advantage in this shortened season, because even though the NL will now also have the DH, AL teams were built from the beginning of the offseason with a dedicated DH in mind.
Further, if the proposed three-division, 10-team alignment is implemented to lessen travel for teams during the coronavirus pandemic, the Nationals will potentially play five AL teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays and Rays) who were formed with the DH in mind.
So who will the Nationals employ the most as their designated hitter for the 2020 campaign?
The good news for the Nats is they have a hitter on their roster built perfectly for the DH spot.
Eric Thames, signed as a free agent in the offseason from the Brewers, is the prototypical power hitter general manager Mike Rizzo craves for that role. Under normal circumstances, Thames would platoon with Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman at first base, or give an outfielder a day off every once and a while.
As a lefty power hitter, Thames is the best answer to be the Nats DH in 2020, especially to protect a hitter like Juan Soto in the lineup. Last season, Thames hit 25 homers with 61 RBIs with Milwaukee. He has started 18 games in his career at DH. Because he is a left-handed hitter, his presence will be a critical against predominantly right-handed starting pitchers.
The second most obvious choice to be the Nats DH is Kendrick, who also spent a lot of time with American League teams and has started 24 games at that spot in his career. Kendrick was arguably the best clutch hitter for the Nats in last year’s World Series run, with his dramatic grand slam to end the Dodgers’ season in the National League Division Series and the foul pole-clanging homer heard round the world against the Astros in the Fall Classic. He belted 17 homers and added 62 RBIs for the Nats last season, and would be the obvious choice as a right-handed-hitting DH in manager Davey Martinez’s 2020 lineup.
The Nats have veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera available to DH. Cabrera hit 18 homers with 91 RBIs between the Rangers and Nats last season, and has 21 starts as a DH with AL clubs in Cleveland, Texas and Tampa Bay. The key component here is Cabrera is a switch-hitter, so alongside Thames, he gives the skipper another choice on the roster that would be good matchups against right-handed pitchers. There is added value in this spot for Martinez when he uses Kendrick and Cabrera because they can be moved around the infield later in games.
Even at the catching spot, Martinez has players like Yan Gomes (16 DH starts), Kurt Suzuki (33 DH starts) and Welington Castillo (28 DH starts) who could be used in the starting lineup at DH, as long as the Nats carry at least three backstops, which is likely with rosters extended to 30 players for the beginning of the season. Gomes hit 12 homers last season, Suzuki 17 and Castillo 12.
Zimmerman is also an obvious choice for the DH spot in a shortened season.
Knowing Zimmerman would not be an everyday player in 2020, many thought the veteran could have jumped to an AL team this past offseason to help extend his career. But Zimmerman elected to stay with the club that drafted him with their top selection 15 years ago. Putting the former U.Va. star at DH provides Martinez another clutch bat without having to worry about the veteran taxing his legs on defense for nine innings.
But the bottom line for Martinez is this: At least two from Thames, Zimmerman and Kendrick should be in the lineup every day.
This makes Rizzo’s move to sign Thames in early January all the more prescient because the slugger is truly the best dedicated power hitter the club needs in the lineup to succeed in a season lasting just two months.