Commentary

As salaries rise, so does NL's need for DH

Originally Published: October 26, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

DENVER -- Since we live in an age of money, an age of offense and an age of power, it is time for the National League to stop worrying and start loving the designated hitter.

WORLD SERIES

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It's the unfortunate, but correct, thing to do; I find myself arguing for a position with which I don't completely agree, yet can't find a better compromise.

According to sources high up in the baseball hierarchy and low on the field among managers and players, there is no discussion about the NL's adopting the designated hitter in the future, meaning baseball will continue its 35-year tradition of playing the same game under two sets of rules, depending whether the game is being played in an AL or NL city.

But in the first two games of the World Series, when the Colorado Rockies' lineup looked to be at a serious disadvantage, the questions again seemed pertinent: Is the American League's advantage of having an extra hitter equal to or greater than the NL's advantage of removing that hitter from the lineup for games in the NL city? And over time, as salaries continue to rise and a new generation of players enters the league strictly as designated hitters, will the NL be at an even greater competitive disadvantage?

In Boston, David Ortiz, the Red Sox's $12.5 million DH, bats third and is one of the game's fearsome hitters. Ryan Spilborghs, earning the major league minimum salary at $383,000, batted ninth for the Rockies. As the games move to Denver for Game 3 Saturday night, Ortiz is still playing, but at first base. Regular Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis will be on the bench. A significant loss, yes, but not in the same class as the NL's having a $12.5 million hitter to match Ortiz.

Something has to give.

[+] EnlargeRyan Spilborghs
AP Photo/Charles KrupaRyan Spilborghs went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts as the Rockies' DH in Games 1 and 2.

If the conversation were about style and tradition, the AL should change and get rid of the DH. NL baseball is the better, faster, crisper game. With the exception of the Los Angeles Angels, few AL teams have multiple-position players on their bench because they do not need them. NL baseball is a skill game. The AL is built for plodding, bashing offense, the NL for versatility. Each player on a NL roster must be able to play.

But today's conversation isn't about tradition but about money and jobs. The AL will never abandon the DH because the Major League Baseball Players Association would never allow players such as Ortiz, Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas and former Mariners DH Edgar Martinez to be out of work. As Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said Friday, "Can you imagine our lineup without David Ortiz?" Aging or injury-prone players can extend their careers by five to perhaps even 10 years.

Times are changing, as well. Traditionally, the designated hitter was a lower-paid, older player than a position player because he was not playing the field. The player was often an accomplished hitter -- Hank Aaron with the Brewers in 1975 and 1976, for example -- who was playing out the last few years of his career.

But in the post-strike era, the DH has become a premier and lucrative power position. In an even greater break with tradition, baseball is embarking on an unprecedented era: the years when players play their entire careers as designated hitters. For 34 years, baseball executives and managers were averse to playing a young player at DH because the position was for older players.

"You're taking away possibly 15 jobs from guys in the American League," said Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield. "In the World Series scenario, it plays out on both sides. The National League DH might be their fourth outfielder, like it is with Colorado. And down here, we lose one of our best hitters. It kind of evens out."

Martinez, perhaps the most popular player in Mariners history, became a full-time DH at 32 and played the final 10 years of his career as a DH. In his first six big league seasons, Cleveland's Travis Hafner has played 672 games, 570 of them as a designated hitter. He's 30 years old, has never played more than 42 games at first base in a single season and just signed a four-year, $57 million contract extension. Ortiz has played 1,192 games, 892 as a DH. He has been a designated hitter since he was 24 years old. Thomas became a full-time DH before he was 30. He has played 18 years, and in only three did he play more than 100 games at first base.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz could rack up a fourth Silver Slugger award for another productive offensive season.

Therefore, because cash rules -- it always wins -- it's time for the NL to rebalance the scales.

"I don't see that happening," said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "Until the regular season is the same, you can't build your team in the National League around a DH in the postseason and the World Series, and we certainly can't build our team around not having a DH, so there's no easy answer. I guess what we're doing is about the easiest answer there is."

Often the narrative of a season translates accurately into conventional wisdom, but the notion that the NL is the inferior league is fashionable but somewhat problematic. It is true that the AL routinely trounces the NL, winning 154-98 in 2006 and entering this season 1,250-1,202 over 10 years of interleague play. Six of the top eight run-scoring teams in 2007 were from the AL. In 2006, the number was seven of 10, and in 2005, six of the top nine. At no point in the past seven years has the NL placed a majority of teams in the top 10 in runs scored. For the first time in seven years, the NL placed a majority of teams -- seven -- in the top 10 in OPS this season.

But the depiction of the NL as the junior varsity might be an overstatement, given that the NL is 3-3 against the AL in the past six World Series. The Yankees dynasty skewed matters, but even in the entire post-strike era, the NL is 5-7 in the World Series since 1995.

The problem is projection, and the forward trend in baseball is that money will continue to have a profound effect on rosters. Designated hitters, once secondary to position players, are now at the top of the salary chart. Jason Giambi earned $23.4 million in 2007. Jim Thome tops the White Sox in salary at $15.7 million. Gary Sheffield is second on the Tigers at $10.9 million.

But money is also one of the reasons the NL prefers things the way they are. Adopting the DH would force NL teams to raise payroll at least $10 million per season on players who might be everyday players but who no longer require a glove. The DH is no longer just an extra bat. It is a big-ticket item. Seven of the top 10 teams in payroll are from the AL.

Meanwhile, six of the nine teams in the middle of the payroll pack -- teams that spend between $70 million and $90 million -- are NL teams. One of those teams, the Phillies, makes for an interesting case study. The Phillies are 14th in payroll at $89 million, but their biggest decision this decade was whether to keep or trade Thome. Their young slugger, Howard, was ready, but only one could play first base. Had the Phillies been in the AL, a 3-4-5 combination of Howard, Thome, and Pat Burrell would have been pretty fearsome. In the 1960s, the San Francisco Giants were in a similar position with Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, both first basemen. Cepeda was traded to St. Louis.

Of course, Philadelphia would have had to pay both players, too.

One way to keep the rules the same and live with the differences in the leagues is to scratch the All-Star Game formula and return to alternating home-field advantage each year. The last year the NL held home field was in 2001, when the Diamondbacks won all four home games to beat the Yankees in seven.

Another way is to alternate the DH rule each year in the World Series, forcing the AL to deal with the disadvantage every other year, a format baseball used from 1976 to 1985. But none of these compromises addresses the sheer difference in the caliber of hitter an AL team can afford to use. If the days of the $15 million DH are here to stay, it is time for the NL to swallow hard and get with the program.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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