State of the Cubs

State of the Cubs: Designated Hitter

2 years agoTony Andracki

Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.

Next up: Designated Hitter

(Note: We currently don’t know if there will be a DH in the National League again in 2021, but since it is a possibility, we broke down how the Cubs could attack the position this offseason.)

Depth Chart

  1. Victor Caratini/Willson Contreras
  2. José Martínez
  3. David Bote
  4. Ildemaro Vargas

Analysis

Obviously teams around the league will need to know about the status of the DH in the NL in 2021 before they truly assess what their organizational needs are this winter. Major League Baseball has not announced anything publicly about their plans for the DH spot, but it was generally seen as a positive development for the shortened 2020 season.

The DH is not the only issue on the table, as the Players Association and owners will have to determine which of the new rule changes in 2020 will stick around. 

“The [designated hitter] — first and foremost — is something that I think both sides have liked,” said Ian Happ, the Cubs player rep, at the end of the regular season. “As a player, I think the extra inning rule has been great for speeding up games. The 7-inning doubleheaders — I think those have been great for keeping guys healthy. I’ve liked a lot of those.”

How the Cubs and other NL teams approach a potential DH spot also depends on roster size. With a 28-man roster in 2020, there were more bats at the disposal of managers to slide into the DH spot on a given day. If the rosters fall back to 26 (which is what was the original plan for 2020 prior to the pandemic), that could change the equation for front offices this winter.

So obviously things will change here, but the aforementioned depth chart is a good starting point.

NL teams did not have an entire offseason to prepare for the DH spot in the shortened 2020 season and David Ross and the Cubs chose to utilize a rotation at the position.

It was a great way to keep Contreras’ bat in the lineup on days that he wasn’t catching and if the DH sticks around, expect the Cubs to maintain that approach. He made 18 starts at DH in 2020, the most on the team.

Caratini notched the second-most starts (16) and offers a bit of a different complexion for the Cubs lineup. He’s a switch-hitter who is patient and boasts solid contact numbers and Ross has been impressed with the quality of at-bats he churns out on a daily basis.

Over a longer season, however, the Cubs may not opt to utilize Caratini as the DH as often. For starters, they might not be able to carry three catchers on the roster so if Contreras got hurt mid-game, Caratini would have to move to catcher and thus the Cubs would lose the DH spot for the remainder of that game.

The Cubs also might want a bit more of a slugging upgrade at DH over Caratini. Throughout his career, the 27-year-old has 15 homers in 677 plate appearances with a .372 slugging percentage. 

Those numbers are respectable for a catcher — especially considering the rave reviews Caratini has drawn for his work behind the plate — but DH is also an area where the Cubs could add another bat this winter and improve the overall offense.

In an ideal world, the Cubs would add another veteran “professional” at-bat to the mix who could slot in at DH on a regular basis when Contreras is catching. 

Martínez fit that bill in so many ways, which is exactly why the Cubs acquired him ahead of the trade deadline this past summer. But he never found his timing with the Cubs, going 0-for-21 in 10 games with the team. 

Prior to the 2020 season, Martínez carried a career slash line of .298/.363/.458 (.821 OPS) with some power, good contact and an ability to hammer left-handed pitching (which the Cubs have struggled against in recent seasons).

Martínez is under club control for 2021 in his second year of arbitration at an estimated price tag of a little over $2 million. If the Cubs determine Martínez’s struggles were due to the strange season, they could bring him back for 2021 and have an in-house option for regular DH.

Bote or Vargas could also fill the role, but both also provide value defensively, so they would be more likely to be playing in the infield than DHing.

What’s next?

Well, the next step is bargaining between the MLBPA and the owners to determine if the NL will adopt the DH again in 2021. Whenever that decision is reached, Theo Epstein’s front office will have to react from there, though they undoubtedly have some initial thoughts and plans for the position.

If the DH were to return, expect Ross to once again utilize it as a way to keep Contreras fresh without losing his All-Star bat from the lineup. It also would be a way to give other regulars like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant half-days off, while inserting Bote or others in to play defense.

Beyond that, the DH spot gives the Cubs and Ross a lot of options. They could bring Jason Kipnis back and slot him in at DH at times as Nico Hoerner continues to develop at second base. Or maybe Martínez returns and sees a lot of time at the position.

Or the Cubs could use it as an opportunity to diversify the lineup and bring in another veteran bat from the outside.

“League-wide, I think the pressure of making the adjustment, getting out of the slump, knowing that there’s only 60 games to play with wore heavy on a lot of guys and on our guys, too,” Epstein said. “It still happened. It’s still real. We have to own it and we have to reclaim that offensive foundation of being on the fastball, owning the strike zone and being a much more difficult at-bat. 

“That does mean adding different dimensions to our offense going forward. We can’t be the same exact type of offense and expect better results.”

Bottom Line

Stay tuned in the days and weeks following the World Series on the league’s approach to the DH spot for 2021. 

With most of the positions already solidified on the current roster, the DH is wide open and filling the spot could be one of the most intriguing aspects of the Cubs offseason.

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