BASEBALL 2017: With Ortiz gone, fewer primary DHs left in AL

Big Papi was a big hitter, and that was really his only duty for most of his 20 major league seasons.

So when David Ortiz retired last year after more than 2,000 games as a designated hitter, baseball lost one of the few remaining players who rarely played the field.

Going into the 45th season since the designated hitter was approved for the American League, more managers now appear willing to spread around the DH starts instead of putting the same player in that slot just about every day.

There were 135 players who got DH starts for the 15 AL teams last season. That is an average of nine players per team, the same number that would fill an entire batting order.

''A lot of teams have gotten away from just a strict DH, and revolve it and give guys off days without really giving them off days,'' Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said.

And that may even be the case now for the Royals, whose lineup for more than a decade - including two World Series in the first half of the 1980s - featured Hal McRae , among the first players to spend most of his career as a DH. Kansas City more recently had Kendrys Morales (2015-16) and Billy Butler (2011-14) filling that role pretty much on an everyday basis.

Morales' 139 DH starts last season matched Ortiz with Boston for the most, but he left for Toronto and a big free-agent deal.

''I've enjoyed it, having Billy Butler and Kendrys Morales the last couple of years just as a DH because they were both very productive guys for our team,'' Yost said. ''But I do see the advantage of being able to give guys half-days when the opportunity presents itself.''

Only five players started more than 100 games at DH last year, with some managers using that slot to keep key position players in the batting lineup while providing them an occasional day off from the field.

The DH spot also allowed slugging first baseman Albert Pujols to play 152 games for the Los Angeles Angels even while dealing with a foot issue through last season. He started 124 of those games as the designated hitter.

''At the very least he can be an everyday DH for us, and we need his bat in the lineup,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said this spring. ''You don't want to risk what he does in the batter's box to get him to play first base a certain amount of games.''

The 37-year-old Pujols, who still has five seasons left on his contract, would prefer to be in the field when possible. He has played 1,704 career games at first base, and only 339 as a DH.

''I'd rather play. I don't like (DH) much, but you have to get used to it,'' Pujols said. ''The last couple of years, I got used to it.''

Victor Martinez, a 38-year-old former catcher, started 138 games as Detroit's DH last season. Nelson Cruz was Seattle's starting DH for 107 games, and in right field for 48 other games.

''You see a lot of teams that just kind of use the rotating DH and use it as a time to get guys a day off,'' Mariners manager Scott Servais said. ''The way (Cruz) does it, and goes about it, works great for us. We have an investment in Nelson and we certainly need him out there as many days as possible.''

During the first season of the DH in 1973, when there were only 12 AL teams, eight used the same DH for more than 100 games, according to baseball-reference.com. A ninth team had the same DH for just more than half of the 162-game season.

Last year, nine of 15 teams used the same DH for more than half of the time. Tampa Bay used a league-high 16 players in that slot, and the White Sox 15. No surprise Boston and Kansas City needed only four players in the DH role.

Among the 10 Yankees DHs was Alex Rodriguez, who got a team-high 57 starts at that spot before retiring last August at age 41.

While Ortiz spent most of his career as a DH, and Edgar Martinez played two-thirds of his games over 18 seasons with Seattle (1987-2004) in that role, other players weren't solely hitters until late in their careers.

Hank Aaron returned to Milwaukee and served as the DH for the then-still AL Brewers for his last two MLB seasons (1975-76) before retiring at age 42. Dave Kingman, another slugger, was Oakland's DH his last three seasons (1984-86).

''You're still going to have the David Ortiz, or the one guy who's just a guy you want his bat in the lineup and that's all he's going to do, and he wraps his arms around it and he's great,'' Scioscia said. ''They're still going to crop up because I think that there's always that veteran player that can acclimate himself to that and still be productive offensively, but maybe in the field not so much.''

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More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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