The Nationals have several lineup holes they need to fill this winter, and it’s no mystery where those holes are: A corner outfielder. A catcher. One or more first basemen. And perhaps either a second or third baseman.
But there may be one more lineup hole that needs to be addressed at some point: designated hitter.
We don’t know yet if the DH will return to the National League in 2021 after a one-year tryout during the recently completed short season. It’s not currently included in the collective bargaining agreement that doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season. But it’s entirely possible Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association will negotiate to bring it back again for another year.
There has long been speculation the NL will permanently adopt the DH at some point, most likely as part of the next CBA that would begin in 2022. But the unusual circumstances of the 60-game season this year - most notably the higher-than-normal percentage of interleague games - made it a necessary addition on a temporary basis.
The question now becomes whether the experiment was well-received enough to do it again.
There is perhaps no topic more controversial among baseball fans than the DH. And just like America at large, fandom is extremely polarized on the subject. You’re either for it or against it. You’ve long since made up your mind, and nobody’s about to convince you to change it.
Players tend to like the DH, because they believe it creates more higher-paying jobs. Having it in both the National and American leagues also levels the playing field, ensuring everybody in the majors is competing under the same set of rules.
Owners are more split on the subject, with a good number of longstanding NL owners opposing the DH based on tradition and the belief their fan bases don’t want it.
For what it’s worth, there weren’t a whole lot of complaints about the DH this season. Maybe the unprecedented nature of the season made it seem less significant, but most NL fans just seemed to accept it along the way to the point it was barely a story by September.
Whether you’re for or against it, you have to at least admit it’s only fair for MLB to decide ASAP whether to keep the universal DH in 2021 or not. How are NL general managers supposed to build their rosters if they don’t know whether they need eight regular hitters or nine?
This is especially true in the Nationals’ case. Their intentions at first base are probably tied directly to the status of the DH.
If there’s no DH in 2021, Mike Rizzo probably needs to get himself a left-handed and a right-handed first baseman. That probably means either Ryan Zimmerman or Howie Kendrick, but not both.
But if there is a DH in 2021, Rizzo has another lineup spot to fill on a daily basis. And in that scenario, perhaps there’s room for both Zimmerman and Kendrick. Or someone else entirely new if there isn’t mutual interest in bringing back both of those veterans.
Marcell Ozuna is one of the top free-agent bats on the market this winter, but most clubs are going to view the slugger as a DH more than a left fielder, certainly if a contract extends multiple years down the road. Ozuna would be quite attractive to the Nats as a DH, less so as a left fielder.
Point is, there’s a major unanswered question hovering over this offseason, one that should greatly impact teams’ decision-making processes.
Whether the Nationals support or oppose the DH, they - like everyone else in the NL - just want to know if they need to prepare for it in 2021 or not.