There’s been a lot of joy in the idiosyncratic individuality among teams in baseball. Fields are different sizes, walls are different heights and makeups, there was an actual pole in play on top of a literal hill at Minute Maid park for a while. And that’s just the obvious stuff. Having differences among the teams can be a lot of fun. I like it.
But there was always one point of difference that rubbed me the wrong way: the imbalanced rules between the National and American Leagues. Namely, of course, the designated hitter. But whether you like it or not, that battle may already be over. Actually, it is over. A universal DH going to happen eventually, and the only question left is when.
Now, I don’t have an exact answer for that right now, but if you asked me before I went to bed last night and again when I woke up this morning, you would’ve gotten two different responses. Indeed, it seems entirely *possible* that the universal DH could become a part of our lives as soon as this season, as the players association has officially proposed it to the league, who’s already in the process of making wholesale changes to the game.
If the DH part of those possible rules changes did come to pass, the Cubs, as a National League team, would have some serious things to consider immediately … like who’s going to play this brand new position 162 times a year?
Obviously, with interleague play and a fairly loaded roster, that question might not be as dramatic as it seems, but I still think it’s worth considering what the Cubs would do. So let’s consider it. In the hypothetical world where the NL suddenly requires a designated hitter for the 2019 season … what are the Cubs going to do?
Let’s start with the internal options.
Brett touched on this briefly in an earlier post, but we can take it a step further. Fortunately, the Cubs have a lot of options. In fact, unlike the Cardinals (Jose Martinez), Brewers (Eric Thames/Ryan Braun), and Reds (Matt Kemp), who might have just one or two very specific guys in mind for the gig, the Cubs might keep doing what they do best: staying flexible. Consider the options, without any additions to the roster …
Ben Zobrist is a guy who’d probably take on a portion of the DH at-bats, and it would work out beautifully. He’s shown over the last few years that his bat is still well above average so long as he’s healthy, and eliminating all that time in the field would almost certainly prolong whatever’s left of the above-average portion of his aging career.
Kyle Schwarber would no doubt be a popular first option among some fans, though they’d likely be reminded of his defensive improvements last season and how you’d prefer that’d continue, all things equal. I agree with that in general, HOWEVER, if Schwarber DH-ing allowed the Cubs to more frequently deploy the uniquely talented outfield gloves of Jason Heyward and Albert Almora, the combined effect would be very attractive. That only really works if Almora and Heyward continue their Gold Glove caliber defense, and if there are times you want Ian Happ or Kris Bryant out there with them in left field.
Willson Contreras is perhaps my favorite potential candidate to DH (*some* of the time), because his bat is among the Cubs’ best when he’s fully rested and clicking. If the Cubs could keep his bat in the lineup on the days he’d otherwise be out, while then putting an extremely good, veteran pitch-framer behind the plate, it would have the same effect as Heyward/Almora’s glove in the outfield, but with an even more extreme impact.
There are more examples of how the Cubs could utilize their existing positional versatility (in coordination with a universal DH) to their benefit, but those three strike me as the most obvious and immediately impactful.
Now, what if they made an external addition …
There’s not a doubt in my mind that the Cubs’ plans – limited budget or not – would’ve been a little different if the universal DH were announced at the beginning of the offseason rather than a week before pitchers and catcher’s report (maybe they would’ve reformatted their spending to be a little more aggressive on the positional side, rather than locking up Cole Hamels – who’s to say?). Fortunately for the Cubs, if something were announced suddenly, there are still a ton of free agents out there … including a big one in Bryce Harper.
Obviously, the Cubs wouldn’t *poof* have a spare $250M+ lying around, but maybe that long-term deal gets a little more tenable with the safety net of the designated hitter position by the end of Harper’s contract? You might counter by arguing that the DH will be here by the end of any long contract signed this offseason anyway, but adding any position player *now* becomes a lot easier to consider when there’s a whole other position to fill immediately.
And, of course, there’s always the possibility of a trade. The Cubs weren’t able to spin any of their young and talented, but not-yet-fully-productive youngsters this offseason, and who wants to move those guys for an aging slugger anyway? But now the Cubs would have the ability to add an aging slugger – one who’s very likely to be an offensive force this season – without having to displace a young bat anyway. Add a little production, rather than just relying on talent, right?
So what would happen to the Cubs roster if the universal DH was announced tomorrow? Well, their existing roster with a catcher, aging veteran, and two high-quality glove men would be able to handle the transition smoothly, without any other additions. But maybe – just maybe – a late-winter free agent signing or surprise trade could suddenly re-present itself as an option. It’s not yet clear if this change will happen *this year* but if it did, we could be in for quite an exciting finish to the offseason.