With Jim Thome returning to Minnesota, and Johnny Damon reportedly closing in on signing with the Rays (although it isn’t a done deal as of this writing), the remaining designated hitter spots on contending teams are dwindling: perhaps only the Texas Rangers (who missed out on Thome and are now said to be in pursuit of Ramirez) fit into that category if the Rays get their man. There may also be some non-contenders who think it is worthwhile to add someone in a hitter-only spot. With that in mind, it is worth comparing three of the best hitters left on the market who might fit the description “designated hitter”: Manny Ramirez , Vladimir Guerrero, and Russell Branyan.
Comparing players for the DH spot is generally easier than those who play the field because one doesn’t have to worry about position or defense, just their hitting. I’ll be using CAIRO, as it is freely available and has projections for all three hitters. As in other recent posts, I’ve translated the projected lines into custom wOBA (linear weights) from 2010.
For all of his recent (real and/or exaggerated) foibles, Manny is probably the cream of this crop. Yes, he had a down season (for him) in 2010. He only had 320 plate appearances, but the accompanying .298/.409/.460 line (.382 wOBA) was good for about 16 park-adjusted batting runs above average. I’m sure some will say that “you want more power from your DH,” but that’s simply a dogmatic assumption — a .400 OBP is good from any spot, and really, a .382 wOBA is a .382 wOBA. Only 16 qualified hitters did better than that in 2010. CAIRO projects his 2011 line as .298/.406/.540 for a .391 wOBA (in Chicago). That’s 39 runs above average per 700 plate appearances. Of course, Manny won’t get 700 plate appearances. He shouldn’t play the outfield, not only because he’s terrible out there, but so that he can stay healthy. Taking that into account (which rules out starting interleague games), along with recent injury problems and his advancing age, 500 plate appearances seems more reasonable. Over 500 plate appearances, a .391 wOBA is worth 28 runs above average. That’s something like a three-win player, so if Manny gets paid $8 milllion or less for the 2011 season (and given what older, bat-only players have been getting lately, that seems pretty likely), some team is looking at a pretty big bargain.
If Manny is the best, who is the better fallback option between Guerrero and Branyan? Guerrero had a nice comeback last season in Texas. While some players suffer a drop in production when the switch to being a full-time designated hitter, for Guerrero it enabled him to avoid the injuries that plagued him in 2009, as both his hitting line and playing time bounced back from his career-worst season in 2009. CAIRO projects Guerrero to its.296/.356/.501 for a .369 wOBA in Texas, 23 runs above average over 700 plate appearances. Although Guerrero has been a playing-time stalwart in previous seasons, at 36 a reasonable playing-time projection would be 550 plate appearances, about 18 runs above average.
Russell Branyan doesn’t have the same “first-name-only” recognition of Manny or Vlad (I’m not sure how many people actually call him “The Muscle,” but I had to use something catchy…), and despite having a nice mini-comeback the last couple of seasons, he doesn’t seem to be drawing much interest, likely because of back problems that have limited his playing time. His projected .246/.339/.494 (.357 wOBA) line is good, about 21 runs above average per 700 plate appearances. If we think Branyan should only be projected for something like the playing time he received in 2010 — perhaps around 430 plate appearances — due to injury, than he would be about 13 runs above average. That would make Guerrero the obvious second choice behind Manny.
There are a three caveats to be made here, though. First, Vlad’s projected line assumes he returns to Arlington’s hitters paradise, whereas Branyan’s projected line puts him in Cleveland (I’m not sure why CAIRO projects him there rather than Seattle, where he finished the season), so that probably makes a difference of couple of runs. Second, while this post is about the DH spot, which Guerrero certainly is limited to at this point, Branyan also plays a decent first base, which gives him additional utility for a team that needs it (and also makes him an option for National League teams). Finally, if one has the roster room and desire to maximize offensive output, it is much easier to find a platoon partner for the lefty Branyan than for the righty Guerrero. A platoon situation is also more efficient with Branyan involved given his (likely) much lower price tag.
Manny is the best pure hitter left on the market. For those who can’t get Manny, Vlad presents a viable option. Don’t forget about The Muscle, though, who might be the best buy for the money it will take to get him.