If you ignore the minuscule 21 PA sample that Michael Lorenzen and Tyler Stephenson combined to put up at the plate in 2021, Jesse Winker led the Cincinnati Reds in just about every way offensively during the 2020 season. By wOBA, wRC+, ISO, SLG, you name it, Winker’s offensive breakout championed what was otherwise a lackluster overall offense, even after a late-season back issue saw his numbers slide to the finish.
Of the 183 times Winker came to the plate in 2020, 132 of them came with him serving as the Reds Designated Hitter. That, of course, was brought on by the sweeping rule changes implemented by the commissioner’s office while trying to cram a modified season into the midst of a pandemic, a product of National League and American League teams playing each other much more often than during their usual interleague elopes.
Well, that rule change was technically just a 2020 fix, and as things stand, the DH won’t be a part of what’s supposed to be a back-to-normal 2021 season for the senior circuit. And for a Cincinnati Reds club that’s loaded with somewhat positionless bats, that’s going to be a difficult change to navigate.
Then-head of baseball operations Dick Williams even intimated to John Fay of The Enquirer back in June that the 2020 Reds were ‘built’ to have a DH in place, an odd admission considering the rule change wasn’t put into place until long after the Reds had made their big splashes in free agency. And with the expectation that Nick Castellanos will opt-in to the second year of the four-year, $64 million contract he signed last winter, the 2021 Reds are going to have a whole pile of players vying for a decreasinging amount of plate appearances.
The presence of Castellanos, Winker, Shogo Akiyama, Nick Senzel, Brian Goodwin, and an out-of-options Aristides Aquino was going to be difficult to sort out even with a 28-man roster and a DH everyday. Shrink that roster to 26 and remove the DH, and David Bell is going to have his hands full getting regular playing time for several players who, offensively, profile as some of the best options on the club.
Each and every National League club is going to get to deal with this new reality should it actually end how the 2021 season goes off. There’s obviously the chance the MLBPA reaches an agreement with the commissioner’s office to institute it back for the 2021 season, especially with it being a likely addition when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached and implemented beginning with the 2022 season. Much like the Reds, I’m certain a good number of NL clubs have made roster and payroll decisions to factor in the inevitability of the DH in the NL, and would advocate for it as such.
If there is no agreement reached, however, it’s somewhat tough to envision these Reds heading into the 2021 season standing completely pat with this current group, since it’s far beyond insurance/depth and into the realm of outright blockage with that many bats for that few spots.
Beyond just the roster dilemma, it draws a sharper focus on how this offense must find improvements this winter, too. While Reds DHs were far from world-beaters during the 2020 season - they got a collective .194/.311/.418 output from them in 238 PA - that’s still light years better than the .140/.158/.182 they got from pitchers hitting during the 2019 season. For a club that ranked dead last in batting average and fourth-worst in runs scored during the 2020 season, that’s a pretty big dent to bake back in to the offensive expectations.
The outfield logjam isn’t the only consideration here, either. The presence of Tyler Stephenson and what he showed in a very small sample this year suggests he’s plenty deserving of big league time in 2021, but Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali are obviously still around, too. The DH would make the concept of carrying three catchers somewhat conceivable, but without it that makes little to no sense. There’s also the issue of 37 year old Joey Votto’s declining defense, and having a DH spot to rotate him through would do a lot to prolong his health and perhaps get a better glove on the field from time to time.
This isn’t designed to make a return to vintage NL baseball sound bad, by the way. There’s a lot about the strategy involved in pinch-hitting and double-switching that I’ve long enjoyed pondering during key portions of NL play for my entire life prior to this season, and while it’s never too enjoyable to watch inept pitchers in the batter’s box, there is some nostalgic corner of my brain that’s not too excited about never watching that play out again. Still, it’s a bit odd to look at 15 clubs being asked to unwind from such an important 2020 roster distinction for a lone season when the expectation is that they’ll just have to build it back in to their team construction for 2022 and beyond.