2020-21 MLB Free Agent Class: Designated Hitters

In looking ahead to next winter’s crop of free agents, we’ve already profiled the catchers, first basemen, second basemen, shortstopsthird basemen and center fielders who figure to be available (barring extensions between the time the transaction freeze is lifted and the free-agent market opens).

Next year’s market is a bit unique in that it features a few more pure designated hitters than one might expect to find in a given offseason. While it’s true that any player can function as a DH and that some teams prefer not to dedicate just one slugger to that DH position, most of the players in this bucket will only be considered by American League clubs that have ample DH opportunities available. Since there aren’t many on the list, I won’t bother breaking them down into tiers…

  • Nelson Cruz: The Boomstick will turn 41 in July of 2021, but he remains one of MLB’s most potent hitters. His 2019 season in Minnesota featured a .311/.392/.639 slash with 41 big flies and 26 doubles. Cruz has played all of nine games in the outfield since the conclusion of the 2016 season and didn’t play so much as an inning of defense with the Twins last year. He and the Twins had reportedly talked about a new deal prior to the transaction freeze, so it’s possible they’ll tack on another year to his time with the “Bomba Squad.”
  • J.D. Martinez: JDM chose not to opt out of the remaining three years and $62.5MM on his Red Sox deal at the beginning of this past offseason, but he has another opt out this winter. With two years and $38.75MM left on the deal, a return to the open market seems more plausible this time around — assuming some form of season is played. Martinez has hit .317/.392/.593 with 79 homers, 70 doubles and four triples in two years with Boston, where he’s made 200 appearances as DH. He’ll be 33 in 2021.
  • Edwin Encarnacion: The White Sox hold a $12MM option ($2MM buyout) on the 37-year-old slugger, so like Martinez, he might not actually reach the market. Encarnacion has belted at least 34 home runs in each season since 2012, but he hasn’t logged even a half season’s worth of innings at first base since 2014. He’ll split time with Jose Abreu between first and DH with the ChiSox, but it’s highly unlikely that any team would sign Encarnacion as a full-time first baseman heading into what would be his age-38 season.
  • Shin-Soo Choo: In fairness to Choo, he split his time between DH and the outfield corners pretty evenly last year … but the results weren’t pretty. Choo’s -17 Defensive Runs Saved, -14.1 UZR/150 and -12 Outs Above Average were among the worst marks for any outfielder in the game. He’ll turn 39 in July of 2021, and there’s little reason to expect a late renaissance with the glove. Choo is still an OBP-machine with some pop in his bat, though; last year he batted .265/.371/.455 with 24 dingers, and he even swiped 15 bases as well.
  • Hunter Pence: An NL team did sign Pence, so perhaps he’s not quite restricted to DH work, but Pence is a clear bat-first player at this point. The Rangers game him 46 starts at DH — hence Choo playing in the outfield as much as he did — and it probably would’ve been more were they not rotating the two veteran sluggers. A resurgent Pence slashed .297/.358/.552 and smacked 18 dingers in 316 plate appearances last year after reworking his swing in the Dominican Winter League. If he hits again in 2019, someone will have interest in adding that bat and that personality to the roster. He’ll turn 38 next April.

You could certainly argue others have a place on this list — someone might roll the dice on a 35-year-old Yoenis Cespedes or a 34-year-old Jay Bruce in this role — but this quintet’s 2019 production and general track record make them the likeliest DH targets for clubs seeking a short-term jolt in the lineup.

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