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Is the DH Dying?

A few years ago, the NFL saw a shift in how running backs were used. Rather than sticking with the single starter model, many teams shifted towards job shares, preferring to let two guys split the playing time in order to keep both more fresh and healthy than either could be by themselves. It became more efficient, in some cases, to have multiple players at the position than a single player getting all of the playing time.

We may be seeing something similar in baseball with the designated hitter. If there’s been one theme to the last two free agent periods we’ve seen, it has been a lack of interest in guys who cannot play the field, or who play it poorly. Teams have significantly pulled back from aging offense-only types, finding value in other types of players at the expense of some legitimately good hitters.

But it doesn’t appear to be just a renewed focus on the value of defense. Several teams are all but abandoning the idea of having a full-time designated hitter to begin with. The White Sox yesterday admitted that they wouldn’t be bringing Jim Thome back, because they just didn’t have the at-bats for him. Instead, their DH position will be filled with a rotation of guys that cannot hit as well as Thome. Yet, they see value in having the flexibility to use the spot for various players.

The Tigers, Mariners, and even the Yankees appear to pursuing similar strategies. Detroit has declined to bring in an additional power hitter, preferring to use their DH to give Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera time away from their gloves while keeping their bats in the line-up.

The Mariners are going into the season with LF and DH being a job share between various players, depending on where Milton Bradley is healthy enough to play on any given day. And while the Yankees were willing to spend $6 million to bring in Nick Johnson, he’s the kind of guy who simply can’t play every day, which will allow the Yankees to use the DH spot to rest Jorge Posada and any other veteran who needs it.

Teams are choosing to increase their flexibility, even if it comes at the expense of some production. Increasingly, teams want the option to use the DH spot as a pseudo off day for their regulars, or as a fall back plan if their banged-up position player is unable to acceptably field his position. With the move towards 12 man pitching staffs, limited bench sizes put a premium on roster flexibility, and teams are reacting by devaluing players who can’t play the field.

Given that there are only 14 designated hitter jobs in baseball to begin with, this is bad news for aging players. If even half of those teams move towards a rotating-DH plan, you’d be left with only a half dozen or so full time, offense only players. To get one of those jobs, you’d have to be a monster of a hitter, a David Ortiz in his prime kind of guy. And once you decline even a little bit, your chances of getting another job go out the window.

It will be interesting to see how teams react to this emerging DH usage.