The distinction between the American League and the National League has always been unique and necessary in baseball.
For generations, the debate about which league was better raged on, with only the All-Star Game and World Series serving as venues for it to be settled. That debate, however, has since faded away and the time has come for the distinction between to the two leagues to do the same.
Interleague play was introduced in 1997, and for the first time fans were able to see some of their favorite AL and NL teams square off. But Mets vs. Yankees is happening every year now, so is Astros vs. Rangers, White Sox vs. Cubs, and Dodgers vs. Angels.
Originally, interleague play took place at the same time every season, over two dedicated portions of the MLB schedule. Fans could anticipate when rivalries would meet and debates could again heat up on which was the stronger league.
However, in 2013 Major League Baseball went to a balanced schedule and there were no longer 16 teams in the NL and 14 in the AL. It was 15 teams in each league and while the intent was balance, realignment created incredible imbalance in regard to interleague play.
This made it necessary for an interleague series to be played every day of the MLB calendar and almost instantaneously the luster of interleague play evaporated. Now it’s time for the lack of a designated hitter in the NL to follow.
NL and AL general managers construct their rosters differently based solely on just one league having the DH. But NL teams still have to plan for the few times a year, now scattered throughout the schedule, where they are allowed to use a DH. This creates a competitive disadvantage for NL teams. In the first 17 years and 4,178 games of interleague play (1997-2013) the Junior Circuit holds a 2,190-1,988 advantage.
There is a bigger issue at stake though, and that is the NL’s ability to compete for players in both the free-agent and trade markets. This has created the greatest disadvantage for NL teams.
Corey Hart was a homegrown star for the Milwaukee Brewers. Drafted in 2000 he enjoyed eight productive years in Milwaukee’s outfield and spent a total of 14 seasons within the organization. Hart missed the entire 2013 season because of knee surgery but made a full recovery and signed elsewhere in 2014.
Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin would have liked to re-sign Hart and the interest was mutual, but Melvin had a problem. He knew Hart would require some regular days off from playing defense during the season to manage potential issues with his left knee; days the Brewers couldn’t give him because they don’t have the luxury of the designated hitter.
If they did, Hart likely would have re-signed with Milwaukee. Melvin knew he couldn’t afford to pay the kind of salary Hart could command for a player that the Brewers couldn’t put on the field 150 times a season. So, Hart signed with the Seattle Mariners, an AL team, where he has been a designated hitter in 34 of 37 games he has played for them this season.
Hart is not a unique case. NL teams consistently lose out on prized free agents because they can’t offer DH at-bats. When Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann hit free agency this past offseason, he was almost exclusively courted by AL teams.
The Yankees won the bidding war for the seven-time All-Star with a five-year, $85 million contract. It is fully expected that the 30-year-old McCann will be a designated hitter for the Yankees in the final years of his deal. There were plenty of NL teams that wanted to be in the mix for McCann, the Braves included, but they couldn’t afford to offer him that many years at those dollars without the safety net of the DH.
And don’t forget about Kendrys Morales. Despite Scott Boras’ best attempts to sell his client as a first baseman who can DH, Morales is a DH who, in a pinch, can play first base for a club. The 30-year-old recently signed with the Minnesota Twins.
But he was really only a viable option for the 15 AL teams; NL teams couldn’t seriously consider him, because of his defensive liabilities. Therefore half the league was virtually eliminated for Morales, a career .280 hitter with power.
The lack of a DH not only hurts NL teams in the offseason with free agents, it also hurts them in-season with their own players as well.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a good problem; they have four very good major-league outfielders in Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, who are all signed to long-term contracts. Puig burst onto the scene in 2013 to the surprise of most and suddenly the Dodgers had a crowded outfield. A variety of injuries to the group last year made things a little easier for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to juggle.
In 2014 however, it hasn’t been as easy.
Kemp was once a superstar in the league. He’s a two-time All-star and a former MVP runner-up who is signed to what the Dodgers would likely admit is a very regrettable eight year, $160 million contract that runs through 2019. Kemp has battled injuries and resulting regression over the past two seasons. And with three other very capable outfielders on the roster, he has found himself on the bench. It wasn’t until a recent injury to Crawford that Kemp was inserted back into the starting lineup again.
If the NL had the designated hitter, Kemp would have been in the Dodgers’ lineup much more than he has been over the past two seasons. It would also give Mattingly the opportunity to rest the legs of some of his other outfield stars without them losing valuable at-bats.
Mattingly’s case is not unique amongst NL clubs.
Oscar Taveras, a prized corner outfield prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals who was recently called up, would likely have been in the majors much sooner if the Cardinals had the luxury of putting either left fielder Matt Holiday or right fielder Allen Craig in the DH spot. The Cardinals’ offense has been anemic so far in 2014 and Taveras hit a homer in his first major-league game. St. Louis could have used his bat all season.
Adding the designated hitter to the NL would be welcomed by the Major League Baseball Players Association. For the players it would mean 15 new, higher paying jobs. Full-time designated hitters make significantly more money than pinch hitters or utility players. Current union head Tony Clark spent many years in the game as a first baseman/DH.
MLB would likely have its resistance, but it’s time to be objective and to do what’s best for the game; make the DH universal in baseball. The financial impact would likely be minimal for an industry that Commissioner Bud Selig predicts might see revenues reach $9 billion in 2014. Baseball can afford to do this and with offense down across the league it really can’t afford not to.
Selig has done some great things for baseball during his tenure with the expansion of the postseason and the World Baseball Classic. He has had some misses too, like the 2002 All-Star Game debacle (ending in a tie) and more significantly his initial handling of PEDs. But in this, his final year as commissioner, he has an opportunity to leave with one final great act; add the DH to the NL.
Besides, no one really wants to see Bartolo Colon hit anyway.