The National League should adopt and embrace the designated hitter, and it should do so as soon as possible.
Took me two minutes to write that sentence. I feel so unclean.
National League baseball is the most beautiful of all sports. It’s the strategy, watching Andrew McCutchen run bases, Craig Kimbrel dial up an unhittable fastball. It’s also watching the pitcher, almost always hitting ninth now that Tony LaRussa has retired, sacrificing runners to second and third to give a seasoned hitter a chance to drive in two runs.
But that last part is creating a competitive imbalance that cannot be ignored, especially now that Major League Baseball has put 15 teams in both leagues. That guarantees that an interleague game will be played every day of the baseball season.
The competitive imbalance that reality creates goes deeper than just the day-to-day games on the field, however. It has an even greater effect on which teams can sign which players, and exhibit A this offseason in all likelihood will be McCann.
The 29-year-old left-handed hitting catcher, life-long Brave and Georgia native is having exactly the kind of year you would want in the last year of a contract. His average is hovering around .280. He’s going to top 20 home runs for the seventh time in nine years. And he’s showing his struggles of 2011 and 2012 were largely due to injury.
So it is clear that when McCann is healthy, he is one of the three best offensive catchers in the game.
But the Braves have a choice to make. Do they re-sign him, or do they let him walk?
The Texas Rangers called Atlanta general manager Frank Wren before the July 31 trade deadline to see if the Braves would be willing to trade McCann. Obviously, Wren said no. Atlanta determined it was going to go all out for a World Series bid this past offseason with the trade that acquired Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, and the record signing of B.J. Upton. It made no sense for Wren to even consider the move.
But Texas will be all over McCann come November and December. It can sell a prime hitters park, a strong lineup and clubhouse, and the ability to give McCann a break behind the plate a few times a week. He can DH three, maybe four games a week and in all likelihood extend his career an extra year or two. And that equates to an extra contract and several million more dollars.
It will be hard to fault McCann if he takes the route of American League part-time catcher, part-time DH — whether it’s with Texas or someone else.
The Braves can turn to Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird as their catchers in 2014, and the duo will make a little more than $2 million combined. McCann in all likelihood will find a contract that will pay him more than $15 million annually for four to five years. That’s probably a little too steep for the Braves when they know the most games he will play for them will likely be around 120. He can play 150 games for an AL team — a full month’s more at bats — with the help of the DH.
It’s fair to wonder if this scenario is the sole reason why the St. Louis Cardinals did not re-sign Albert Pujols after the 2011 season. The Cardinals knew that as Pujols aged, his ability to play the field would greatly diminish. Who knew that would happen in year two of a 10-year deal? Obviously the Anaheim Angels didn’t. And, remember, no National League team showed Josh Hamilton much interest this past offseason. While his troubled past may have been part of the reason, so was the concern that he wouldn’t need to be playing more than 120 games in the outfield in two to three years.
So the Braves aren’t in a unique spot. It’s one every National League team faces, whether it’s with one of their home grown players potentially leaving or when it comes to signing free agents.
Unfortunately, the faster the National League embraces the designated hitter the better. And it is going to happen within the next few years. It’s just too bad when that day comes it will be too late for Atlanta and McCann.