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The universal DH could be used as a bargaining chip between MLB owners and players

We’re in for a bumpy ride this offseason.

Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Wednesday, I asked you to choose between four MLB rule changes for 2020 and which one you’d get rid of — the catch, the other three would have to stay. The universal designated hitter is currently running last in the poll with only about 15 percent of the vote, despite the fact that many of you have expressed your distaste for the DH in National League games. My position on this is well known and there’s no need to rehash it here.

I’m writing on this topic again because ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote this Wednesday as part of a longer article regarding “20 questions” about baseball this offseason:

Is the DH even happening in the NL next year?

Still unclear. Players want it, sources said, but owners want the players to agree to expanded playoffs for the 2021 season in exchange. Understandably, the players don’t find that to be a particularly equitable trade. The complicating factor is that most front offices would love it. Going back to pitchers hitting after a full season in which they didn’t doesn’t register right, particularly when the issue is going to be adjudicated for good in a new collective-bargaining agreement after the 2021 season.

Some executives believe the universal DH will stick around, even if the MLBPA doesn’t agree to the expanded playoffs. What MLB would trade it for is unclear.

It’s also not clear as to what sort of “expanded playoffs” we’re talking about here. Commissioner Rob Manfred is on record as saying he is leaning toward some sort of postseason that involves more than the 10 teams that it had from 2012-19. I could see a 12-team or 14-team postseason being palatable to players, especially since a 14-team postseason was on the table for 2020 before the pandemic upended everything.

I acknowledge that there will be something about baseball that’s been part of the game for many, many years will be lost if pitchers no longer bat. For me, at least, the tradeoff of not having to watch pitchers strike out 45 percent of the time, not execute bunts and risk injury running the bases is worth it. Will I miss the occasional pitcher home run? I guess, but since that’s so rare it’s not worth the rest.

Since, per the Passan article, players want the universal DH, I suspect some sort of deal will be cut to have it, and then it will be placed in the next collective-bargaining agreement. NL teams need to know fairly soon, because baseball executives in charge of those teams will want to know how to proceed in terms of putting rosters together for 2021.

If the universal DH is indeed adopted going forward, the Cubs will need to find a way to get more production out of the role. Cubs DHs hit .192/.312/.318 (38-for-198) in 2020 with five home runs and 74 strikeouts. The .630 OPS ranked 25th among the 30 teams. Oddly, David Ross seemed to be on to something when he had his “use the guy who isn’t catching today” theory as the DH — Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini started 34 of the 60 games as DH, and in that role combined to hit .276/.319/.459 (27-for-98) with four home runs. The fifth DH homer (a pinch-hit homer, no less) was hit by Steven Souza Jr.

Cubs DHs other than Willson and Victor hit .110/.226/.180 (11-for-100) with 27 strikeouts. For reference, Cubs pitchers in 2019 hit .125/.166/.155 (38-for-303) with 139 strikeouts.

So the old “Kyle Schwarber would make a great DH” trope isn’t right — he went 2-for-29 with 15 strikeouts in the role. Schwarber had a .786 OPS in 2020 while NOT serving as DH, which, while still down from his career norms, is quite a bit better than his overall .701 OPS. Granted that all of these numbers came in an abbreviated 60-game season, and could have changed in a full 162-game slate.

In any case, the universal DH is likely coming. You might like it, or not. But you’ll have to get used to it.