Rangers reinvigorating DH position

Are the days of the one-man DH a thing of the past? Jon Paul Morosi offers his opinion.

It used to be that All-Stars were bestowed the title of “DH” as a late-career master’s degree. Familiar names received handsome salaries to take four at-bats per game into their baseball dotage.

As recently as the 2007 season, the likes of Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Jason Giambi and Jose Vidro were the primary designated hitters for their respective teams.

But as politicians have said of certain positions in the manufacturing sector: Those jobs are going away, and they may not come back.

Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui and Magglio Ordoñez — full- or part-time designated hitters in 2011 — are unemployed less than two weeks before Opening Day. They have amassed a combined 8,708 hits, but the industry is ready to move on without them. And it’s not hard to see why.

American League general managers have realized that, sure, it’s worthwhile to have perennial All-Stars like David Ortiz or Victor Martinez in the DH spot. Anything short of that, and the committee approach might be more productive — and cheaper. And teams have realized that good hitters don’t necessarily become good designated hitters. The Chicago White Sox thought Adam Dunn was a sure thing. He wasn’t.

The 2011 Texas Rangers were Exhibit A in effective use of the DH, even if they arrived at the solution awkwardly. After signing Adrian Beltre and trading for Mike Napoli during the ’10-’11 offseason, GM Jon Daniels spent several weeks trying (and failing) to honor Michael Young’s trade request. So, Young reported to spring training last year with the promise of everyday at-bats — but not a fixed position.

The plan had its critics. I was one of them. But it worked splendidly. Young totaled 689 plate appearances, second only to Ian Kinsler among Rangers hitters. He made 69 starts at designated hitter and 91 across the four infield positions — including one at shortstop. He led the league in hits, drove in 106 runs and finished eighth in AL MVP balloting.

Manager Ron Washington used nine players to cover the 57 percent of designated hitter starts Young didn’t make. The DH spot became a way to keep Beltre, Napoli, Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz in the lineup while giving them a half-day away from the Texas heat.

In the end, Rangers designated hitters had an .834 OPS — second only to the Red Sox and Ortiz.

Not surprisingly, Young is ticketed for a similar role in 2012.

“It’s worked well for us, from a standpoint of having a guy who can move around and play different positions,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said in an interview this spring. “It gives Wash a lot of flexibility. It gives us options in putting the roster together. We have guys like Josh and Napoli who we want to get some time at DH

“One of the things that helped us last year was that Michael was both productive and versatile. When you get both, you’re in an especially good spot.”

As is often the case in baseball, winning invites imitation. Now several aspiring contenders are — coincidentally or not — adopting the strategy Texas deployed in reaching its second straight World Series.

The Yankees, four years post-Giambi, have embraced the platoon approach. Raul Ibañez will start against right-handed pitchers, with Andruw Jones often playing against lefties, now that Jorge Posada has retired.

The Tigers, who used Martinez with great success last year, were forced to call an audible when he was lost for the season with a knee injury. The Tigers don’t plan to use a fulltime DH this year. But Delmon Young, Ryan Raburn, Brennan Boesch, Miguel Cabrera and the newly signed Prince Fielder are viable options to appear at DH once or twice each week.

The Angels are similarly unsettled but would probably prefer that Kendrys Morales win the job. Morales returned to game action this week following his 2010 leg injury, but it’s hard to imagine him being much more than a 120-game player. That would open up at-bats for Bobby Abreu, Mark Trumbo and maybe even Vernon Wells.

Daniels, though, isn’t ready to declare that everyday designated hitters are moving toward extinction. After all, Cabrera, Fielder, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez might be entrenched in that role within a few years. “If you have a hitter that’s an elite-level producer and is without a position, you’ll have a DH spot open for him — (like) Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Jim Thome,” Daniels said. “I think there’s a lot of value in moving guys around, but not at the expense of playing a lesser player.”

Still, only seven players made more than 100 starts at DH last year, and just two of the group — Ortiz and Kansas City’s Billy Butler — have strong chances to do so in 2012. Of the remaining five, Martinez isn’t expected to play this year, Abreu is looking at a reduced role (or perhaps a trade), and Damon, Guerrero and Matsui are looking for work.

In fact, the Rays (Damon), Orioles (Guerrero), Angels (Abreu) and A’s (Matsui) ranked among the bottom five AL teams in DH production last year. So perhaps it’s time to institute a new baseball truism: End the season as a below-average designated hitter, and your next game will be on Old Timers’ Day.

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