The annual MLB general manager meetings’ begin today in Scottsdale, Arizona. While these meetings do not generally get the same hype af the annual winter meetings, this is where a lot of groundwork is laid for trades and free agent signings that come over the course of the winter.
The main purpose of the GM meetings is to get all of the major league general managers into one place to discuss the issues facing the sport. One thing that will likely be discussed at length is the rule changes that were proposed by commissioner Rob Manfred earlier this year just prior to spring training. These rules are in different stages of discussion and implementation, and include September roster restrictions, pitch clocks, a minimum number of batters a pitcher must face, and one that could change the course of the Yankees’ offseason: the universal designated hitter.
The universal DH would provide an uniform rule set across the game while helping boost offense. National League pitchers produced a paltry .329 OPS in 2019, and as one would expect, their American League counterparts were significantly worse, checking in with a .222 OPS during interleague play.
With no DH, NL teams are generally built differently, shying away from players with a DH profile. It shows, as their DH’s produced at a lower level during the season (.732 NL OPS vs .786 AL OPS). To put that in perspective Thairo Estrada recorded a .732 OPS in his 23 games with the Yankees.
The Yankees happen to be stocked with players who have solid offensive profiles but defensive limitations. What’s more is most of them come with years of team control remaining. While outstanding offensive potential is hard to move on from, the Yankees have a number of players whose fit with the team is in question because of their defensive issues.
Miguel Andjuar was supposed to be the third baseman of the future, but after one season of historically bad defense, Yankees fans found themselves relieved to watch Gio Urshela man the hot corner in 2019. Still, Andujar’s bat is well suited for the major leagues, as he recorded a 130 wRC+ in his 2018 rookie season. Clint Frazier, much like Andujar, wasn’t acquired with the idea that he would be a DH candidate or serious defensive liability. The Yankees even gave Frazier some time at center field in the minors, hinting that they felt he had some defensive potential. Yet Frazier floundered on defense this year, which helped spur his demotion to Triple-A despite owning a 117 wRC+ at the time.
Beyond Frazier and Andujar, the Yankees have also found themselves with numerous options at first base. First base is regarded as the lowest spot on the defensive spectrum, as players find their way there when they lack the athleticism or arm to man other positions around the field. While starter Luke Voit has proved that his bat is legitimate at the major league level, he’s also generally seen as a negative on defense.
Voit was also hampered by injuries down the stretch, which opened up the opportunity for other players to prove their worth. Mike Ford was never considered a top prospect, but he’s steadily worked through the ranks, and led the Triple-A International League in OPS when he was promoted in early August. He carried his productive bat to the majors and finished with a 134 wRC+ in 169 plate appearances. In that small sample, Ford’s defense rated out as below average in terms of DRS, and UZR.
Further down, Chris Gittens is a rising offensive option within the Yankees’ system. He was named Eastern League MVP while playing for the Double-A Trenton Thunder this season. Gittens has tremendous power, and was voted the best defensive first baseman in the Eastern League in a poll conducted by Baseball America this summer. Even if Gittens proves to be a high-level defensive first baseman, he’s still limited to the cold corner and a DH role. With Voit already capable at the major-league level, he is another piece with limited flexibility when it comes to playing the field.
That means Voit, Ford, DJ LeMahieu, and plausibly even Greg Bird (if he doesn’t get non-tendered) could vie for at-bats at first. Gittens stands out in the minors. Andujar’s and Frazier’s defensive liabilities make them DH candidates. This plethora of offensive potential and defensive limitations makes the possibility of a universal DH particularly important to the Yankees.
Conversations could take place this week that move the NL toward the DH over the next year or two. Such talks could be tremendously beneficially to the Yankees, because it would increase the value of multiple players on the Yankees’ 40-man roster. Right now, players like Andujar, Frazier and Ford aren’t perfect fits for the Yankees’ roster, but also have limited trade value, because half the league doesn’t have the option of shifting them to the DH spot.
All three of those players have hit above league average, and well above the National League DH average for 2019. If a firm 2021 or 2022 date for the Universal DH can be established, then the Yankees’ suitors for a few of their players could instantly double. That would put the Yankees in a better position to swing moves over the coming months as they look to improve their roster.