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The National League Designated Hitter

Interleague play has been around since 1997, and while there are very real problems related to scheduling inequities, it isn’t going anywhere. It’s only getting more firmly entrenched in the game, with year-round interleague action on tap for the upcoming season. In fact, the Reds will open the 2013 season against the Angels, marking the first-ever interleague opener.

The American League has dominated the National League during the regular season, especially over the last decade, in part because those teams are simply better-equipped for games featuring the designated hitter.

While AL teams have certainly fared well in NL parks, and the use of a designated hitter is far from the only reason they have dominated interleague play, NL squads are less prepared for games in AL stadiums.

An NL contender should consider Hafner.

It’s tough to allocate one of few precious bench spots to a non-fielder limited to pinch-hitting duty in all but nine road interleague games and the World Series. Bench spots are important in the NL in the case of injuries, if a poor fielder is replaced late in a game, or when a manager decides to make a double-switch.

Most teams can’t really “waste” a spot.

But what if an NL team was more prepared for these games and could allocate a bench spot like this? A healthy National League contender with a strong starting rotation, and less of a need for a 7-8 man bullpen, could conceivably sign Travis Hafner this offseason and put themselves on more of a level playing field for interleague action.

And in a World Series where the AL team gets to DH David Ortiz, Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Rodriguez or Paul Konerko, the NL team wouldn’t be stuck relying on John Mayberry, Matt Diaz or Ryan Theriot. There are certainly downsides to this type of strategy, but it’s an interesting, discussion-worthy thought experiment.

Though this strategy is uncommon, it isn’t unprecedented. After all, the Phillies signed Jim Thome to a one-year deal this offseason, for some form of this role.

While the idea that Thome could play some first base was floated, it was fairly evident from the get-go that he was going to pinch-hit, DH in interleague play, and potentially cause some damage if the Phillies made it back to the World Series. Best laid plans obviously didn’t come to fruition, but the Thome signing was strategically sound. It was a minimal commitment to a player nearing the end of his career, who could potentially benefit the team in a somewhat important role.

The Phillies went 3-6 in their nine road interleague games, but Thome hit .333/.415/.722, with two doubles and four homers in 41 plate appearances. He certainly did his part and it’s hard to imagine anyone else on the Phillies roster producing that well, in that role, throughout that span. Then, when it became clear that the Phillies weren’t a playoff team, they were able to deal Thome to an AL contender and bring back Gabriel Lino, a catching prospect getting rave reviews.

It’s easy to call the Thome signing disappointing, or suggest that it didn’t work out, but that line of thinking is skewed. Thome provided the Phillies with excellent production throughout those nine games, as well as a couple of nice pinch-hitting moments and brought back a very good prospect, all for just ~$600K. It’s not the typical way a signing “works out”, but it did.

The Phillies acquired Matt Stairs from the Blue Jays a few years earlier, and while he is more famous for his pinch-hitting proclivities in a Phillies uniform, his power made him a quality designated hitter in the same situations. Stairs only served as the DH in one World Series game with the Phillies — they mostly chose to replace leadfooted fielders Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez instead of getting another power bat in the lineup — but the point is that he was available for that role.

In some respects, the Phillies have pioneered this strategy in recent years, but they aren’t alone. The Rockies signed Jason Giambi two years ago to a Thome-esque deal, and he played very well for some crappy teams. Giambi hit .245/.362/.484 in 124 games and 265 PAs in 2011-12, adding a home run every 15.7 at-bats, better than his career 16.3 AB/HR rate.

However, there are common elements among these three players: age and lack of choice about their role. All three players were pushing 40 years old, if not already there, and were generally believed to be at the end of their careers.

Stairs likely garnered another couple of opportunities based on that tremendous playoff blast against the Dodgers, but he was a shell of even his Phillies self. Thome hit very well in Minnesota, but his achy back was a concern to many. While it seems strange to suggest that Thome couldn’t have gotten a better gig from an AL team, it’s possible that he would have been restricted to part-time DH duty. In that case, if his role was already going to be reduced, playing with the Phillies and under Charlie Manuel wouldn’t have sounded so bad. Giambi wasn’t given a chance by anyone other than the Rockies. It was an NL team or retirement.

In each of these cases, the players were essentially forced to accept their roles. Stairs was acquired via trade. Thome might not have gotten a full-time starting job from a contending team. Giambi didn’t get even a part-time offer from an AL team. It wasn’t as if these three players chose to limit their playing time to help an NL team in a somewhat quirky role.

And that’s part of the problem. The players who have undertaken this role have carried risks age-, health- and performance-related. The players best-suited for this role are younger and likely more interested in racking up PAs in the American League. That way, even if they are injury risks like Hafner, they can put themselves in a better position to establish good health again. It’s difficult for Hafner and other players relegated to DH-duty to establish health with sporadic play.

A National League team might have to pay a premium to entice a player like that to accept this lesser role. It borders on the absurd to pay Hafner, or his equivalent in another season, upwards of $5-$6 million for something like 130 PAs and the chance for another 8-12 PAs in the World Series. Some teams may consider it worth the risk. Most won’t. Regardless, that thought represents another form of out-of-the-box thinking in the realm of roster construction.

This isn’t the only way for an NL team to better prepare itself for interleague play. A team could also decide to go with a poor fielder who can hit at a certain position and carry an excellent fielder at the same position on the bench.

This way, the team doesn’t lose out on the bat throughout the season, and during interleague play and the World Series, it can DH the regular starter and play the top-notch fielder at the same position. The Phillies did this in the 2008-09 World Series, opting to DH Burrell and Ibanez to get a better outfielder in the lineup, instead of using Stairs at DH with one of them roaming leftfield. The Phillies would also probably do this with Ryan Howard, who should play the field as little as possible.

Either strategy could work, but the latter is more common because it’s more feasible for teams. The former strategy shouldn’t be ignored. While it seems bizarre for an NL team to pursue an AL designated hitter who might not be at the end of his career, who might cost $3-$6 million to really only make his impact felt in nine games, and potentially 2-4 more in the World Series, the results of those games could be the difference between a team winning a championship and falling just short.

This isn’t to say the Phillies should pursue Hafner, or any other similar player, especially since Darin Ruf has the potential to exceed that type of production, but rather that building a roster isn’t necessarily cut-and-dried. There are often alternative solutions to common problems. Though an NL contender signing a Hafner-type isn’t really a radical approach, it represents a risky proposition that could either pay off or blow up in a team’s face.

It would be interesting and fun to see it happen, though, as an NL team can lose solid playoff footing with poor interleague performance, and getting to use an actual DH in that environment could go a long way towards mitigating the dominance of the junior circuit.

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