DH drama unfortunately a sign of what’s to come in baseball’s negotiations
Major League Baseball has achieved the impossible.
Supporters and critics of the designated hitter are suddenly playing for the same team.
Whether you have tired of watching pitchers flail away at the plate, or you smirk at the style of play the American League accepted in 1973, you can agree that it’s insane the National League still can’t say for certain if it will be using the designated hitter again next season.
The DH in the NL remains TBD for 2021, leaving DH embracers and haters saying together, in unison, “WTF?”
MLB owners and players should have made a point to settle the DH discussion by now. In a predictable development, they didn’t. That leaves NL front offices navigating this week’s virtual winter meetings without a final verdict on a key lineup spot. Meanwhile free agents (and their agents) are trying to determine what the market looks like without a definitive answer on how many teams will need a DH. Is it 15, or 30?
The Marlins made it clear through last week’s decisions at the non-tender trade deadline that they are betting on the DH returning to the NL for 2021. They decided to keep DH types Jesus Aguilar and Garrett Cooper. The Cubs, however, non-tendered Kyle Schwarber. And the Braves non-tendered Adam Duvall. It looks like NL teams are just guessing, honestly. For a sport as detail-obsessed as baseball, this is nuts.
The Cardinals are caught in the chaos. They need to upgrade their offense. Plucking a proven DH from the long list of free-agent options could be a short-term and relatively affordable fix as the club looks to compete without raising payroll. But the Cardinals say they are moving forward with the assumption that the DH wrinkle the NL adopted in 2020 as a player safety consideration during the pandemic-shortened season will not be back in place for 2021. Those marching orders could of course change — and some predict they will — based off conversations between owners and players about the 2021 season. Those conversations could take place this week. No rush, fellas.
After all, it has only been six weeks since the Dodgers won the World Series.
It’s not like there are more important things that would have justified figuring out this relatively simple problem sooner, such as, you know, how to play through a pandemic again.
With bigger fish to fry flopping around all over the place, the DH standoff looks even more bizarre. Spring training is barely more than two months away, we hope. The free-agent market for offense remains stalled.
If owners and players were determined to make 2021 the best season possible, this topic would have been settled by now. And it could have been. The DH debate is not as thorny with owners and players as it is with fans.
Players like the universal DH because it creates more jobs and job security for impact hitters, which is a more handsomely paid position than the lowest-ranked reliever or position player on the roster who would be replaced by a DH. And then there’s the fact that a lot of pitchers (not all of them) don’t like to hit.
Owners, as much as traditionalist fans like to think, are not against the DH. Owners like healthy pitchers and value. The idea of having a healthy pitcher become an injured pitcher because of the low-value exercise of a pitcher hitting is increasingly less appealing. You would think that injury concern would grow significantly for 2021, considering pitchers did not hit at all in 2020.
It would make a lot of sense for owners and players alike to bring back the universal DH for 2021. The pandemic is still in play and likely to produce another shortened, rushed season compared to the usual 162-game grind. Solving the issue would engage the engine of the free-agent market, compelling front offices to get to work and encouraging free agents to accept offers. And besides, this entire DH debate could be settled for good when baseball has to figure out its new collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires following the 2021 season. Any 2021 answer is a short-term one.
What should have been a common-sense solution has instead turned into a reminder of just how unproductive the relationship between owners and players has become.
There have been multiple reports this week that NL front offices are operating under the no-DH plan because owners are angling for what they want in return.
“Players want it (the universal designated hitter), sources said, but owners want the players to agree to expanded playoffs for the 2021 season in exchange,” Jeff Passan writes at ESPN.com. “Understandably, the players don’t find that to be a particularly equitable trade. The complicating factor is that most front offices would love it (universal DH). Going back to pitchers hitting after a full season in which they didn’t doesn’t register right, particularly when the issue is going to be adjudicated for good in a new collective-bargaining agreement after the 2021 season.”
You read that right.
Players want it. Owners want it. But the hold up can be traced back to owners and players once again valuing the leverage they hold against one another more than they value a solution.
If you think watching the DH in the NL is bad, wait until you have to watch these guys negotiate that new CBA.