The designated hitter position is like a Rorschach blot test for managers and general managers. Invented as a way to inject offense into the game and get boring images of pitchers striking out off of television screens, in the years since the position's introduction in 1973 there has often been a dichotomy between clubs that opt to spend on the spot and attempt to secure a top-level offensive producer for the position (Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, and so on) and those that treat it as a place to stash Delmon Young. As time has gone on, more teams have gone the Young route, and production at DH has declined since peaking in 1998.
Teams have no only gone away from wringing all the offense they can out of a position with no defensive prerequisites, but they have sometimes doubled down on their own self-inflicted wounds by using DH as a place to convalesce veterans in need of a half-day off. Think of the Yankees in 2010, when 12 days of Alex Rodriguez DHing meant 10 games of Ramiro Pena starting at third and two games of Kevin Russo. Rodriguez hit .304/.360/.630 as a DH, so the statistics for that position looked good, but the third basemen went 5-for-41 (.122) with no extra-base hits. Those stats should really be credited against the designated hitter.
Those were largely unplanned days off for Rodriguez, so perhaps some collateral damage was inevitable given the generally weak bats of utility infielders. Some teams, though, have planned these kinds of exchanges, for example the Twins. Until they acquired Ryan Doumit, a day at DH for Joe Mauer meant four plate-appearances for Drew Butera, perhaps the least-qualified hitter in the game today. The Yankees would have been in the same mess with Rodriguez's planned days off in 2012 had Eric Chavez come up with a season right out of his Oakland A's catalog.
Most clubs aren't so lucky. As one of SBN's Designated Columnists wrote earlier this offseason,
DH. Rosters are now dominated by specialized pitchers, not bench players. In the American League, it's a vicious cycle of needing more pitchers to combat specialized hitters, but having more pitchers hinders a team from carrying specialized hitters. It's a balancing act that isn't always working, and in some cases teams have been reduced to burying their DH in the sixth, seventh, or eighth spot in the lineup while seeing very little return ... Teams have lost touch with the meaning of the DH position for several other reasons: because DH has stubbornly remained the province of veterans (teams having resisted casting a young player as a DH, even when said young player clearly can't field), it's often an expensive position to fill. In addition, having a player for whom taking the field is a last resort or a flat impossibility, such as Jim Thome now, or past DH greats like Baines, Don Baylor, and Hal McRae, means a team can't use the spot to give other bats a rest from fielding. Interleague play has also complicated the life of the bat-only player, reducing them to either pinch-hitter status in National League parks or otherwise requiring them to make awkward appearances in the field-which, as in the case of David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez, often has the effect of causing further distortion to the defensive alignment.
Right now, the Yankees have no obvious left-handed designated hitter and the possibility of a right-handed one in Matt Diaz. Minor-league vet Russ Canzler also might get a chance to hit against left-handers; in his extremely brief major league career he's gone 12-for-30 with two home runs against them. Still, that's the short end of the platoon, and what the Yankees will do to acquire the long half, the part that Raul Ibanez kinda-sorta filled last year, is still open to question.
With having a robust designated hitter seemingly optional for a lot of teams, the Yankees' dawdling approach to filling the spot hasn't attracted a lot of attention. Yet, the way the lineup is coming together, the DH could mean the difference between the season being known as the year the Yankees lost to their accountants and the year they survived them. If you believe that the Yankees, despite this disappointing offseason, are still strong contenders for the American League East title, then you do so on the strength of their pitching. You can argue about just how strong the pitching really is, but on paper at least the bullpen looks as deep as ever, and the starting rotation could be very strong. Yes, there are a few what ifs you have to push aside, as well as a few too many birthdays in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but if things break right, it's a very solid staff -- but that staff has to be supported with runs.
Even Brian Cashman admits the Yankees have lost a lot of power. Now, they have gotten by without the traditional Keller-DiMaggio-Henrich outfield before. The 2009 championship outfield of Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, and Nick Swisher hit only 75 home runs, but even that may be beyond Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Ichiro Suzuki. Throw in (or, more aptly, throw out) the catching position, which might provide of the least offense the Yankees have received since Joe Girardi his exalted self hit .264/.311/.334 in 1997. Kevin Youkilis gets hurt a lot -- that's why he was available to the Yankees in the first place. Granderson spent the fall swinging with his eyes closed. Derek Jeter may not do it again. The Designated Hitter matters.
I realize that when people suggest the Yankees should take a shot at seeing if Travis Hafner has some value left (not insane) or perhaps try to sneak Mike Napoli away from the Red Sox now that they're dickering over terms, they're reacting to this same issue but in terms of the Great Pinstriped Contraction, the Bronx Depression, the Steinbrenner Penury. It's too small. And not only that -- given that there will always be those Delmon Young teams out there, it's a position where a team can gain a genuine advantage on the opposition by bulking up.
I don't know who the Yankees can get at this late stage, who they're willing to afford, or what kind of trades they can make given a farm system that has some lost all of its pitching. All I do know is that whatever it is, it probably won't be enough to prop up the offense to the degree it needs to be supported. As with so much about this season, it seems like that answer to is bound to be disappointing.
But there's nothing else to be done...
...And so we go back to talking about Travis Hafner.