David Lennon's extra innings: DH in National League? MLB takes a check swing
The commissioner's office has done nearly everything in its power over the years to scrub away the lines that once separated the American and National Leagues.
No more league presidents (check your Rawlings baseball; they've all had Bud Selig's signature for a while now). No more specific AL or NL umpiring crews (remember the caps with league logos?). And most recently, no more 16 teams in one league and 14 in the other, thanks to the Astros' shift to the AL West for this season.
So the next logical step must be to add the designated hitter to the National League, right?
Not so fast.
Though it certainly makes sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the reconfigured schedule requiring more regular doses of interleague play, the concept doesn't seem to be very high on MLB's to-do list. The topic has barely been discussed, according to a person familiar with such conversations, and how this season plays out isn't expected to have much of an impact, either.
To instigate such a change, a majority of owners need to approve of switching to the DH in the NL, and there doesn't appear to be that kind of momentum yet.
Of all the causes Selig has championed -- from interleague play to the gradual implementation of limited video review -- expanding the DH rule is not among them.
From a competitive standpoint, however, having the DH in both leagues is only logical. And with teams facing interleague play from April through September -- rather than just a block of games in May and June, as in the past -- there is more of a concern now about how the DH, or lack thereof, will affect playoff races late in the season.
That idea alone is enough to change the thinking of the more tradition-minded people in the game, especially ones who have to maneuver around the current imbalance. They like adding the DH to the NL.
"Yeah, I do," said Terry Francona, who managed the Phillies for four seasons before switching to the Red Sox and now the Indians. "I'm surprised that I feel that way. I don't know if I would have years ago. I think especially now there's so much interleague, I think it puts teams at disadvantages. If you have a DH that is a full-time DH and you're playing maybe 10 games in the National League [city], that's a pretty big disadvantage.
"I guess I'd like to see it be more uniform, because I think that's good. I don't know if it's going to happen, but I wish it would. I think that would clean things up a little bit."
The true full-time DHs to whom Francona was referring -- like a Travis Hafner, David Ortiz or Lance Berkman -- are the ones who pretty much stash a glove in their locker just for show. But having a DH is not just about sticking an immobile, defensively challenged player in the lineup as a free hitter. It also allows a manager to rotate his regulars in that spot as sort of a half-day off.
For MLB, that's a positive thing. Rather than have fans be disappointed that an elite player is sitting on their day at the ballpark, it makes for a better all-around product than just watching a pitcher look stupid flailing away at three fastballs.
"I think any time you can keep the stars healthy and in games, it's a good thing," Joe Girardi said. "People come to see the game, but they also come to see certain players, and if you can keep guys fresher and play them more often because of the DH, that's good. I also think there's some really good hitters in the league that wouldn't stay around as long if they had to play a position. People like those guys."
So does the Players Association, which has to be thrilled when someone such as Ortiz, employed for being very skilled at one important aspect of the game, can make $14.5 million for this season. Berkman is earning $10 million.
More DH jobs should mean more money for aging players, but Michael Weiner, the union's executive director, said adding the DH to the NL is not something they necessarily pushed for during negotiations for the current collective-bargaining agreement.
Even if the owners and the union were in agreement that making the DH universal would be the right thing to do, it could not be implemented overnight. With the way NL rosters currently are constructed -- minus the DH, of course -- one baseball official figured those teams would need at least a year or two to make the necessary adjustments to their personnel.
As for how the game is managed, or the strategy involved, baseball purists insist that deciding what to do with a starting pitcher in the lineup makes the sport more interesting.
"I heard that for years," Francona said. "But you know what? There's every bit as much of that with the DH."
Francona also talked about the concern for the health of his pitchers, and said he already is worried about who will start for the Indians during a May series in Philadelphia. "We don't want guys swinging a bat a ton for two games," Francona said. "I wish they'd just use the DH."
But for now, maybe that drama -- forcing AL and NL teams out of their comfort zone for half of their 20 interleague games each season -- is part of the attraction.
"I know in the other major sports, you don't really have a difference in the other leagues," Girardi said. "But I like it. I like the difference."