IMBALANCE OF POWER

The DH has enabled AL teams to overspend on free-agent sluggers. Now it's time to let the senior circuit play the same game
February 06, 2012

Reacting swiftly to the loss of designated hitter Victor Martinez to a torn left ACL, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch dipped into his dough and served up $214 million for Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. The nine-year contract returns Fielder, 27, to the city where his estranged father starred 20 years ago, and seals Ilitch's reputation as a man thoroughly committed to bringing a title to Comerica Park.

Detroit signed Fielder despite having Miguel Cabrera entrenched at first base. While the Tigers have made happy noises about playing the perennial MVP candidate at third—despite the fact that Cabrera made five errors in 14 games at the hot corner in 2008, the last time he played the position—there's no way they could have signed Fielder if the rule book didn't allow them to bat both mashers while playing only one in the field. The designated hitter, which will mark its 40th season in the American League this year, has shaped team rosters since its inception, but never more aggressively than it has this off-season.

Consider where clubs are spending their money. The biggest contracts doled out to corner players have nearly all come from AL teams for the simple reason that aging bat-first players with no position to field still have a place to hide. This winter Fielder and fellow first baseman Albert Pujols switched leagues. In 2007 the Yankees signed third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the biggest contract in MLB history. Over the last three-plus years Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez and Cabrera himself have signed long-term deals. The AL has been crazy for corner players because when they get older, the league has a cozy semiretirement home for them.

The NL hasn't been able to do that. The league's money has traditionally been committed to up-the-middle players who, as they age, can move to other positions on the field. Some of the NL's biggest deals have gone to Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki and such pitchers as Johan Santana and Barry Zito. You can certainly debate the usefulness of such spending, but the underlying philosophy is clear: NL teams are less likely to tie themselves to hitters who might not be able to play the field during the later years of their contracts.

This gap between what the teams in each league can do with their money is entirely due to the accident of history that is the split-DH rule. Back in 1972 the AL was struggling with a dearth of offense and addressed it by adding, for a three-year trial beginning in 1973, a player to every lineup who would replace the pitcher (and his .145/.184/.182 line) while not playing the field. Purists lost their minds, but when scoring jumped from 3.5 to 4.3 runs per AL team per game, the DH became permanent. That wouldn't happen today, because no league has that kind of autonomy. The signature change of the Bud Selig era is the end of the leagues as distinct entities. They now exist as conferences under the MLB umbrella, and decisions are made by the commissioner's office in conjunction with all 30 teams.

But since the leagues are now unified, it's also time to unify the rules. For all the quasireligious objections to the DH, there are two generations of baseball fans who remember no other kind of American League baseball. DHs have won World Series MVP awards and had careers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. In the near future DHs are also going to be some of the highest-paid players in the game, as Rodriguez and Fielder age, as Cabrera hits the market after 2015. There's no longer any stigma attached to the role. The NL has lost the larger war. Designated hitters are the norm at nearly every level of baseball in the U.S. and around the world. It's time to make them the norm in the National League, too.

More critically, pitcher batting has become worse and worse with each successive generation, and the vast majority of pitchers are automatic outs, voluntarily or otherwise. This is evolution; pitchers have almost never been selected for their skill at the plate, save for occasional mutants like Micah Owings or Brooks Kieschnick, and when a trait isn't necessary for survival, it's bred out of a species. NL pitchers hit .171/.211/.210 in 1950, the first year for which we have data. They were down to .142/.177/.184 last year, and because of that, they laid down more than half of the NL's sacrifice bunts. It's not strategy when everyone in the park knows that with a runner on base and less than two outs, the guy in the very clean helmet standing well off the plate is going to lay down a bunt.

There are other practical concerns. Beginning in 2013 there will be interleague play every day of the season, making the awkwardness of teams playing under different rules a major issue. There may even be an increase in the number of interleague games. Should late-season games with postseason implications be impacted by the awkward hacks of some AL pitcher with nine professional plate appearances? It's like forcing the Patriots to go with Rob Gronkowski under center for a handful of snaps in the Super Bowl.

The difference between having the DH and not having the DH is no longer quaint. There's never been a better time to fix this accident of history. When the leagues realign for 2013, they should do so under one set of rules, one that includes a designated hitter in all games.

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LEAGUES APART

Of the game's five highest-paid current position players (by average annual value), only one plays in the National League.

BEN CHERINGTON BILLY BEANE SANDY ALDERSON
They Did What?!? The Red Sox and G.M. Ben Cherington allowed free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon to walk and replaced him through the trade market with younger and cheaper relievers Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. Boston also dealt away shortstop Marco Scutaro, despite having only a pair of utility infielders, Mike Aviles and Nick Punto, and rookie Jose Iglesias to man the position. The A's traded everyone but Peter Brand. G.M. Billy Beane sent away three of his top starters (Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Guillermo Moscoso), his closer (Andrew Bailey), one of his lefty relievers (Craig Breslow) and his fourth outfielder (Ryan Sweeney), while letting two of his three starting outfielders (David DeJesus, Josh Willingham) and his DH (Hideki Matsui) leave via free agency. The Mets let shortstop Jose Reyes leave as a free agent while claiming they couldn't afford him—then they spent more than $10 million on the likes of relievers Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, and utilityman Ronny Cedeno. G.M. Sandy Alderson is spending more for less while sending the message to fans that New York is now a small-market team.
What They Were Thinking The Sox were looking to avoid the luxury tax by keeping payroll under the $178 million threshold. Papelbon's departure was expected, and he's been replaced by two closers who were very effective for bad teams in 2012. The trade of Scutaro for a fringe starter, the Rockies' Clayton Mortensen, made payroll space for another pitcher, perhaps free agent Roy Oswalt. By clearing out even young, low-service-time talent in exchange for prospects and players with minimal experience, Beane seems to be giving up on the present in hope that by 2014 the A's will be playing in a new ballpark in San Jose. By that time the talent he acquired, most notably righthanders A.J. Cole and Jarrod Parker, could form the core of a contender. Plummeting revenue, coupled with the threat of restitution payments as a result of the Wilpon family's investment with Bernie Madoff, have tied the Mets' hands. But big-money disappointments Johan Santana and Jason Bay, who will make a combined $40 million in 2012, haven't helped, nor has a fallow farm system that hasn't produced a star since David Wright.
Well, Did It Work? The bullpen trade-off gave Boston affordable depth with little loss in performance. Oswalt seems likely to sign elsewhere though, leaving the club with a hole at shortstop and no improved rotation. Boston could make a play for righty Edwin Jackson, but that would almost certainly trigger the luxury tax. Planning has been complicated by a pending arbitration hearing with DH David Ortiz. We won't know until MLB rules on whether the A's can move. The Giants have claimed that San Jose is their territory, but the league may want to take advantage of the opportunity to lift Oakland out of the second-class status it holds to the Raiders at O.co Coliseum. If the A's have to stay put, they'll not only have no present but also no hope at a sustainable, successful future. No paychecks have bounced, but letting Reyes leave while spending on the bench and bullpen has excited no one. Ticket and luxury-box sales are slow, and New York is on pace to have the largest single-season drop in payroll in MLB history—from $142 million last year to around $90 million. Barring comebacks by Santana, Bay and first baseman Ike Davis, things will get worse before they get better.
PHOTORICK OSENTOSKI/US PRESSWIRE (FIELDER)HAPPY ENDING? Fielder's deal with the Tigers should pay off at the front end, with the cushion of a DH spot waiting for him at the back end.
PHOTOREUTERS/MIKE BLAKE (PUJOLS) PHOTOJIM DAVIS/THE BOSTON GLOBE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOERIC RISBERG/AP PHOTOANDREW BURTON/GETTY IMAGES

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