NL East preview: Looking at possible DHs as pitchers will focus on mound work

The century-old debate about the designated hitter has come to an end - at least for this season.

The coronavirus changed for 2020 the look of baseball - no fans at games, runner on second to start extra innings, a 60-game schedule - but it also might change history and tear down the final wall that stands between the National and American leagues.

When the regular season starts July 23-24, the NL teams will use the designated hitter in all of its games, not just when they are playing in AL ballparks.

The agreement between the players’ union and the owners calls for an NL DH for this season and then the rule goes back onto the bargaining table when the labor agreement expires after the 2021 season.

The AL has had the DH rule since 1973. The first DH was the New York Yankees’ Ron Blomberg. On April 6, 1973, Blomberg’s first at-bat against Boston’s Luis Tiant resulted in a walk.

The NL has used the DH rule during interleague games and World Series games played in AL parks.

The rule was originally put into place to increase run production and to help aging players battling injuries to stay in the game. Generally, the AL has had more run production each year than the NL. In 2019, the top four run-producing teams in the majors were all AL teams.

DH debate centers on strategy. Proponents say that the DH eliminates the thinking part of the game that comes with pinch-hitters and double-switches.

But there are those that say the DH makes the AL more of a thinking game.

Their thought process: How much of a decision is there to pinch-hit for a starting pitcher when he comes to the sixth inning and his team needing runs? That’s the obvious move.

In the AL, managers have to decide for themselves whether a pitcher should come out because they don’t have the luxury of pinch-hitting for the pitcher.

One thing’s for sure: As the game has become more specialized with relief pitchers, and there are more pinch-hitters in the NL because relievers seldom step to the plate. So, in a sense, there’s already a limited version of a DH in the NL.

The DH debate has been a constant in baseball.

In 1906, manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics proposed a DH because he was tired of watching pitchers that couldn’t hit. His idea was nixed.

In 1920, NL president John Heydler suggested the rule, but nothing happened. Nine years later, there was a movement to try the rule in spring training, but teams backed away.

The last time the NL voted on the rule was 1980, but it was turned down by an owners vote of 8-4.

Commissioner Rob Manfred thought the NL might adopt the rule during the last agreement, but that didn’t happen.

But with interleague play, there’s momentum for a universal rule, and instead of the AL turning back the clock, the best chance is for the NL to adopt the rule in the next labor agreement.

Here’s a refresher on NL East story lines and which players are candidates to be a DH this season:

ATLANTA: Marcell Ozuna, signed to replace power-hitting Josh Donaldson in the lineup, will likely get most of the DH at-bats for the Braves, allowing them to use lefty-swinging Nick Markakis (.285 in 2019) and Adam Duvall (.267) as a platoon in the outfield. Markakis is 37, so the Braves could give him rest as a DH. Ozuna, who hit 29 home runs for St. Louis last season, joins a lineup that won the NL East last season and has Ronald Acuña Jr. (41 home runs), Freddie Freeman (.295) and Ozzie Albies (.294). ... LHP Cole Hamels, who would have started on the injured list with a shoulder injury in a normal season, is expected to be ready when play resumes. ... The Braves rotation is deep: Hamels is expected to join RHPs Mike Soroka (2.68 ERA), Mike Foltynewicz (4.54 ERA) and LHPs Sean Newcomb (3.16 ERA in 66 bullpen innings) and Max Fried (4.02 ERA). The Braves also have RHPs Felix Hernandez, Kyle Wright and Touki Tossaint as possible starters. In the likely event of starters going only four innings, the Braves will have plenty of pitching. ... The Braves will train at their home park and at their Triple-A facility in Gwinnett, 35 miles away. ...The Braves’ all-time best 60-game start came in 1998 when they were 42-18.

MIAMI: The shorter season will give the Marlins limited production from their new offensive players, former Oriole Jonathan Villar, OF Matt Joyce and C Francisco Cervelli. All three are eligible for free agency after the season. ... The rebuilding Marlins have to decide what to do with their top prospects, such as RHP Sixto Sánchez, SS Jazz Chisholm, and OFs Monte Harrison and Jesus Sánchez. Do they use them during a 60-game season, which will cost the team a year of service eligibility, or do they hold them off and delay their free agency? ... The Marlins were hoping before COVID-19 stopped spring training that 2020 would be a full-season of continued development for C Jorge Alfaro (18 home runs in 139 games), 2B Isan Díaz (.173 in 49 games), OF Lewis Brinson (.173 in 75 games) and 3B-OF Brian Anderson (.261 with 20 home runs). ... The Marlins expect growth from their promising rotation that includes RHPs Jose Ureña, (5.21 ERA) Pablo López (5.09) and Sandy Alcántara (3.88) and LHP Caleb Smith (4.52). They were all part of a rotation that had a combined 3.88 ERA in the first 60 games last season. ... Garrett Cooper (15 home runs in 107 games last season) will likely be the Marlins DH. Joyce can also fill that role. ... The Marlins’ worst record after 60 games was 16-44 in 2013, but their best record was 35-25 in 1997.

NEW YORK: The big story in training is Yeonis Céspedes, who has had various heel and ankle injuries and hasn’t since 2018. Céspedes has been taking regular batting practice and would fit perfectly in the Mets’ DH role. If not Céspedes, then Dominic Smith, J.D. Davis or Robinson Cano could be the DH. ... RHP Noah Syndergaard will not pitch because of Tommy John surgery. The rotation will be led by RHP Jacob de Grom, who is going for his third consecutive NL Cy Young Award. The rotation also has Marcus Stroman (3.77 ERA after arriving in a trade from Toronto), RHP Rick Porcello (5.59 ERA with Boston in 2019), RHP Michael Wacha, who has been slowed by injuries the last two seasons, and LHP Stephen Matz (4.21 ERA). With Syndergaard out and Zack Wheeler signing with the Phillies, the Mets will be trying to fill their combined 393 innings. ... The bullpen question is whether RHP Edwin Díaz can win his closer’s job back after a miserable 2019 season. The Mets also added former Yankees reliever, RHP Dellin Betances, to their bullpen. ... The Mets’ best 60-game start came in 1986, the year they beat Boston in the World Series. They were 44-16.

PHILADELPHIA: The Phillies, who have eight consecutive seasons of not making the postseason, have plenty of options for the DH role, but the best candidate is lefty Jay Bruce, who hit 26 home runs at 310 at-bats last season. The Phillies could give half-days off as a DH to 1B Rhys Hoskins, LF Andrew McCutchen and RF Bryce Harper. The Phillies also might use prospect Alex Bohm, who hit 21 home runs for three different minor league teams last season, although Bohm, a third baseman that needs work defensively, hasn’t played above Double-A. ... The Phillies’ only position battle during training will be in center field between Roman Quinn and Andrew Haseley. Quinn, 27, has hit .243 in 109 games over three seasons for the Phillies. Haseley, 24, hit .266 in 66 games for the 2019 Phillies. ... The Phillies’ two biggest additions were RHP Wheeler and SS Didi Gregorius, and their new manager, Joe Girardi, has the experienced leadership. ... Last season with the Yankees, Gregorius hit 16 home runs in 82 games after missing the first half of the season recovering from elbow surgery. ... The Phillies infield has Jean Segura at third, Gregorius at short, Scott Kingery at second and Hoskins at first. ... Wheeler has had two consecutive seasons of throwing at least 180 innings with the Mets, including last season’s 3.96 ERA. Wheeler’s four-seam fastball ranks fourth in the majors behind the Syndergaard and de Grom and the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole. ... Wheeler joins a rotation that has RHPs Aaron Nola (team-leading 12 wins, 3.87 ERA), Jake Arrieta (4.64 ERA) and Zack Eflin (4.13 ERA). ... Relief pitcher Seranthony Domínguez is out for the season because of Tommy John surgery.

WASHINGTON: The big news is that 1B Ryan Zimmerman, 35, and RHP Joe Ross, 27, have decided to not play because of health and safety reasons. Zimmerman, who started in Washington in 2005, the Nationals’ first season in D.C., has played 15 seasons with the Nationals and hit a franchise-record 270 home runs. He was going to share first base with Eric Thames, a lefty who hit 25 home runs for Milwaukee last season. Whether Zimmerman plays in 2021 is to be determined. ... Ross, who had a 2.75 ERA in eight starts last season, was the leading candidate for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, ahead of RHPs Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. ... The Nationals have options at DH, but Howie Kendrick will probably get most of the at-bats, considering last season he hit .344 with a .395 on-base percentage and a home run for the ages in Game 7 of the World Series against the Astros in Houston. ... The Nationals could also use as a DH Asdrúbal Cabrera, who hit .323 in 38 games for the Nationals last season, or Thames. ... The only position question is third base. Prospect Carter Kieboom, who hit .333 at Triple-A Fresno (Calif.) last season and played 11 games with the Nationals, will get a chance to prove himself. The other option is Cabrera. ... The first four in the Nationals’ rotation - RHPs Max Scherzer, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and Aníbal Sánchez and LHP Patrick Corbin - are set and the delayed season gives the rotation extra rest after pitching deep into the 2019 postseason. ... Last season, the wild card Nationals finished behind Atlanta by one game in the NL East, thanks to a 19-31 record at the start. They made the postseason after a rebound that started in mid-June and produced a 41-19 record during a 60-game stretch. ... They were 27-33 after 60 games in 2019. ... The Nationals’ best 60-game start was in 2017 when they went 38-22. They lost to the Cubs in the NL Division Series.