The San Diego Padres have more quality options than they have spots in their lineup in 2021.
2020 gave us a glimpse into what baseball could look like moving forward with expanded playoffs and, yes, the designated hitter in both the American and National Leagues. Labor disputes and strategic hemming and hawing about the universal DH for the 2021 season have put many teams, not just the Padres, in a frustrating position.
For the first time in what seems like decades, maybe ever, a Padres manager, in this case, Jayce Tingler, has more quality bats on the roster than he has spots to pencil them in a starting lineup each game. What a wonderful problem to have.
To give some perspective, the top nine hitters for the Friars are projected by Fangraphs’ ZiPS to post a 25.2 fWAR this upcoming season. The 2017 squad’s best nine hitters totaled a whopping 9.8 fWAR. The 2021 projection looks to surpass the mighty 1998 Padres’ 18.3 fWAR mark. Things are certainly different in San Diego.
Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Spring Training in less than three weeks, with the first exhibition games beginning shortly thereafter. No one knows if the designated hitter will be featured in the National League this season. This is an indictment of the MLB owners’ ineptitude and the ongoing labor agreement failures. It’s maddening to think a league as widely popular as Major League Baseball can’t figure out one of the more critical rules of their sport with just weeks left before their preseason begins.
Most of the backlash regarding the designated hitter implementation to the National League in 2020 was overblown. People liked it, plain and simple. The benefits were clear. San Diego used ten different designated hitters in 2020, and only Tommy Pham stepped in for double-digit games, so spare us the “it’s just so old fat guys can have a few extra years” or “there is no strategy involved in the DH” nonsense. The Padres clearly used it to give a guy a break in the field, keep a player healthy, or give a prospect some low-pressure experiences at the big league level. It seemed to work out for their Cuban outfield prospect Jorge Oña, who posted a 1.065 OPS in four games as the DH, including his first big league homer.
This season, the need for a DH is at a whole new level for the Friars. ZiPS projects the Padres to have at least 11 players with at least 1.0 offensive fWAR. Where are all these guys going to get at-bats? Where the argument is most intense seems to be at second base, between Jake Cronenworth and Korean newcomer Ha-Seong Kim. One could argue for a platoon, Cronenworth against righties and Kim against southpaws. However, A.J. Preller didn’t bring in a guy like Kim, coming off of a .306-average, a 30-home run season in the KBO, guarantee him $28 million over four years to sit and wait for a tough lefty starter before putting him in the lineup. On the flip side, it’s tough to justify benching the National League Rookie of the Year runner-up so quickly. Cronenworth is also a solid fielder at multiple positions. Kim is an unknown commodity that Tingler may want to bring on slowly.
It doesn’t end there. What about the outfield? Obviously, Wil Myers played himself back into an everyday role in 2020, with a monstrous .959 OPS (better than Mookie Betts, by the way). Trent Grisham is now a Gold Glove centerfielder. Pham is in left and one of the more patient hitters in the game as long as he is healthy. Where does Jurickson Profar’s bat fit, with his very respectable 113 OPS+ in 2020? Third base and shortstop are taken last time I checked. Profar adds value with his switch-hitting abilities.
At catcher, Austin Nola seems to be the guy, but Tingler likely wants to give his everyday catcher a breather every now and then. Nola is also an attractive piece to have, as he can play a multitude of positions like first base, second base, third base, and in the outfield. It’s also worth mentioning that Nola has a career .917 OPS when batting as the DH. Victor Caratini comes into the fold as Yu Darvish’s personal catcher. When it’s Darvish Day in San Diego, Tingler still has the option of Nola hitting in the lineup, especially against a tough righty, where he is a career .290 hitter.
Luis Campusano is not going to want to sit on the bench and rot either. If the Padres carry three catchers, they will want to give their prized prospect, who ranks No. 46 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects, some looks at the plate.
Brian O’Grady is another versatile option Tingler may want to pencil in against a tough right-hander or put him in the outfield and give one of Myers, Grisham, or Pham a day without the need of their glove.
The DH can give Manny Machado a rest from the field at third base. 162 games is a ridiculously long season, especially after a 60-game campaign. Guys are going to need breaks. However, the Friars would hate to lose Machado’s bat in the lineup if he needs a break from fielding, with a sore throwing shoulder, or just general in-season fatigue. The same goes for star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. When the 22-year-old was struggling late in the year, Tingler put him at DH, and he ended up going 3-for-7 with a home run in those two games.
It would be a shame to have one of Cronenworth, Kim, Profar, or Nola sitting on the bench while one of the Padres’ prized starting pitchers risks injury to try and flail at a pitch at the plate.
Gone are the days where the DH is just for an aging slugger who is long in the tooth. The game is constantly evolving, and the DH needs to be part of it moving forward to benefit the Padres.