This is not an argument for bringing the DH to the National League. That’s an entirely different conversation. Reports have indicated that change could arrive by 2022, when baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is renegotiated and, after years of debate, the DH could be implemented leaguewide. But until then — while Rizzo, Scherzer and Corbin still have their way — all we can do is wonder what the DH would do for a club like the Nationals. And it would go a long way.
The Nationals head into spring training with shortstop Trea Turner as the only set piece of their infield. After that, they have a platoon at catcher (Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes), and could have up to six players cycling in at first, second and third base. The five definites are Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman and Asdrúbal Cabrera. The sixth would be top prospect Carter Kieboom, should he earn a shot at third. It all means that Martinez will have to get creative, and that’s where a DH would help.
A benefit of the current logjam will be keeping veterans fresh. The Nationals do not want to play Kendrick or Zimmerman every day, given both players’ age and injury histories. Having Castro, Cabrera, Thames and Kieboom should mean, barring a bunch of injuries, that Martinez never has to. The challenge, though, will be distributing at-bats and appearances effectively, and not stunting production with limited opportunities.
That’s where the DH could come in. For Martinez, the DH could help by:
- Ensuring Kendrick finishes the season with around 400 plate appearances;
- Keeping Castro in a rhythm after he appeared in each of the Miami Marlins’ 162 games in 2019;
- Providing the option to play both Thames and Kendrick against righties, since Thames is a lefty power bat, and Kendrick, a right-handed hitter, has great reverse splits;
- Providing that option without having to play Kendrick at second base, a position he struggled at in the postseason;
- Opening an extra spot to play Suzuki against lefties and still start Gomes, a much stronger defensive catcher, behind the plate;
- Allowing Gomes more than 358 plate appearances, since he admittedly struggled with a part-time role;
- Allowing Kieboom consistent at-bats, should he make the team, since Rizzo never brings up prospects to warm the bench.
That’s a lot to unpack. First, concerning Kendrick: The 36-year-old turned down multiyear offers from American League teams this offseason. They had plans of making him an every-day DH. He chose to stay in Washington, on a one-year contract, and has rebuffed the idea that he is better off DH’ing. But if he had the choice to do so with the Nationals, while also mixing in at first or second, the team would benefit.
He is coming off a career year — a .344 average, with a .966 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 370 plate appearances — and Washington has to give him every chance to stay in stride. Now imagine the Nationals are facing a tough right-handed starter, and they could put Kendrick at DH, Thames at first, Castro or the switch-hitting Cabrera at second, and Kieboom or Cabrera at third. Now imagine they are facing a tough lefty the next night, and they put Suzuki at DH, Gomes at catcher, Zimmerman at first, Castro or Cabrera at second, and Kieboom or Cabrera at third. Or maybe Kendrick is rested, can play both games, and slots in at DH, hitting second or third in the latter game.
Those combinations, built around Turner, Juan Soto, Adam Eaton and Victor Robles, begin to resemble imposing. It could be argued that any team would benefit from adding another hitter in place of a pitcher. Yet the Nationals, given their options and age, are uniquely positioned to make the most of a DH.
Castro (29 years old), Gomes (32) and Thames (33) could shoulder heavier workloads than Cabrera (34), Zimmerman (35), Kendrick (36) and Suzuki (36). They also are much better off with regular playing time. Thames started 98 games last season, with 89 of those at first base, six in the outfield, and three more as a DH with the Milwaukee Brewers. He hit 25 home runs, power the Nationals need, but it is hard to see him getting to 459 plate appearances while sharing time with Kendrick and Zimmerman at first.
Gomes was coming off an all-star year with the Cleveland Indians when he arrived in Washington, but had a .198 average in the middle of last summer. Then, when Suzuki was sidelined for most of September, Gomes started 21 games and hit six home runs, half his season total, with an .850 OPS. And Castro had two distinct acts of 2019 — an abysmal first half, a scorching second — that leveled out to a .270 average, 22 homers and 86 RBI. His numbers were aided by midseason adjustments, including a slightly opened stance and an approach that emphasized pulling balls in the air. A key to those adjustments was that he had constant opportunities to iron them out.
This is all hypothetical, of course, since there will not be a DH in the NL until further notice. If the average order spot gets four plate appearances a game, and the Nationals are rotating three positions, that means Martinez has roughly 1,950 plate appearances to spread between Kendrick, Castro, Thames, Zimmerman, Cabrera and possibly Kieboom. An even distribution would be 325 plate appearances for each of the six players. But the puzzle will be much more complicated than that.
Read more on the Washington Nationals: