When the league announced that it would have a universal designated hitter for the 2020 season, the New York Mets were one of the few National League teams built for such a development. For the first time, without having to compromise their outfield defense, Pete Alonso and Dominic Smith could be in the lineup at the same time.
Unfortunately, the fate of the NL DH in 2021 is up in the air right now. With the players union rejecting the owners proposal to bring it back, negotiations have effectively stalled. The caveat to having it back was that the players would have also needed to agree to keep the highly unpopular expanded playoffs as well. With just a couple weeks until Spring Training, the Mets are stuck in a pickle.
Smith or Alonso
The main question here is what becomes of Smith and Alonso. Both have shown in the last two years that they are among the league’s best hitters. Smith, the 2020 breakout star, and Alonso, the all-time rookie homerun king. Both, however, are also subpar defenders.
In just under 1650 innings at first base, Alonso owns -7 DRS and 0 UZR. Rather than improve, his defense actually got worse in his second year. Smith isn’t much better, having -5 DRS and -1.8 UZR in roughly 900 innings. With the DH, the two could have split time at first until one eventually emerged as the superior defender.
In the past, to avoid having to relegate one of them to a permanent bench role, the Mets opted to put Smith in left field. The problem here is that Smith is the single worst left fielder in baseball. With -7 DRS and -7.3 UZR, Smith is simply not fit to play the position.
Without the DH, the situation becomes complicated fast. At this point, neither are likely to be traded, nor stuck on the bench. Both are simply to valuable to keep out of the everyday lineup. The most likely configuration is that Alonso remains at first and Smith in left. This choice, though, won’t just affect these two.
The Center Field Situation
Further compounding the issue of playing Smith in left is that it forces natural left fielder Brandon Nimmo to play center field. Instead of being a plus defender in left, Nimmo, like Smith, has been the worst center fielder in baseball. With -14 DRS and -9.6 UZR in 1000 innings, Nimmo contributed heavily to the Mets having the worst overall outfield in the league.
Nimmo’s bat and uncanny ability to get on base are what has kept him in the lineup thus far. Preferably, he would slot back in to left while Smith and Alonso split time at first and DH. Likewise, the Mets would have also acquired a top center fielder like George Springer or Jackie Bradley Jr. to further elevate the team.
Though there is still a small chance the Mets acquire JBJ, the far more likely scenario is that the Mets now go for a cheaper platoon option. Just as they tried to do in 2020 with Jake Marisnick, the Mets may opt to sign a subpar right-handed bat with above average defense to split time with Nimmo in center. Albert Almora would be the cheapest option and brings the most potential upside. He’s young, only a few years removed from being a first-round draft pick and can be brought on for a little over $1 million. Bringing back Marisnick is also an option. Though the Mets signed him for $3.3 million in 2020, he missed most of the season with injury. This should allow them to get him for much less this time around.
Where Things Stand
Overall, the situation is less than ideal. Though there is still hope that the DH may return, it’s looking more likely that teams will have to wait until at least 2022 to have it back. Without it, the Mets will essentially be forced into a catch-22. At first base and in left field, they will have to sacrifice defense in order to keep their premier offense. Meanwhile, in center they will have to alternate between having good offense and bad defense, with bad offense and good defense. Could this still work? Maybe. But there’s no denying that the DH would greatly improve the Mets chances of reaching the postseason.
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