Is Deciding on the 2021 Designated Hitter Really Urgent?

photo: Marcell Ozuna (Topps Inc.)

Members of the media and fans across baseball are currently up in arms. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association haven’t come to (what seems to them to be) the logical agreement to again utilize the designated hitter in the National League in 2021, as they did last season.

Here is a recent example, one in which an immediate and artificial deadline has been created to suggest an urgency that is simply not real.

The fact may actually be that both the vast majority of owners and players alike want to continue the use of the DH. But that does not mean it will immediately come to pass.

Simply put, the two sides do not negotiate labor items in an ala-carte manner. If the owners are perceived to “give” on the DH, they would certainly want something in return from the players.

That “give” from the players could be a revised version of the expanded playoffs, which like the NL DH was implemented for the first time on an exception basis in 2020.

But directly associated with this is the always-thorny question of money. How much will the players make with more postseason games? Will the compensation be tied to gate revenues only, as it was prior to 2020? But what if stadiums are not full?

And once the question of 2021 compensation is opened, how will the players be paid if a 162-game regular season cannot be played in full capacity stadiums? And by the way, what will the roster sizes be? Etc, etc, etc…

The point is that there are literally dozens of items between the two sides that have to be renegotiated – the same ones it took them months to hammer out in 2020 – against a continuing backdrop of financial uncertainty.

Listen, I get that it would be ideal for free agents who might be good DH candidates to know if they can sell their services to NL teams. I also understand that NL front offices would prefer to know this as they construct their rosters. But they are not calling the shots.

Further, this winter’s free agent market – more than all others before it perhaps – will be extremely slow to develop, universal DH or not.

When it gets right down to it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the DH decision is not formally and finally locked down until just prior to spring training.

And if that is the case, the world probably won’t end. In 2020, the DH was not finalized until late June. Yet, NL teams seemed to adapt just fine – despite not having known for sure if it was coming through the entire prior offseason. In fact, the Cardinals’ designated hitters prospered.

The 2020 Cardinals Benefited from the Designated Hitter

In at least one case, an NL club took a gamble on a defensive liability with a big bat in January and came out smelling like a rose in July through October.

Marcell Ozuna (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

On January 21, the Atlanta Braves gave free agent Marcell Ozuna a one-year contract for $18 million – less than the qualifying offer he earlier turned down from St. Louis. Many observers, myself included, shuddered when the Braves announced Ozuna as their new left fielder.

Instead, when the DH was implemented, Marcell’s strengths could be utilized without having to play him regularly in the field. He rewarded the Braves with a standout offensive season that helped make them division winners. Atlanta then advanced to the Championship Series for the first time since 2001, losing a hard-fought seven-game set to the eventual World Champion Dodgers. For Ozuna personally, he led the National League in both home runs and RBI, earning the Silver Slugger Award as the Senior Circuit’s best designated hitter of 2020.

The broader point here is that even during this ongoing period of uncertainty, smart NL front offices can take a small risk by signing DH-oriented players, knowing the odds are high the position will eventually be negotiated into a return for 2021.

In closing, if we should know anything by now, it is that MLB-MLBPA deliberations take time. And chances seem good the owners will use every bit of the available time to try to ascertain how many fans can be allowed in stadiums across America next April and beyond.

So, the designated hitter (and other less pressing matters) may just have to wait until the overall 2021 picture is settled – whether we like it or not.

Hey, maybe the two long-bickering sides will surprise me, but I am not holding my breath…

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