MLB has not made a call on the universal DH yet for 2021, but it is clear it would greatly benefit the Mets.
The 2020 MLB season marked the first year that the universal Designated Hitter had been implemented across baseball, meaning National League fans got their first look at life with the DH. The rule change was just one of a number of reforms added prior to the shortened season as part of its health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Buster Olney recently stated that it’s a ‘safe bet’ that the universal DH will return in 2021.
Putting aside personal feelings on the Designated Hitter and its place in baseball (full disclosure: I have never been a fan but was not as offended by it as I thought it would be), the DH objectively helps the Mets, a team that, for years, have built a roster filled with DHs with no place to put them. This will continue to ring true next year. The decision on whether the DH will return to the NL will likely need to come soon, as teams will need to take the position into consideration when devising an offseason strategy and constructing their roster.
As we prepare for the hot stove to intensify in the coming weeks, here’s a look at where the Mets’ make-up would stand with and without the DH.
Let’s look at the easier scenario first. Let’s assume that MLB owners and Commissioner Rob Manfred approve the universal DH for 2021. For starters, with the CBA expiring after 2021, this would likely signal that the Designated Hitter would be here permanently, for better or for worse, depending on your viewpoint.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that this equation can very quickly change depending on which pieces the Mets add this offseason. With that in mind, the most obvious candidate for the DH is Dominic Smith, who had a breakthrough 2020 campaign and placed 13th in NL MVP voting last week after slashing .316/.377/.616 with a 165 wRC+ and 10 home runs in 50 games. Smith, who was originally one of the team’s top prospects, found himself without much of a future with the organization after Pete Alonso stormed onto the scene with his record-breaking 53-home run barrage in 2019. With the DH, you can comfortably slot Smith’s bat into the lineup on an everyday basis without needing to sacrifice playing time for Alonso. The 25-year-old, who has quickly become a fan favorite over the past two seasons, has a lot of room to grow his game, and giving him more playing time would help the team while allowing him the time and platform to develop.
If you believe that Smith gives you a better defensive outlook at first base, the alternative would also be to make Alonso the designated hitter. This would take the focus on improving his defense out of the equation and allow Alonso to focus on what he does best: Mashing dingers. It’s unclear whether this would be something he would be interested in or comfortable in, but it gives you the option. In any event, if they both continue to hit, it’s clear that the DH would give both Smith and Alonso and in into the team’s lineup for the foreseeable future.
Beyond those two, Robinson Cano makes the most sense to be DH, at least occasionally. The second baseman expressed discomfort at DHing last year and made his preference at playing the field known. This is all well and good for the Mets who, as previously mentioned, would be best suited to stick one of their two first basemen into that role. However, with three years left on his contract, getting Cano off the field a couple of times a week would allow him to keep his legs fresh and keep him healthy while also keeping his potent bat in the lineup. While some fans would rather move on from the 16-year veteran altogether, he had a terrific bounce-back 2020, where he hit .316/.352/.544 with a 141 wRC+ and 10 home runs in 49 games. With Cano at DH, you can either slot Jeff McNeil into second and adjust your outfield from there, or you can have Amed Rosario or Andres Gimenez work on second base. Luis Guillorme would also be an option to step in for Cano at second, as he proved that his bat belonged at the major league level last year with an impressive showing.
Lower down on the list of potential DHs is J.D. Davis. His defense has proved to be the weak link in his game, whether it’s in left field or at third base, the latter of which he did show improvement in last season. His bat is still his strongest asset, even if he slowed down a bit last year compared to his 2019 campaign. Davis will certainly get some at-bats at DH, in which case McNeil can slide to third in his absence.
No Designated Hitter
Things get trickier for the Mets if the DH disappears in 2021. For starters, this puts the team in the difficult situation of choosing between Alonso and Smith at first base. To the naked eye, the choice is obvious and the 2019 Rookie of the Year would get the majority of the reps at first. However, Alonso did look overmatched at times at the plate in 2020 and his numbers took a bit of a tumble as he posted a .231/.326/.490 slash line with a 119 wRC+ and 16 home runs, while Smith was consistently the team’s best bat from July until September. Still, Polar Bear Pete rebounded later in the year, so it’s far too early to seriously consider any reduction in playing time.
Smith would give the team a dynamic bat off the bench, but it’s hardly fair to keep him from the lineup when he’s more than proven he deserves a starting spot. The only other position Smith has played has been left field, and it’s been an adventure with him manning the corner with no noticeable improvement to speak of. Late last year, he got hurt when he ran into the wall while tracking down a fly ball, and in general it would seem risk at best to try and continue forcing him into the outfield. At that point, he would likely become the team’s top pinch hitter and late inning defensive replacement for Alonso.
If Smith were to play left, that would also displace one of either McNeil or Davis, who would likely start the season at left field and third base, respectively, if tomorrow were Opening Day. If the team believed in Smith in left field—again, a move that could prove potentially hazardous—this would likely shift McNeil to third and turn Davis into the lead bat off the bench.
Not having the DH could also turn Smith into an enticing trade chip, especially for someone like Francisco Lindor, who would immediately become the team’s best position player. It would hurt to move Smith, who has become a leader on and off the field for the Mets, but with no place to put him, it would be a move to consider. The same can be said for Davis and McNeil, the latter of whom has been mentioned recently in Lindor rumors, although it would still be hard to see the Mets parting from him when he still fits well into the lineup.
From either scenario, it is clear that the Mets have options heading into 2021, and Sandy Alderson and his new front office have a lot to consider as they work on constructing the team’s roster. The decision on whether the DH will stay in the NL should go a long way towards helping make some of those decisions that much easier.