Ranking the National League’s Presumptive Designated Hitters

Jesse Pantuosco
May 15, 2020 - 9:18 am

After years of resisting the universal DH, it appears the National League has finally come to its senses. There are still plenty of T’s to cross and I’s to dot before the MLB resumes its corona-interrupted 2020 campaign, but when baseball does make its triumphant return this season, the NL will employ a designated hitter for the first time in its 144-year history. The National League’s DH experiment could very well be one-and-done, so let’s enjoy the circus while it lasts.

In anticipation of baseball’s eventual return, I took the liberty of ranking the 15 likely DH starters in the National League. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way to the top.

Arizona's Jake Lamb admiring his home run at Coors Field
Photo credit Dustin Bradford, Getty Images

15. Jake Lamb, Arizona Diamondbacks

Lamb, at one time, had the look of an up-and-comer, earning All-Star recognition in the National League as recently as 2017. But Lamb’s star has fallen to the point where he’s become a fringe starter for Arizona. With Lamb’s path to playing time at the hot corner obstructed by Eduardo Escobar (whose 118 RBI last year were the NL’s fourth-most), DH represents the 29-year-old’s best chance to be an everyday presence in the D’Backs’ lineup. If assigning designated hitter responsibilities to a player with a combined .208 average over his last two seasons doesn’t strike you as particularly ideal, that’s because it’s not. Lamb once offered considerable power (he slugged 30 homers in 2017), but his increasingly subpar contact rate has him bringing up the rear in my DH rankings.

14. Jose Osuna, Pittsburgh Pirates

Given his difficulties at first base, it may make more sense for Josh Bell to man the Pirates’ DH position. But whatever number the die lands on, Jose Osuna will serve as the chief beneficiary of the National League’s newly implemented designated hitter, rising from bench status to lineup regular in Pittsburgh. The 27-year-old Venezuelan enjoyed modest success as a part-timer last year (.264, 10 HR, 36 RBI in 285 plate appearances) and boasts enough power to flirt with 10-15 homers if granted everyday status. But he’s still just a replacement-level bat with a career .285 OBP.

13. Garrett Cooper, Miami Marlins

Cooper and left-handed hitting Matt Joyce would seem to form a fairly-straightforward DH platoon in Miami, though the Marlins may lean slightly on the side of youth with Cooper (29) functioning as the 1A to Joyce’s 1B. There’s probably a case to be made for Lewis Brinson as well, though he’s a better outfield bet than Joyce or Cooper and, if we’re being completely honest, a pretty underwhelming hitter (.183 lifetime average), which is not a desired quality in DHs. A former Yankees farmhand, Cooper showed decent pop in his debut season as a Marlin (.281/.344/.446 with 15 homers and 50 RBI in 381 at-bats) and certainly has the build of a big-league power hitter at 6’6”/230. Cooper can man the outfield in a pinch, though he’s more suited for first base. Unfortunately, Jesus Aguilar’s presence closes the latter avenue for him, leaving DH as Cooper’s primary position in 2020.

Dominic Smith diving safely into third base
Photo credit Rich Schultz, Getty Images

12. Dominic Smith, New York Mets

Once healthy, New York’s designated hitter role has Yoenis Cespedes’ name written all over it. But with the two-time All-Star still slow-playing his recovery from a broken ankle (the result of a harrowing boar encounter), former first-round pick Dominic Smith could get the first crack at DH duties in the Big Apple. Still just 24, Smith is blocked by reigning National League home-run champ Pete Alonso at first base and the few glimpses we’ve seen of him in the outfield have been an eyesore. That makes Smith something of a square peg (hence his scarce usage), though the newly available DH slot could be his saving grace. The 239-pound Smith more than held his own at the dish last season, submitting a respectable .282/.355/.525 batting line while faring surprisingly well against lefties, albeit in limited action (.303 AVG in 33 at-bats). If Smith can carve out an every-day assignment for the Mets, he could be a sneaky breakout candidate.

11. Jay Bruce, Philadelphia Phillies

A free-swinging, long-ball artist in the vein of Adam Dunn and other three true outcome sluggers of his ilk, Bruce is a frustrating player to say the least. But for all his flaws, the swash-buckling 33-year-old still hits his fair share of rockets. Twenty-six of them landed in the seats last year with most of that damage (20 of 26 round-trippers) coming against right-handers. Feast-or-famine types are a dime a dozen in today’s MLB—80 players cleared the 25-homer threshold last year. But the Phillies’ bench isn’t exactly an embarrassment of riches and Bruce, despite his Swiss-cheese swing and affinity for weeks-long slumps, might still be the best of that underwhelming bunch. An abysmal first baseman and arguably an even worse outfielder, limiting Bruce to DH responsibilities is probably the best use of him at this late juncture in his big-league journey.

10. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants

Back for his second stint in San Francisco, Pence is coming off a surprisingly fruitful 2019 campaign that saw him launch his most homers (18) since 2014. Playing in Texas could explain his power surge and the cavernous AT&T Park (assuming teams are permitted to play in their home stadiums this year) isn’t the most welcoming venue for hitters. That being said, the crafty veteran knows just about every nook and cranny of that park after spending seven of his last eight seasons in the Bay. Pence is a liability in the outfield these days (as is the case for most 37-year-old big-leaguers), but his bat still plays. Aging catcher Buster Posey may get the occasional nod at DH and Wilmer Flores could also fill that role if needed, but of the Giants’ designated hitter candidates, Pence arguably makes the most sense.

Reds outfielder Jesse Winker connects on a base hit
Photo credit Andy Lyons, Getty Images

9. Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds

Cincy’s outfield is about as jam-packed as it gets with five players (potentially six if you include power-hitting youngster Aristides Aquino) competing for three spots. Having a DH at their disposal should clear the Reds’ logjam somewhat, though it’s still a fluid situation with former top prospect Nick Senzel, lefty-killing Phillip Ervin and Jesse Winker among those vying for platoon roles. Winker is the most seasoned of the three and is coming off a career-best 2019 that saw him blast 16 homers in just 338 at-bats (a back injury shelved him for a chunk of August and all of September). He was a catastrophe against southpaws (.163 AVG) and probably won’t face many of them in 2020, but Winker still boasts an intriguing .285/.379/.466 batting line at the major-league level. Though he’s never been used in an everyday capacity, the 26-year-old has all the makings of a middle-of-the-order havoc-wreaker for a dark-horse Reds club that could make a surprise push for the NL Wild Card, if not the division crown.

8. Nick Markakis, Atlanta Braves      

Though he’s done it with little fanfare, the perennially underrated Markakis quietly ranks fourth among active players in career hits (2,355). Steady as the day is long, Markakis doesn’t offer much in the way of power, but the 36-year-old can always hit for average, as evidenced by the rock-solid .285 mark he compiled in 2019. The three-time Gold Glove recipient is still a capable outfielder, particularly at his preferred right field, though there’s not much room at the inn with Ronald Acuna, Marcell Ozuna and Ender Inciarte all entrenched as starting outfielders. Home-run swatting Adam Duvall could spell him against left-handers on occasion, but the smart money is on Markakis seeing the lion’s share of at-bats at DH in Atlanta.

7. Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

Last season was, by every measure, a down year for Carpenter. Actually, “down year” doesn’t do it justice. Carpenter’s 2019 was more like a bloodbath. His average sunk to an anemic .226 while the veteran’s once-patented power stroke similarly abandoned him (Carpenter’s 15 homers were his fewest since 2014). Perhaps we can chalk it up to injuries (he served two separate IL stints with foot and back trouble) or sheer bad luck, but at 34, it’s equally probable that Carpenter has entered the decline phase of his career, and when that happens, there’s usually no turning back. Not a particularly adept third baseman and unable to play his preferred first base with perennial All-Star Paul Goldschmidt working that beat, a move to DH would be the logical next step for Carpenter. The pieces all fit too, with rising star Tommy Edman an easy choice to replace Carpenter at the hot corner in St. Louis, opening up left-field responsibilities for former minor-league home-run prince Tyler O’Neill. Carpenter looked lost at sea last season, but let’s not forget how dominant he was the year before, pacing the club with a career-best 36 homers.

A.J. Pollock stepping into the batter's box for Los Angeles
Photo credit Christian Petersen, Getty Images

6. A.J. Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers

You’re talking to a lifelong Pollock fan (we hail from the same neck of the woods), but even I’d admit the Hebron, Connecticut native has seen better days. The obscenely loaded Dodgers are the rare team that could actually afford to let a $14-million-a-year outfielder rot on the bench, and I feared that was Pollock’s fate until word spread of the DH making its long-awaited National League debut this upcoming season. Though not the five-tool assassin he was with Arizona, the 32-year-old still has some juice, proving his worth last season with 15 round-trippers in just 86 games for the NL West champs. L.A.’s bench is an absolute feeding frenzy—Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez and Matt Beaty would be regulars on almost any other team. The platoon possibilities are near-endless with Gavin Lux (tentatively the Dodgers’ starter at second base) and Joc Pederson also factoring into the DH calculus. There are a lot of variables to consider, but if Pollock manages to earn top billing, I’d imagine he’d be one of the more productive designated hitters in the National League.

5. Wil Myers, San Diego Padres

The good news? Wil Myers stayed healthy last year. The bad news? Everything else. The former AL Rookie of the Year fell further into the abyss, logging his lowest average (239), slugging percentage (.418) and OPS (.739) since his similarly disastrous 2014. There’s hope for Myers yet—he flourished late, wrapping up his 2019 with a superb final month (.312/.365/.532 over 77 September at-bats). At his best, the 29-year-old is an excellent power source (he belted 58 homers between the 2016 and ‘17 campaigns) with above-average wheels (15+ steals in three of his last four seasons). At his worst? Well, you saw how ugly it can get. A displaced first baseman (that patch of dirt now belongs to Eric Hosmer) who masqueraded as an outfielder last year, taking fielding responsibilities off Myers’ plate could be the key to unlocking his dormant bat.

4. Howie Kendrick, Washington Nationals

We’ve only seen Kendrick in small doses the past few seasons, which is typical of a player getting up in years, but when the veteran suits up, big things tend to happen. Kendrick was a postseason god last autumn, starring with an ice-veins grand slam off Joe Kelly in a first-round upset of the Dodgers and a go-ahead dagger in Washington’s World Series clincher against the Astros. Those heroics are more than mere coincidence. The 37-year-old jack-of-all-trades has quietly amassed a .325 average over his last three seasons including a miraculous .344 clip during his scorched-earth 2019. Not known for his home-run prowess, Kendrick bopped 17 long balls—his most since 2011—last year despite seeing only part-time usage (334 at-bats). Whatever’s gotten into Kendrick, whether it’s the juiced-ball factor, a late-career lightbulb going off or some unholy combination of the two, he’s been a near-unstoppable presence the past few years and hasn’t gotten near enough credit for it. Putting his glove away to focus on his hitting craft as the Nationals’ primary DH could make him even more potent in 2020.

Daniel Murphy trotting around the bases after a three-run homer
Photo credit Joe Robbins, Getty Images

3. Daniel Murphy, Colorado Rockies

It could have been years of injuries finally catching up to him, the usual learning curve that comes from switching teams or a mere outlier in an otherwise pristine career, but Murphy’s debut season in the Mile High City was a dud. Murphy posting some of the worst stats of his 12-year career immediately upon arrival in hitter’s paradise was not an outcome any of us anticipated, but as the past two months have taught us, life will keep you on your toes. Though last year was far from Murphy’s best, you know the bar’s been set high when a .279/.328/.452 slash line qualifies as one of your worst seasons. Before taking a step back in 2019, the 35-year-old had tortured pitchers to the tune of a .326 average in his previous three seasons while establishing himself as one of the toughest outs in MLB. With better health and a little luck, Year Two of Murphy’s Colorado reign should be an improvement on last year’s flop. Not anywhere near the defender he once was (not that fielding was ever his bread and butter), the move to DH was long overdue for Murphy, whose spot on the diamond would likely be occupied by Ryan McMahon.

2. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

There are no winners in the age of COVID, though you have to admit, this sort of worked out perfectly for Ryan Braun, who was probably headed for a platoon role with Justin Smoak at first base before the National League rescued him by adopting the universal DH (for this year at least). Whether he’s been caught up in paperwork or is simply procrastinating, Father Time clearly hasn’t gotten around to Braun yet. Despite his mileage, the 36-year-old can still put a charge into one, as NL pitchers can attest to (.285/343/.505 with 22 HR, 75 RBI in 459 at-bats last season). Braun may take the wheel at first base against lefties, but the less we see of him with a glove in hand, the better.

1. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs

Try as he might to alter the narrative (and he does give a good effort out in left field), Schwarber is not, and never will be, god’s gift to defense. Measuring in at 6’0” and a hulking 235 pounds, Schwarber has looked like a designated hitter since the moment he arrived in Chi-Town, though the NL’s outdated bylaws have prevented him from fulfilling his true big-league destiny. Like the Dodgers, the Cubs are bursting at the seam with offensive talent and could fill the DH slot in their lineup any number of ways. You can make a similarly airtight case for Ian Happ (all the Cubs would have to do is promote Albert Almora to a full-time role in center field) and rationing Willson Contreras’ workload behind the plate with occasional DH reps is also worth exploring. But let’s not overthink this. Schwarber is a home-run clobbering freak (38 long balls last season) who can’t play a lick of defense. Give this man a bat and call it a day.

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