There has been a lot of discussion lately about how the National League could add the Designated Hitter in 2017, after the next round of Collective Bargaining Agreements at the end of the 2016 season. The DH issue is very divisive, so I’m not going to make this article about whether it’s a good or bad thing. For the record, I think it’s a good thing, as pitchers have no business batting when they get very little practice at this in the minors, and there’s no real strategy involved when making decisions involving a pitcher batting.
But I don’t want to make the article about why the DH should be added to the National League because I don’t think anyone is changing their opinions on the subject, and because it doesn’t seem to matter, since the DH to the NL looks to be inevitable. So instead, let’s look at how the DH could help the Pirates. And before I break it down, let me say that it looks like it could really help the Pirates.
2017: Even More Value From John Jaso
The Pirates signed John Jaso this off-season to be their first baseman until Josh Bell arrives. That’s a move which is very intriguing, due to Jaso’s bat against right-handed pitching. It’s also a move that comes with some concern, due to Jaso’s inexperience at the first base position.
It’s too early to tell whether Jaso will be able to handle the position defensively. The first look wasn’t great, although that’s to be expected in mid-January from a guy who has little experience at the position. I don’t think he could be worse than Pedro Alvarez, and with more focus at the position, I think he could be passable defensively.
But no matter how John Jaso performs, Josh Bell is the future of the position at first base, with the chance to give the Pirates their first non-platoon first baseman in several years. When that happens, the Pirates will have a stronger bench, thanks to Jaso. But if Jaso continues putting up his career numbers at the plate, then that’s a hitter you want playing a bigger role than off the bench.
If the DH does come to the NL in 2017, then the Pirates would have the perfect fit for the position with Jaso. They might still need a platoon for the position, and Jason Rogers (another guy with the potential for a strong bat and no defense) could be the solution from the other side. Having a guy like Rogers off the bench in 2016 would be tough, due to the lack of defensive value, but having him off the bench in 2017 with a DH would be a lot easier.
When Bell arrives, the Pirates will have three good hitters on the active roster, who all have defensive questions. That might create an issue in the second half of the 2016 season, but would put them in great shape in 2017 if the DH is added to the NL.
An Earlier Arrival For Austin Meadows, A Longer Stay For Andrew McCutchen?
The Pirates currently have the best rated outfield in the majors, and the group of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco are under control through the 2018 season. They also have top outfield prospect Austin Meadows slated to begin the 2016 season in Altoona, and another top prospect, Harold Ramirez, also starting at that level (we’ll use Meadows in this example, but the same argument could be made for Ramirez if he’s the one who works out). Under a normal timeline, each of these guys could have a shot at making it to Indianapolis by the end of the year. They could then start the 2017 season in Indianapolis, with a chance to move up to the majors by mid-season at the earliest.
Unfortunately for Meadows, he would be blocked in 2017, and blocked for all of 2018. He may need that time to develop, but he won’t need three full years at the top two levels of the minors. If it wasn’t for the current outfield, Meadows would have a quicker path to the majors.
If the DH is added, then Meadows could arrive in 2017, if that’s when he’s ready. Or he could arrive in 2018 if the Pirates are set at DH in 2017 with Jaso and Rogers and he needs more time to develop. But the DH would remove that situation in the outfield where the Pirates could be holding back top prospects for a few years, all because their current outfield is too good and they only have three spots for their outfielders.
On the flip side of this, the DH could allow the Pirates to justify keeping Andrew McCutchen around beyond the 2018 season. Right now it seems like it could be foolish to bring McCutchen back on an extension. He’s a superstar right now, but he’ll probably start his decline around the time his extension started. And with Meadows (and Ramirez) in the system, the Pirates might end up getting the same production from guys who are on the way up on their career projections as a superstar beginning his decline. Even if the production doesn’t match, I can’t imagine McCutchen would provide $19.5 M in extra value (assuming $20 M a year for McCutchen, which might be low, and league minimum for Meadows). The Pirates would probably field a better team with Meadows in the outfield and McCutchen’s money going elsewhere.
But if the DH is involved, you could keep McCutchen around. His decline in value would be negated by the fact that he wouldn’t be on the field anymore, or as often. He would stay fresh in a reduced role, thus helping to avoid potential injuries in his age 31 and beyond seasons. It would no longer be a situation where the Pirates have a great young option and have to choose between McCutchen on the decline and the young player on the rise. It would be a situation where the Pirates could have both, while using the DH to soften the blow of McCutchen’s decline.
Opening the Door For Other Prospects
The Pirates have a few interesting prospects in their system who have no future in Pittsburgh. Jin-De Jhang has some good defense behind the plate, with great receiving skills and a strong arm, but his size leads to questions about whether he can remain a catcher for the long-term, with no other position available for him. However, he can hit, with some of the best contact skills in the system, which is what makes him an interesting prospect. The biggest question mark is whether he can stick at catcher and have a shot to be more than just a DH in the future. If the DH comes to the NL, that would no longer be an issue for the Pirates.
Carlos Munoz is in the same situation. He’s a great hitter with some of the best contact skills in the system. But he’s got questions about his defensive future due to his size. He’s limited to first base right now, and he’s working on his conditioning to stick at that position for the long-term. However, he projects to be a DH in the long-term, which currently gives him no spot with the Pirates.
If the DH was added, these types of prospects would have a spot with the Pirates in the future, without all of the questions about their defense.