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January 30, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Designated Whatever

by Joe Sheehan

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Jay Jaffe broke down the list of Manny Ramirez suitors yesterday, naming three National League and two American League teams as the best fits for the 36-year-old slugger. I can't say I disagree with his choices, and he noted a number of others in the piece as well. Ramirez is such a great hitter that he would be a good fit on just about any roster-he's a player you make room for.

When you think about it, though, Ramirez's inability to find a contract that suits him, and the similar situations faced by Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, is fairly nonsensical. The three are the last men standing among the deep class of "corner outfielders who can hit but not field" that graced the market this winter, with Raul Ibaņez, Pat Burrell, and Milton Bradley having already inked deals with new teams. Every one of these players, save perhaps the aging Ibaņez, is qualified to play a position that many AL teams have struggled to fill, a position that has a short list of qualifications: Hit. Yet many teams suffer through subpar performance from their designated hitters, and in some cases they act as if the position requires skills other than simply being able to rake.

Here's what AL teams got from their DHs last year-thanks, Bil Burke-with the primary player or players responsible for the stats listed to the right.


            AVG   OBP   SLG    DHs
Angels     .271  .330  .437    Anderson, Guerrero
Orioles    .274  .331  .491    Huff
Red Sox    .273  .379  .490    Ortiz
White Sox  .246  .356  .484    Thome
Indians    .236  .324  .389    Hafner, Dellucci
Tigers     .218  .310  .388    Sheffield
Royals     .268  .309  .446    Butler, Guillen
Twins      .269  .344  .438    Kubel, Monroe
Yankees    .282  .378  .461    Matsui, Damon, Giambi
A's        .229  .337  .397    Cust, Thomas
Mariners   .221  .273  .334    Vidro, Clement
Rays       .246  .322  .428    Floyd, Gomes
Rangers    .301  .421  .494    Bradley
Blue Jays  .247  .325  .418    Stairs, Thomas

The average American League batter hit .268/.336/.420. Four AL teams couldn't match any of those three figures from a position at which there's no defensive requirement whatsoever. Eight AL teams got subpar OBPs from their DH slot, which seems like a good way to torpedo your offense. If you were to pick your DH entirely based on their ability to not make outs, you'd be ahead of the game in the American League.

We can make excuses all day-Travis Hafner fell off a cliff, possibly due to injuries; Billy Butler was a disappointment; Matt Stairs might be done; Gary Sheffield, too-but this is the easiest position to fill on a baseball diamond, and a significant number of AL teams are simply not grasping the concept.

Some of these situations have improved this winter-the Rays signed Burrell to be their full-time DH, and the Blue Jays will probably use some combination of Adam Lind and Travis Snider there in 2009-but many haven't. The Tigers are still hoping that Sheffield's contract will bounce back and be productive; the Angels don't have an identifiable DH at the moment, but only Vladimir Guerrero, among the rostered options, would hit enough to carry the spot. (Spare me the Juan Rivera silliness; he's 30 and has two partial seasons of viability in his career, just one since 2004.) The Mariners and Royals at least appear set to go with young players at DH, Jeff Clement and Butler, respectively. Still, if the Mariners sign Ken Griffey Jr. as opposed to Dunn or Abreu, it's a sign that they're a circus act, not a baseball team.

Just to provide some context, and to be, I think, the first guy to tease these, here are the 2009 PECOTA projections for the three free-agent bats:


            AVG   OBP   SLG    PA
Ramirez    .295  .391  .538   580
Dunn       .262  .396  .541   601
Abreu      .282  .368  .436   574

Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn would be the best hitters on many AL teams, regardless of position. Abreu, who has been in a slow decline, one that has shown up in his plate discipline, is a bit riskier, but he's also someone who brings a right fielder's arm and a touch of speed. A team with a big right field-Abreu has significant problems playing the wall-could get better defense from him and not have to play him at DH.

When you combine the lack of production AL teams have been getting from their DH slots, the limited requirements of the job, and the available talent, it's hard to understand why these three players are finding it so difficult to find work. The Indians, Tigers, and Angels are all contending teams that desperately need a bit more offense and have holes in these spots, albeit ones filled with bad contracts. These teams have to recognize that the sunk cost of an eight-figure deal is a line item that will be swallowed up in pennant-race and post-season revenues if they upgrade their DH slots by 30 or 40 runs, which is what Dunn and Ramirez can do for these teams.

It's good that teams now calculate and account for the defensive cost of players such as these three, and that, in fact, is the biggest reason why all remain unsigned. However, the presence of the DH slot in the AL makes that accounting moot, leaving only the question of offense. Some AL team is going to have the light bulb go on, and the one that does is going to play more than 162 games this year. That's the kind of impact these bats can have.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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