Mets may have advantage with DH in NL

June 24th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Three and a half months ago, before the novel coronavirus shut down spring camps across the baseball landscape, Yoenis Céspedes was inching closer to game action. His goal was to appear in a Grapefruit League game by mid-March, which would have made his inclusion on the Mets’ Opening Day roster possible. It was to be a last-minute decision.

Now, not only has Céspedes had 3 1/2 additional months to recover from multiple heel surgeries and a fractured right ankle, but he also doesn’t need to be in the same sort of shape. Given the presence of a designated hitter for all 30 teams in Major League Baseball’s 60-game regular season, Céspedes is the most obvious candidate to fill that role for the Mets, potentially giving them another legitimate middle-of-the-order bat behind Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto in the lineup.

That the Mets have one of the best designated hitter situations of any National League team, however, is not entirely due to Céspedes. The rule change will also give the Mets a chance to regularly get Dominic Smith’s productive left-handed bat in the lineup, either as the DH or as the first baseman with Alonso at DH. Without the DH, Smith -- who batted .282/.355/.525 with 11 homers in 89 games last season -- would have been relegated mostly to pinch-hitting opportunities off the bench.

The other Met likely to see time at designated hitter is J.D. Davis, whose bat has historically been more productive than his glove. Now that Davis can start in left field, at third base or at DH, the Mets should be able to find ways to insert him into the lineup nearly every day. Like Smith, Davis broke out last season with a .307/.369/.527 slash line and 22 home runs in 140 games.

Here's a look at the Mets’ three primary DH options:

Yoenis Céspedes
Age: 34
Other positions: Left field
Relevant statistics: Two-time All-Star; batted .262/.325/.496 in 38 games in 2018

If Céspedes is healthy and productive, there seems to be little reason to use him anywhere other than designated hitter. Although he was once a Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder with one of the strongest throwing arms in baseball, the working assumption is that his foot injuries have taken their toll on his mobility. Simply put, the Mets don’t need Céspedes to field; they need him to hit. He’s never failed to do that when healthy, but he’s now 34 years old and hasn’t seen big league pitching in two years. Until Céspedes begins taking hacks in live games, his status will remain one of MLB’s most intriguing mysteries.

Dominic Smith
Age: 25
Other positions: First base, left field
Relevant statistics: .318/.434/.568 slash line coming off the bench last season

Smith’s success as a pinch-hitter suggests he wouldn’t have much trouble succeeding as a designated hitter, unlike some players who struggle when they’re not playing the field. However, Smith is also a superior defender to Alonso and could certainly see time at first base, with Alonso assuming DH duties on those days. That could prove to be a symbiotic relationship, affording Smith extra at-bats while allowing Alonso to stay fresh enough to play in all 60 of the Mets’ games.

No matter how this situation plays out, Smith will benefit. If not for the DH, he would have been blocked behind Alonso, forced to try to squeeze his way into the lineup in left field. Now, even if Céspedes is healthy and productive, the Mets should be able to find regular reps for both him and Smith.

J.D. Davis
Age: 27
Other positions: Left field, third base
Relevant statistics: One home run every 18.6 at-bats in 2019

Last year’s breakout star for the Mets, Davis was slated to be their everyday left fielder in 2020 despite below-average defensive performance at that position last season. He still figures to receive the lion’s share of work in left, but Davis can now shift to designated hitter if the Mets want to give outfield reps to Céspedes or to Jeff McNeil, who could move back there on occasion to accommodate Jed Lowrie -- if healthy -- in the infield. Lots of moving parts are at play here, and Davis isn’t likely to DH as often as Céspedes, Smith or even Alonso. But he remains an option for a team that would like to have his bat in the lineup as often as possible.