“When we do fielding drills, he goes to the cage.” – Joe Girardi, on Travis Hafner.
I loved Travis Hafner. He was one of the purest examples of a DH that we have ever been blessed to know. There were actual articles written about him with titles like “Shocking photo: Travis Hafner wearing a glove” and “The Yankees’ One-Tool Player“. He was a 6’3, 240-pound pile of left-handedness and power, and guys like him that continues to inspire to kids like Alfred “Big Al” Delia that there’s a baseball future for him.
While the world of real baseball continues its debate over the legitimacy of the designated hitter, there can be no doubt that these players have significant fantasy value. This article will cover the top players that qualify at designated hitter (20 games as a DH in 2019, and players projected to start a considerable amount of time there in the NL) and also will include a few players who only qualify at DH. Because there are precious few fantasy leagues that utilize a required DH, this list is probably best used as a reference for how to rank these DH-only players against other position players as well as a look at their DH status in years to come.
As a side note, only one NL DH made their way onto this list. Few NL teams are likely to put just a single hitter into that role, as they weren’t designing themselves for it to even exist during the winter and spring. In 2020, I expect the NL to mostly utilize the DH as a way to keep players fresh, rotating players in and out of the spot on a daily basis.
To keep up with the concept of themed tiers, I’ll be naming each tier after my favorite George Herbert Ruth nicknames.
Tier 1: “The Sultan of Swat”
Our #7 outfielder resides in a tier by himself atop the DH rankings, and for good reason—he is simply the best. We’ve already covered J.D. in our Top 20 Outfielders, but allow me to add a brief blurb on his DH eligibility. While most fantasy managers are thrilled that he managed to find himself in the outfield 39 times to retain his outfield eligibility, the DH-only writing is on the wall for J.D. as those outfield appearances occurred in just 26.7% of his games played. 2020 could easily his last as an outfielder, but even if the eligibility fades his fantasy value will remain for as long as his body allows him to play baseball.
Tier 2: “The Colossus of Clout”
We covered him more fully in our Top 20 Outfielders, but for many of you, Alvarez will only be eligible in the utility slot after appearing in the outfield just 10 times in 2020. Rumors have swirled around about what position he’ll play in the big leagues, and considering the fact he’s only 22 years old, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Astros worked him out more at first base as the eventual successor to Yuli Gurriel (because he’s probably not going to be an outfielder anymore). If he can’t learn first base, Yordan’s future may very well be as a DH, because his bat will force the Astros to keep him in the lineup for years to come. In this short season, I would not draft him unless you’re comfortable with him with his current eligibility (and you should be, because there’s no reason to worry about positional eligibility with a talent like this one), because I doubt the Astros have the time to mess around by letting Yordan play in the field where he can hurt their chances to win a game and also possibly injure himself.
Meadows, who was also covered in our Top 20 Outfielders, is somewhat of an odd duck when it comes to the DH-eligible pool. He’s one of the few guys who DH that can also run (12 stolen bases), but that speed doesn’t translate into defensive prowess, as he was in just the 20th percentile in Statcast’s outs above average despite an average outfield jump and a 78th percentile sprint speed. The Rays were willing to utilize a lot of different bats in the DH slot and Meadows will probably continue being an outfielder for the foreseeable future, but at some point, I wouldn’t be shocked if he transitioned into a full-time DH role if he winds up on a different AL team (the Rays will likely continue to cycle guys through the DH spot until they change their roster construction).
Tier 3: “The Maharajah of Mash”
Our first true designated hitter is also our oldest, or perhaps I should say most experienced. Cruz continues to defy Father Time, posting the league’s best barrels per plate appearance among qualified hitters along with the second-best expected slugging, third-best average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, the third-best hard hit rate, the fourth-best expected wOBA, and the ninth-best max exit velocity. Despite playing in just 120 games, he was good enough to be a top-25 hitter in standard formats thanks to his contact ability, power, and prime lineup spot. While the limited time might raise a few eyebrows considering that Cruz will turn 40 during the 2020 season, he averaged 153 games between 2014 and 2018, indicating that the slugger’s durability isn’t really a question mark yet. He’s been about as sure of a thing as you can find in baseball these days, as evidenced by the following averages over the last six seasons: 86 runs, 41 home runs, 105 RBI, and a .285/.361/.555 line. The only things he can’t do are play a position and steal bases. His lack of position and advanced age will make him fall in many drafts, and you can reap the rewards of such foolishness by recognizing his place as a top-75 player.
Like his former teammate Austin Meadows, Pham (a) is an odd fit among DH-eligible bats due to his speed and (b) is covered in more detail in our Top 20 Outfielders. Unlike Meadows, though, Pham is an acceptable fielder in either corner and has DH-eligibility mostly because he played for the Rays because the Rays like to move things around in their lineup more than other teams. As a Padre, he won’t have to worry about the DH.
He’s a monstrously talented hitter. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. To protect his body from the forces of injury and horrible luck, the Yankees are likely to keep him at DH whenever possible, and it shouldn’t be too long before he’s moved permanently into a Nelson Cruz-like role. That will hopefully allow Stanton to remain healthy, which is good for the Yankees and good for baseball, because a healthy Stanton is really fun to watch.
No. 7: Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox)
You can look at Abreu in our Top 30 First Baseman, and he should continue to appear in those rankings until prospect Andrew Vaughn (who comes in at #9 in our Top 100 Prospects) takes that job from him, which probably won’t be until 2021 at the earliest (especially considering that Edwin Encarnacion will demand plenty of games at DH as well). The 33-year-old signed a somewhat surprising three-year contract his offseason and will likely be a DH for the White Sox for about half of it. For fantasy purposes, I think 2022 will be the first time we might have to think about Jose Abreu as a DH-only asset.
You can see how much we like Soler in our Top 40 Outfielders, though I’m not sure I expect him to appear in outfield rankings in 2021. He appeared in the outfield 56 times in 2020, but he had one of the worst outfield jumps in baseball according to Statcast and other advanced metrics like defensive runs saved and UZR weren’t impressed by him either. He’ll likely move to a full-time DH role in 2020 and might lose his outfield eligibility as early as 2021.
The former uber-prospect comes in at 16th in our Top 30 Third Baseman, and it will be interesting to see what position he ultimately settles into in his big league career. He failed to impress most defensive metrics at the hot corner in 2020, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays have anyone in their pipeline at third to force him off of the position (unless Rowdy Tellez takes some major steps forward). I wouldn’t be shocked if they tried flipped Travis Shaw and Guerrero Jr. to opposite sides of the infield from time to time, but unless the Jays make some major signings, I’d expect Vladito to be somewhere in the infield most games for the next few years.
You can read up on Brantley more in our Top 40 Outfielders, though I have to admit I was surprised at how often a guy with his reputation for fragility actually appeared in the outfield. Just 60 of his last 400 plate appearances came at DH, which happens to align with the arrival of the aforementioned Yordan Alvarez in Houston. He’ll likely continue to get the occasional breather at DH as the Astros try to keep him healthy, but he will likely be the primary left fielder for at least one more season.
Tier 4: “The Wali of Wallop”
No. 11: Carlos Santana (Cleveland Indians)
A return to Cleveland and the American League gave Santana, who we also covered in our Top 30 First Baseman, the chance to be a DH for 23 games but the lack of other options combined with passable fielding chops will likely keep him at first base for another year or two.
Tier 5: “The King of Swing”
No. 12: Edwin Encarnacion (Chicago White Sox)
Yet again, the ageless Encarnacion patched together enough games at first to appear in our Top 30 First Baseman. He’ll be the primary DH for the White Sox (though he may alternate a bit at first base with Jose Abreu) and it’s a total guess as to whether he can get 10-20 starts at first base to retain eligibility for 2021.
No. 13: Franmil Reyes (Cleveland Indians)
While Reyes is yet another guy we covered in our Top 40 Outfielders, it should be noted that he put on an outfielder’s glove in just three of his 51 games as an Indian. With several outfielders on the roster and even more ready to contribute who are currently in the minors, I doubt we’ll see him put that glove on 20 times in 2020.
He’ll begin the season as the starting first baseman for the Yankees, which is why you can find him in our Top 30 First Baseman piece. Assuming Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy, Voit will likely have to hold his first base job over Mike Ford to stay in the lineup on a regular basis.
It’s finally another pure designated hitter! Don’t bother looking for too many nuggets of positive information out of 2019 because you just won’t find very many. Davis had a very disappointing season while battling numerous injuries. He was unable to punish fastballs as he had in years past and it’s fair to wonder how much those injuries impacted him while he was in the lineup. The main body of evidence as to why you should care about Khris Davis comes from his incredible consistency from 2015 through 2018 when he hit for prodigious power and his famous .247 batting average. That track record indicates he probably still has another 35+ home run campaign in his bat when healthy, and the heart of the A’s order has enough punch in it for Davis to pile up the counting stats as well. He’ll never hit for a decent batting average, but as a guy you can scoop up well after pick 150, you can accept that particular wart in exchange for the power upside. He’s even safer in OBP formats, as his walk rate is usually high enough to sustain a .320-.330 OBP when he’s healthy and hitting the ball hard.
Tier 6: “The Rajah of Rap”
Our first (and only) NL DH! You’d really think that I’d have someone higher than this on the list for the NL, but the NL teams weren’t really planning on having a DH during the winter and spring and most teams don’t have obvious fits that would strictly move into that role. The Brewers are a bit of an exception, as they’ve been desperate to keep Braun’s bat in the lineup, creating messy platoons at first base and in the outfield to accommodate him. As long as he keeps crushing the baseball (85th percentile in hard hit rate and 87th percentile in average exit velocity), he’ll deliver positive results for Milwaukee and for fantasy managers.
I am on the record as someone who is extremely high on Shohei Ohtani, so I should mention that this particular ranking of him captures the hitter-only version of him. The daily or bi-weekly dual-threat version of Ohtani would likely appear in the second tier of these rankings, while the weekly dual-threat version would be unranked, as you’d be choosing the pitcher enough to make the hitting stats negligible from a full season perspective.
When he originally crossed the Pacific, the fear was that he wouldn’t hit enough for that side of him to be relevant for fantasy purposes. That fear was misguided at best. In his last 162 games as a hitter, Ohtani has hit .287/.348/.537 with 33 home runs, 29 doubles, and 20 stolen bases. For reference, that’s pretty close to what Francisco Lindor did last season. I realize that there is no universe where Ohtani steps up to the plate in 162 games in a season where he also pitches, or even in 130 games, but it’s still a fun comparison. The more realistic version of Ohtani is likely the one who bats in roughly 100 to 120 games, which is essentially the one we’ve seen over the last two seasons. In each season, he’s managed 40 or more combined home runs and stolen bases and a batting average north of .280. To make another, probably more realistic comparison, that’s very 2019 Ryan Braun-esque. Braun is probably the best starting point when talking about the value of the hitter version of Ohtani because it also helps bake in the questionable number of games he might play while highlighting the quality of his at-bats when active and hitting behind one of baseball’s premier hitting threats. He’s probably best served as a bench bat or second utility guy in shallow leagues, but those in deep leagues can likely find good value if the hitter-only version falls past pick 250 or so.
Shin-Soo Choo is featured in our Top 60 Outfielders, and being in the final year of his contract at 37-years-old suggests this might be one of his last seasons in the majors. Should he play again in 2021, there’s a chance he’ll retain his outfield eligibility as he was able to run out there for 82 of his 151 games, though he graded poorly across most defensive metrics and is probably best-suited as a DH.
Tier 7: “Babe“
Andujar played just 12 games prior to going down with a season-ending injury in 2019, even though he had a breakout 2018 for the Yankees, he enters 2020 trying to learn new positions in order to have a job. The Yankees claim to be willing to give him reps in left field and first base during the spring to make him more flexible, but it should be noted that Andujar struggled mightily as the third baseman back in 2018 with respect to fielding. It doesn’t help that his breakout in 2018 was met with significant eyebrow-raising as people pried into the quality of contact metrics and saw that he had over-performed his expected slugging by 83 points. Truthfully, his biggest obstacle in 2020 won’t be the injury or the doubters, but the crowded corner infield and DH situations in the Bronx. Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, and Giancarlo Stanton currently occupy the most obvious positions for Andujar to play, and Mike Ford is already waiting in the wings to scoop up any free first base and DH at-bats. Inevitable injuries and platoons should give Andujar a chance to show what he can do across multiple positions, but whether he gets enough of an opportunity to make a fantasy impact remains to be seen.
No. 20: Renato Nunez (Baltimore Orioles)
Nunez managed to crack our Top 30 First Baseman thanks to his power, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did just enough to hold on to a corner infield eligibility in 2021 due to the dismal state of the Orioles roster. He’s a good source of power and should drive in a respectable number of batters as he is one of the few middle-of-the-order hitters on an otherwise shaky Orioles roster.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)