Even when Buck Showalter had defensively deficient players such as Nelson Cruz and Danny Tartabull, he refused to use their offense-first profile strictly as designated hitters.
In 16 full seasons managing in the American League, Showalter only twice had one player accumulate more than 100 games started as the DH.
- l n 2011, Showalter’s first full season with the Orioles coincided with the final campaign of Vladimir Guerrero’s career. By then, the future Hall of Famer was 36 and his legs were pretty much shot. He was the third-highest paid player on a last-place team, so he received 137 exclusively DH starts, though his skills had decayed.
- In 2017, Mark Trumbo started 110 games at DH after signing a three-year, $37.5 million extension with Baltimore. Still, Showalter gave Trumbo 33 starts in the field.
Thus, Showalter has a track record on how he will use a DH. On Thursday, commissioner Rob Manfred said with his outdoor voice what had been understood from labor negotiations — MLB has agreed to the union’s desire for a universal DH. Thus, when a new collective bargaining agreement is finally reached, the day of the pitcher hitting will be completely gone.
The 15 NL teams will join their AL brethren in determining how to best use an extra hitter in their lineups. Showalter has dropped bread crumbs through the years to suggest he would prefer to avoid a singular figure in that role.
The Mets’ current roster actually fits that philosophy, in that Showalter has multiple options to consider in trying to rest players and gain favorable matchups each game.
Showalter could use the DH spot to occasionally take a regular — such as Francisco Lindor, Starling Marte or Brandon Nimmo — off the field to rest their bodies while keeping their bat in the lineup — though in seven years together in Baltimore, Showalter never started his biggest star, Manny Machado, once at DH.
The Mets also could enlist another bat from outside before this season or before the July 31 trade deadline to change up the group and how Showalter would approach this decision. For example, my colleague, Mike Puma, suggested the Mets could push to sign free agent Kyle Schwarber, a hit-first lefty swinger.
But my suspicion is they will not be doing another big bat prior to the opening of the 2022 campaign. And, if that is the case, the Met DH situation revolves around three players:
Robinson Cano: There was wonder, after he was suspended for the 2021 season after failing a PED-related test, if the Mets just might cut him. But they owe Cano $40.5 million over the next two years, and the Mets are going to see what they have.
In that way, an abbreviated spring training could very much hurt the evaluation. Cano played winter ball. But the Mets probably would have liked to feed Cano as many exhibition at-bats as possible to continue to knock off rust and see if the bat speed is still there. Cano is 39. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is the only older position player currently on a 40-man roster (though you can expect Cruz to sign when the lockout concludes).
Cano has defenders. One evaluator said he believes Cano’s gifted hands and high baseball intellect will allow him to continue to hit at a strong level. In the shortened 2020 campaign, Cano hit .316 with an .896 OPS. But how much of that was artificially inflated by illegal enhancers that, in theory, Cano will not be taking in 2022?
Showalter likes veterans. Cano’s defense already was slipping, so his days as an everyday second baseman are likely gone. Could he get (in the best scenario) 75 games at DH and 75 at second?
Pete Alonso: This is really a Dom Smith issue, not an Alonso one. Smith was one of the majors’ best hitters in 2020 and worst in 2021. In 2020, the NL used the DH in the shortened season. Smith got to play first base more regularly. And he hit. Would the comfort of his natural position bring back similar production? Would Alonso be comfortable DH-ing, say, 40-50 games if Smith’s bat is back? This is why Showalter got the big money, to nurse situations like this.
Are there 400-ish plate appearances for a productive Smith between left field, first base and DH? Usually, teams find the at-bats for productive players.
J.D. Davis: In the past three years, which J.D. has a higher OPS-plus: Davis or Martinez? Davis has a 128 OPS-plus in his three Mets seasons while the Red Sox’s Martinez is 125 in the same time frame. Davis has not been a full-time player, but he is a good hitter — good enough that the Mets have been trying to hide his glove around the diamond to get his bat into the lineup.
Now, they could use his bat as much as they want without putting Davis in the field. But part of this exercise also has to do with whether the Mets will be using Davis, Smith and/or Jeff McNeil to try to land pitching and/or deepen their prospect base. If Davis is traded, prospect Mark Vientos also could become a DH factor at some point, though a shortened spring also would hurt a new add to the 40-man roster like him getting a lot of eyeball time with the major league staff.
Davis might not have the power to justify being a regular DH, but there is enough bat here that he could get 20-30 games — assuming he is still a Met. So 75 games for Cano, 40 for Alonso, 25 for Davis and a sprinkling around to others — is this what the DH spot looks like for the 2022 Mets?