Each NL Team’s Best DH Candidate (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
After years of debate, the designated hitter is coming to the National League for the COVID-19-shortened season. Whether it sticks around beyond that isn’t set in stone, but it certainly seems likely at this point. A universal DH was part of the failed negotiations between the owners and player’s union, and it remains an obvious bargaining chip for the owners to offer the players for the 2021 season and beyond when a new collective bargaining agreement will need to be reached.
Personally, I always sort of liked the fact that the American League and National League had different rules. It’s something unique to baseball. Over the years, the AL has provided more offense and a home for aging superstars, while the NL has fostered extra levels of strategy to plot around the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. It’s the best of both worlds, really. That said, I know there are plenty of fans that would disagree with me, and the outcome isn’t going to be decided by fans anyway. The player’s union has a strong incentive to create a universal DH, and the owners have little financial incentive to oppose one, so it’s likely to be here for the long term.
But enough about the long run. In 2020, the advent of the universal DH has some pretty significant ramifications for fantasy baseball. Some NL teams are much better equipped to take advantage of the DH than others, but it’s going to create opportunities for certain players to suddenly gain more fantasy relevance in nearly every case. This column will take a team-by-team look at each National League roster to game out who will get the most at-bats at DH and who will be the biggest winner from a fantasy perspective.
After two injury-plagued seasons, it feels like eons ago that Jake Lamb smacked a combined 59 home runs in 2016 and 2017. While Lamb was hurt, Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar, and Christian Walker all emerged as strong options for the Diamondbacks, leaving Lamb staring at a bench role in 2020 if the team didn’t have use of a designated hitter. Now Lamb suddenly looks like a player who could be in the lineup almost every day.
Even in his heyday, Lamb wasn’t of much help in the batting average and stolen base categories, and it’s worth remembering that the advent of a humidor means that Chase Field is no longer the bandbox it was back then. But Lamb was swinging a hot bat in the Cactus League back in March, and now playing time shouldn’t stand in the way of a bounce-back campaign. It’s probably unrealistic to expect him to return to a 30 HR pace, but a 20-25 HR pace seems reasonable, and that should at least make him interesting in NL-only leagues.
It’s impossible to discuss the Braves’ DH situation without touching upon Freddie Freeman’s status. The Braves’ star first baseman has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and has been dealing with some significant — if not severe — symptoms. Freeman will need a pair of negative tests to return from the Injured List, and it’s impossible to know when that might happen. Freeman’s experience with the illness may have also contributed to Nick Markakis’s decision to opt-out of playing in 2020.
Braves’ manager Brian Snitker has mentioned Adam Duvall, Austin Riley, and Johan Camargo as options to play first base if Freeman isn’t ready to go by Opening Day. Riley and Camargo were previously slated to compete for the starting third base job, while Duvall was likely looking at the short side of an outfield platoon with Ender Inciarte. Now all three could see some action at DH, but with other players like Yangervis Solarte, Yonder Alonso, Peter O’Brien, and Adeiny Hechavarria also around, it could be tough to predict who will start for Atlanta on any given day.
If you want to take a shot on one of these guys in fantasy leagues, the clear choice is Riley. The 23-year-old top prospect got off to a blistering start to his Major League last May, before he faded badly down the stretch due to a skyrocketing strikeout rate. Strikeouts may always be part of the deal with Riley, but he wasn’t a major batting average liability in the minors, and his power is top-notch. He still has quite a bit of breakout potential.
Kyle Schwarber was already looking at an everyday role after he hit 38 home runs in 2019, but the bat-first/glove-last outfielder is a natural fit to be the Cubbies’ new DH. Cubs manager David Ross mentioned outfielder Steven Souza and catchers Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras as players who could also get some time at DH, but the bigger question may be who gets more playing time in the field with Schwarber at DH.
Noted lineup shuffler Joe Maddon is no longer in charge in Chicago, but Ross still has plenty of different ways he can draw up his lineup card. Souza, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Jason Kipnis, and Albert Almora are all players who could see an uptick in playing time thanks to the added lineup spot, but you can probably afford to take a wait-and-see approach before picking any of them up in standard fantasy leagues.
Nick Senzel was already one of my favorite post-hype sleepers for 2020, and his outlook only improves with the DH spot providing an additional avenue to regular playing time. The Reds do have some other interesting DH options, like 2019 breakout slugger Aristides Aquino, which helps explain why club president Dick Williams said that “we built this team to have a DH.” But it would be very surprising if the lineup doesn’t regularly include Senzel, a former top-10 prospect in all of baseball. And if things click for the 25-year old, Senzel could quickly emerge as a five-category fantasy stud.
With Ian Desmond opting out of playing this season, there are a lot of moving parts in Colorado once again. The team’s most frequent DH may end up being Daniel Murphy, who is a prime bounce-back candidate in fantasy leagues after he badly underwhelmed in his first season in Colorado.
But as with Schwarber in Chicago, Murphy was already slated to be in the lineup most days, so the question becomes who else could see their playing time spike? There is no shortage of intriguing fantasy options, led by 26-year old outfielder Sam Hilliard, who impressively piled up 42 home runs and 24 stolen bases between Triple-A and the Majors last season.
Additionally, if Murphy occupies the DH spot, Ryan McMahon could move to first base, which could open up regular playing time for either Garrett Hampson or Brendan Rodgers. Hampson has the proven ability to steal 40-50 bases over a full season, and Rodgers is a former elite prospect, so either one could become interesting in a hurry with regular playing time. Finally, don’t forget about old friend Matt Kemp, who hit .290 with 21 home runs as recently as 2018, and could have one more big season in him if he can lock down the DH job for a team that plays half its games in the thin air of Coors Field.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have a very deep roster, so the DH provides LA with some added flexibility to get all of their bats into the lineup. However, from a fantasy perspective, it’s difficult to predict whether any specific player will benefit enough to get a big bump in standard mixed leagues.
Manager Dave Roberts has already made it clear that he won’t have a single full-time DH, but he will instead use the DH to give players a breather. The addition of a DH spot increases the likelihood that Joc Pederson will play regularly against right-handers, against whom he sports a career .860 OPS. It could also mean more playing time for Matt Beaty, who put up nine homers and five steals in 249 at-bats last year.
The Marlins were set to platoon Matt Joyce and Garrett Cooper in right field, so it now seems likely that both will play regularly between RF and DH. While Joyce has shown some decent pop as a part-time player over the years, he is now on his sixth team in seven years and is unlikely to finally emerge as a viable fantasy asset in his age-35 season. Cooper hit .281 with 15 homers across 107 games for Miami in 2019, so he is perhaps marginally more interesting in fantasy circles. That said, he’s due for some regression in both batting average and power pace, and he doesn’t run. In other words, it’s probably safe to avoid both Joyce and Cooper on draft day unless you play in an NL-only league.
The Brewers look to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the DH this year. With offseason acquisitions Avisail Garcia and Justin Smoak on board, it was going to be next to impossible to get Garcia, Smoak, and Ryan Braun into the lineup every day, but now that’s no longer an issue. Braun was the one whose playing time was most at risk, and he’s also the one who’s likely to find himself at DH most often.
I’ve long been a big proponent of Braun as an underrated fantasy asset. He obviously hasn’t been the same player since his 2013 PED scandal, but he’s still been quite good, especially on a per-game basis. Case in point: last year, he hit .285 with 22 HRs and 11 SBs in just 459 at-bats. At 36-years old, he will probably still need the occasional day off, but avoiding defensive responsibilities gives Braun a good shot at reaching 550-600 plate appearances for the first time since 2016. I’m buying him in fantasy leagues again this year.
New York Mets
It has been a long road back for Yoenis Cespedes from heel and ankle injuries, but the creation of an NL DH has greatly increased his chances of being ready to contribute by Opening Day. Cespedes was a high-end fantasy producer from 2015-2017 and is well worth a flier in most fantasy leagues if he will indeed be active from the get-go.
If Cespedes has a setback — and perhaps even if he doesn’t — the DH could open up more playing time for Dominic Smith, who more than held his own with a .282 average and 11 home runs in 177 at-bats last season. J.D. Davis, who broke out in a big way in 2019, could also see some time at DH, but he was expected to play regularly anyway.
The Phillies are another team that has indicated it will rotate players through the DH spot, with Jay Bruce likely being the most frequent occupant. Given his defensive limitations and the anticipated return of Andrew McCutchen from a torn ACL, the addition of a DH provides more certainty that Bruce will play regularly against right-handed pitching, but he’s still only an appealing fantasy option in deeper leagues or NL-only formats. Another player to at least keep an eye on is 23-year old Alec Bohm, who showed some decent power in the minors last year and could now find his way into the lineup against left-handers.
The Pirates’ best option at DH may be Gregory Polanco, who missed most of last season due to his 2018 shoulder surgery, but he will play almost every day regardless. Beyond Polanco, Pittsburgh seems likely to rotate players through the DH spot. Given the weak state of the team’s roster, whoever sees the biggest jump in playing time is unlikely to provide much value in standard mixed leagues. A deep sleeper is former first-round pick Will Craig, who hit 20+ HRs in the minors in both 2018 and 2019.
San Diego Padres
The San Diego Union-Tribune lists Josh Naylor, Wil Myers, and Ty France as options to serve as the Padres primary DH. Tommy Pham is another possibility, but he’ll need to fully recover from COVID-19 first. Pham was already likely to play every day if healthy, so it is Myers, Naylor, or France that could see the biggest boost in playing time.
Myers’ numbers have dropped off significantly the last couple years, but he does possess a fantasy-friendly skillset thanks to four straight years of double-digit stolen bases. He became a part-time player last year, so the advent of the NL DH may have come just in time to save his fantasy value. But Naylor could steal away playing time as a left-handed hitter with solid on-base skills, and France remains an intriguing fantasy sleeper simply based on the video game numbers he put up in Triple-A prior to his Big League call-up last year.
San Francisco Giants
Hunter Pence initially appeared set to serve on the short side of a platoon in left field with Alex Dickerson, but now Pence is the most logical choice to frequently fill the DH spot in San Francisco. The vast majority of the 37-year old Pence’s starts in Texas last season were at DH, and he responded with his best offensive numbers since 2014. Perhaps he can keep it going.
Then again, Giants manager Gabe Kapler has promised to “mix and match” at DH — no surprise if you’ve paid attention to how he’s handled closers in the past. So it remains to be seen if Pence will garner enough at-bats to be fantasy relevant even if he does perform well on a per-game basis. Fun comeback stories Pablo Sandoval and Darin Ruf are other options for the Giants.
St. Louis Cardinals
Matt Carpenter was already slated to be a regular starter for the Cardinals, but he’s now the most likely candidate to get the most starts at DH in St. Louis. Perhaps frequent days off from playing in the field can help the 34-year old regain his form after a highly disappointing 2019 season. He had a career-high 36 home runs as recently as 2018, so the potential for a bounce-back is certainly there.
In terms of playing time, the DH could create more at-bats for Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill, and Lane Thomas. Edman looked like he was going to have to move around the diamond a lot to get into the lineup, but now he could settle in as the semi-regular third baseman with Carpenter at DH. He flashed impressive five-category production last year, and while some regression is likely, he could again be a useful mixed league piece if he’s getting regular playing time. Meanwhile, O’Neill and Thomas are young players with a bit of potential upside, but they don’t need to be owned in standard mixed leagues, at least initially.
We already have a pretty good idea of who the Nationals would like to use at DH from watching the 2019 World Series: Howie Kendrick. Kendrick manned the DH spot for Washington’s road games at Houston and delivered in a big way for the World Champs. Perhaps even more importantly from a fantasy perspective, Kendrick’s terrific regular season numbers were fully supported by his peripherals, including his exit velocity, hard contact rate, and strikeout rate. He’s a “boring veteran” that I’d be happy to own in mixed leagues.
With Ryan Zimmerman opting out of playing this year, Kendrick’s shift to DH should also open up regular playing time at first base for Eric Thames. Thames has some obvious warts, but he was a dynamic player in stretches for the Brewers over the last three seasons, and he could be worth owning in standard mixed leagues during the inevitable hot streak he’ll go on at some point between now and September.
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