Sometimes, it can be difficult finding a player to be a regular designated hitter. It's somewhat surprisingly more difficult of a job than most people imagine. For major leaguers used to playing every day and taking the field, it can be a challenge to get into the right routine. If one badly strikes out or strands runners on base to end the inning, he can't immediately erase it by focusing on defense--he can only try to avoid stewing about it in the dugout. Sometimes, it just doesn't work out despite the hitter's talent--think late-career Jorge Posada, or how Jason Giambi always seemed to hit better in his Yankee days whenever he was playing first rather than DHing. For all but one of the likely starting designated hitters in the AL East right now, they will have to go through this transition. If they can figure it out though, this is a pretty impressive quintet of hitters.
Likely starting DH: Dioner Navarro
2014: 139 G, .274/.317/.395, 22 2B, 12 HR, 98 wRC+, 2.3 WAR
It is strange for me to talk about the downside of Navarro's career. I remember being excited about the possibility of him coming up to the Yankees since he used to be their top prospect in the even darker days of the Yankees' system. Sure, Posada was around, but I thought that there was a chance that another switch-hitting catcher could stick around somehow after his cup of coffee in 2004. It wasn't to be though, as the 20-year-old was included in the trade that brought Randy Johnson to the Bronx.
Navarro eventually found a home with the Rays and became an All-Star in their stunning run to the AL pennant in '08. His career has definitely been up and down since then due to injuries, but in the past couple years, he was a capable regular for the Cubs and Blue Jays, batting .283/.333/.427 with 29 doubles, 25 homers, and a 111 OPS+ in 228 games. Thus, it was a bit surprising when the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a big contract to start behind the plate, pushing Navarro to a DH role. However, without the wear and tear of catching, it could be an opportunity for Navarro's career to find a second wind. He's still just 31, and he hits equally well with extra-base power from both sides.
Likely starting DH: Steve Pearce
2014: 102 G, .293/.373/.556, 26 2B, 21 HR, 161 wRC+, 6.0 WAR
Pearce's 2014 season is reason number one why we should probably just never try to understand baseball. In 290 MLB games over seven years bouncing back and forth between various Triple-A clubs and the majors, he batted .238/.318/.377 with only 17 homers and an 87 OPS+ in 847 plate appearances. (The Yankees even had him briefly in 2012. He hit cleanup in the middle of a pennant race. It was weird.) As a mere first baseman and occasional corner outfielder at best, his bat was going to be his only hope of sticking in the pros. Hell, he was designated for assignment by the Orioles just last season in April, and he had just turned 31.
Then... I don't know. Baseball happened. Pearce got a shot in the lineup when the already-struggling Chris Davis went down with an oblique injury. So he hit. And hit. And hit. And hit. The O's couldn't keep his red-hot bat out of the lineup, and when the dust had settled, Pearce had a 160 OPS+ for the season and led the Orioles with 6.0 WAR. Without Pearce, they never could have run away with the division like they did. The doubters are in full force expecting him to slump back closer to his previous norms after the career year, but he already has two homers in three games. Baseball, man.
Likely starting DH: John Jaso
2014: 99 G, .264/.337/.430, 18 2B, 9 HR, 121 wRC+, 1.6 WAR
Jaso joins Navarro in the converted catcher-to-DH club this year, as concussion problems have unfortunately forced him to give up the tools of ignorance for good. Although it feels like he's been around the majors awhile, he only became a regular in 2010 and was limited to about 95 games per season due to the concussions and other injuries. Jaso's wrist is actually already hurt and he's day-to-day thanks to an awkward Opening Day slide.
Once Jaso can play again though, he slides in as a lefty power threat in the Rays' lineup, one which could really use some oomph. He's ended the season with a wRC+ under 115 just once in five full seasons. Jaso has serious lefty-on-lefty problems, so it seems likely that Rays manager Kevin Cash will have righty Brandon Guyer (.297/.366/.396 vs. lefties in 2014) often substitute for him when southpaws are on the mound. They could do a lot worse at DH than this plan.
Likely starting DH: David Ortiz
2014: 142 G, .263/.355/.517, 27 2B, 35 HR, 135 wRC+, 2.9 WAR
As a Yankees fan who has been tortured by David Ortiz for 12 years now, I really, really don't like writing about him. I'm sure it's about as much fun as it is for Red Sox fans to discuss Derek Jeter's opposite field swing haunting their dreams. Oh well. The dude can hit, and it's amazing that at age 38, he hit more homers last year than any season since his 54-homer 2006. He's a .311/.400/.571 hitter with 66 doubles and 44 homers in 208 games against the Yankees, and they've all been painful.
How much longer will he be able to continue such a high level of production given that he's already past his 39th birthday? Who the hell knows, but he's answered fairly similar questions each of the past few years. We can only hope that a 2009-like slowdown resurfaces and that this time, it's for real. Uncle.
Likely starting DH: Alex Rodriguez
2013*: 44 G, .244/.348/.423, 7 2B, 7 HR, 123 wRC+, 0.5 WAR
*Used 2013 numbers since A-Rod missed 2014 for one reason or another. I have not heard why, but I'm sure it's nothing.
Pfffffft. Like I have any idea what A-Rod is going to do in 2015. After a long 20 years in the majors, multiple hip surgeries, and finally the season-long steroid suspension, no one really has a clue about how he will fare. A-Rod turns 40 in July and hasn't played a full season in two years. He played well for a month in 2013 before leg injuries cut into his production in September. By the end of 2012, he couldn't hit righthanded pitching, though that might have been due to his ailing hips.
A-Rod's 2015 spring training production was encouraging, for what it's worth. Of course, that's not much since it's hard to have too much confidence in numbers from a month that saw the light-hitting Pete Kozma bat .408/.423/.429. Evaluators can only go by how he looked, and to his credit, he emerged healthy with his swing seeming sharper than expected. For all the steroid talk though, it shouldn't be forgotten that deep down, there's a decent chance A-Rod still has enough natural hitting talent to be a useful bat for the Yankees in 2015. Fans can only hope.
Look at him, turning and looking; willing the camera into focus. To call him a paragon is to severely undercut his character. No—we are barely fit to gaze at his image.