Examining the A.L. East at Designated Hitter
Examining the A.L. East at Designated Hitter
By Cary Greene
January 30, 2022
My goal in this running series is to examine how each American League East Division rival has positioned their rosters up to this point in the offseason. Obviously, rosters aren’t fully sculpted yet, as the CBA lockout has put a deep-freeze on both free agent signings and trades. We will hopefully see a squall of activity once a new labor agreement is ratified by both the MLB Player’s Union and MLB Ownership. In my first five installments, I examined how each team is set at each infield position, around the horn starting with catcher, then moving to first base and then on to second base, shortstop and finishing up with third base.
Up to this point in my analysis, the Blue Jays have the best infield in the American League East, followed closely by the Rays, then the Red Sox. The Yankees stack up a distant fourth as an organization. Today, we’ll examine which team has the best DH plan for the coming season and beyond.
My evaluations take into account anticipated performance for the upcoming season, so in each provided team chart, 2022 Projected WAR is measured positionally. Players who play multiple positions contribute WAR at various positions and each chart factors this in. I’ve also looked at each team’s anticipated production versus each team’s payroll spend, to determine which teams are best using their resources. Lastly, I’ve compared the overall organizational depth of each Division rival and also factored in total years of team control at each position, in an attempt to understand which teams have done the best job of planning for the future while also trying to win today.
In the American League, the “DH” position is used a bit differently by various teams and this holds true with each Divisional rival. There are two basic approaches to the way most baseball teams manage the DH position – it’s either done primarily by one or two specialists or it’s done by more of a committee approach.
Some teams, like the Yankees, the Redsox and surprisingly, even the Orioles spend a lot of money on a primary DH and flex that player into the field very sparingly. The less a primary DH plays the field, the harder it is for that player to move the needle as his overall contribution is only one-way offensive production.
Other teams in the Division, like the Blue Jays, use the DH more as a way to flex a lineup and as games go along, they even pinch hit for the DH they chose to start the game. This piecemeal approach to the DH position allows a team to receive more overall production from the roster and that moves the needle. That said, teams are desperate for offense so as long as a one way player is highly productive offensively, he’s valuable.
Believe it or not, the Yankees are in the best overall shape in the Division at the DH position. Two very intriguing developments happened in the Bronx last season. The first was that the front office finally allowed Aaron Boone to start easing Giancarlo Stanton back into the outfield a tiny bit (199 innings). The second was that Luke Voit made it back from multiple stints on the DL and showed flashes that his bat is still quite worth sneaking into the lineup. The problem of course is his knees and now, the Yankees have two very injury prone sluggers which they must attempt to keep healthy so they can attempt to benefit offensively.
If the Yankees use Stanton as the primary DH, they’ll severely negate his potential to help the team because full time DH’s are only half as valuable as two way players and Stanton is a good Outfielder who could, if used more defensively, allow the Yankees to be a lot more flexible in their 26-man roster management.
From a roster design standpoint, it’s much more advantageous to have more flexibility and Stanton is still an above average outfielder with a strong arm. He also hits a lot better when he’s playing the field regularly, as we saw him prove last season. I’ve been writing about this every winter since 2019 and I won’t rest until Stanton plays more than 75 games in the outfield!
Fangraphs however projects Cashman to once again use Stanton mostly as a DH, probably because the Yankee outfield may be a bit deeper this season with Gallo under contract and Aaron Hicks also present and attempting to contribute.
The “Jumbo Package” outfield of Gallo-Judge-Stanton is truly a monster outfield, but the Yankees used this approach sparingly, so I’ll slot Stanton in as a primary DH who won’t contribute much in the field.
The Yankees also have some solid projectable depth in the pipeline at DH, as they have a number of players who may be better suited to first base or perhaps even hitting only future roles. Names like Austin Wells, Josh Breaux and Connor Cannon all come to mind.
Second in the Division at the DH position would have to be the Red Sox, mainly due to the presence of J.D. Martinez, who has one of the most professional hitting approaches in all of MLB. Martinez is pretty much a 3 WAR player, which is a true testament to his offensive worth considering he doesn’t play in the field much at all these days (299 innings last year, which equates to about 33 full games). Considering Giancarlo Stanton’s offensive value is listed as a 19 by fangraphs.com, Martinez’s 18.4 offensive value is right there alongside Stanton.
The Red Sox also have 19 year old right-handed third base prospect Blaze Jordan stashed in Low-A ball and his power is legit enough for some scouts to think he’s a projectable major league masher who may wind up at 1B/DH down the road. Jordan displays huge power to all fields, but effective contact is still quite a bit of a question with his swing. He takes the ball the opposite way, to right field a lot (43% of the time on batted balls) and actually has an approach similar to the Yankees Luke Voit, but with far less strike zone awareness, though he’s still adjusting to live, professional pitching.
A comp for Jordan that Yankee fans might identify with might be Austin Wells. Both players have really good power. Wells is a better overall hitter presently but he’s also three years older. Yankee fans were very excited to see Wells slash .344/.456/.578 with nine extra-base hits and 18 RBIs in 79 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League.
Tampa is a close third to Boston at DH and they have not yet looked to re-sign Nelson Cruz, who they acquired in a splashy and scary deadline move last year to provide their offense with a true power threat. Cruz put up an .832 OPS for the season, belting 32 home runs on the season, 13 of which were hit in a Rays uniform.
Normally, a player who is that productive has a very high WAR, but Cruz only played 7 innings in the field all season, so his overall value as measured by WAR was “only” 2.5 and the Rays got .5 of that for the time he played for them. If Cruz was a decent, fairly durable defensive first baseman his WAR would be 5.0+ easily. The decision to carry a severely defensively limited player is sometimes not worth it. However, Cruz’s 2.5 WAR last year as a DH is considered excellent one-way performance.
Minus Cruz, the Rays are currently projected to dole out the DH at-bats to Yankee-killer Austin Meadows and Yandy Diaz, with a little bit of two other Yankee-Killers, Randy Arozarena and Ji-Man Choi, sprinkled in depending on pitching matchups.
Fangraphs.com projects the Rays to receive an anticipated 2.1 WAR from this approach. If we look at the Rays talent pipeline, their number seven overall prospect, 22 year-old Heriberto Hernandez may become a significant asset at the plate, as he packs a thunderous punch in his bat. Although last season’s performance does not quite match his sensational .345/.436/.635 line from 2019, Hernandez still earned a .381 OBP while displaying promising power potential with a 44.2 FB% with Low-A Charleston.
Hernandez may not currently have a set position in the field, having previously played catcher, first base and outfield, but Heriberto looks to eventually settle in as a corner outfielder if his playing time from last year is an indication of how Tampa looks to handle his defensive future. He could very well become a player Tampa may look to get into the lineup in the future and I’d imagine they’d use him quite often at DH.
The Blue Jays probably slate in behind the Rays at DH as the 4th best team at the position in the AL East, at least based on projections. Teoscar Hernandez, who plays solid corner outfield defense for the Rays and who is only a part time DH for the Jays provides most of the value for Toronto at the position. Hernandez has a ton of thump in his bat, which has improved tremendously from only a few years ago. His exit velocity is 93.3 these days, up from mid 91’s in 2020 and he’s cut his strikeout numbers down significantly, from 34% two years ago to 24.9% last year.
When Hernandez makes hard contact, his results are elite. Not only is it difficult to defend extremely hard hit balls but he smashed balls all over the park last season from the DH position for the Jays. His 132 wRC+ is indicative of a vastly above average offensive player. What’s not love about his .296/.346/.524/.870 OPS slash line that he registered for Toronto last year?
Hernandez makes $10 million and he’s under team control for two more seasons so I expect him to be a big part of Toronto’s offense as they make their push to win the Division outright over the Yankees, the Rays and the Red Sox. Most projections are for him to regress pretty solidly this season so perhaps he’s getting a little lucky with some of his hot smashes but considering Hernandez plays a lot of corner outfield for the Jays, when he is at DH he’s pretty special.
In fact, if Hernandez maintains his exit velocity gains and continues to keep his strikeout rate closer to the 25% it was in the minor leagues, he could just as easily lay claim to being one of the most dangerous hitters in all of baseball.
Alejandro Kirk is also expected to get significant plate appearances at DH for Toronto as the Jays were very pleased with Hernandez’s play in the outfield last season, where he graded out as a pretty decent, average-ish outfielder. The Jays love to get both Hernandez and Kirk into the lineup as often as possible and they also rest their regulars at DH a little bit as well, rounding the way they use the DH position.
The reason I rank the Jays 4th at DH however is because Hernandez is playing a ton more outfield these days, so if we credit the actual DH position with actual anticipated production from other players the Jays might use at DH, the drop off between Hernandez and the collective pool of players who will get more than half of the available DH at-bats justifies rating the Jays 4th in the Division at this position.
The Orioles are a distant 5th in the division at DH and the time is drawing near for the O’s to refresh their approach at DH due to Trey Mancini being in his walk-year. Middle of the lineup production is a huge issue for Baltimore to address as they continue their rebuild and they need to figure out a way to get more production from the DH position going forward. Perhaps a creative approach might be to use a DH by committee approach because they have a lot of very talented position players coming up who could pollinate a “next man up” type of culture which would allow Brandon Hyde to create favorable matchups as games wear on.
Deciding whether to extend Mancini or not appears to be a business decision that the light-spending Orioles will probably opt to handle after the season and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the team decided to move on, not because of character because by all accounts, Mancini is a terrific presence in the clubhouse, but more so because of declining production versus salary. With the strength of Baltimore’s farm system, rated number one in all of MLB by mlb.com, the Orioles will probably look for internal solutions to most of the team’s positional needs.
Based on the amount of money each team in the American League East is spending for the coming season to address their infields and their designated-hitters, the Rays are by far getting the best bang for buck. As an organization, they are also easily the best positioned team for the long haul, with the most desirable and tradable young talent.
That said, the Blue Jays are the team to beat so far and they’re also building around a very valuable, talented core. Fiscally, Ross Atkins has Toronto in very good shape but the challenge will be to extend his superstars Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette while also building an even more formidable talent pipeline to keep the shelves stocked. Atkins has been looking to upgrade at third base, which is the only real infield opportunity Toronto has to move the needle.
As you can see, the Yankees are by far outspending their Divisional rivals in the infield and at DH and the tremendous spend isn’t expected to move the needle enough to make NY any more than third or fourth fiddle.
In the next article I’ll examine each team’s outfields, which will conclude the position player portion of this in depth American League East comparison.