“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) 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.
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”
No. 1: J.D. Martinez (Boston Red Sox)
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 Colossi of Clout”
No. 2: Yordan Alvarez (Houston Astros)
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.
No. 3: Austin Meadows (Tampa Bay Rays)
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 Maharajahs of Mash”
No. 4: Nelson Cruz (Minnesota Twins)
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.
No. 5: Tommy Pham (San Diego Padres)
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.
No. 6: 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.
No. 7: Jorge Soler (Kansas City Royals)
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.
No. 8: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Toronto Blue Jays)
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.
No. 9: Michael Brantley (Houston Astros)
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. 10: 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 Kings of Swing”
No. 11: 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. 12: 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.
No. 13: Luke Voit (New York Yankees)
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.
No. 14: Khris Davis (Oakland Athletics)
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 Rajahs of Rap”
No. 15: Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels)
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.
No. 16: Miguel Andujar (New York Yankees)
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. 17: Shin-Soo Choo (Texas Rangers)
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.
No. 18: 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.
Tier 7: “The Terrible Titans”
No. 19: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers)
As a Tigers fan, I wept when I realized he would not be in any positional rankings besides this one. His contact ability and legendary bat control should allow him to sustain a relatively high batting average, but years of chronic and nagging injuries have sapped him of his triple crown abilities. While his hard hit rate remains impressive, most of them come on ground balls. Even a younger, more spry Miggy was never going to turn those grounders into doubles. He’s more of an AL-only asset at this stage of his career for batting average, and his real life value (a reason to go to Comerica Park) far outweighs his fantasy value.
No. 20: Dan Vogelbach (Seattle Mariners)
This ranking may look silly if Vogelbach keeps the job all year, but his impressive first half, highlighted by an .881 OPS and fantastic plate discipline was followed by a horribly dreadful second half that saw his strikeout rate climb over nine points while posting just a .626 OPS. His hold on the DH role can be described as tenuous at best as Austin Nola, Dee Gordon fight for at bats and Jose Siri, Dylan Moore, and Braden Bishop fight for a roster spot. Should he keep it somehow, you can expect 25-30 home runs and poor ratios (unless he figures out how to recapture that first half magic again).
Technically, Zack Collins of the White Sox and Nick Solak of the Rangers only qualify as a DH to start the season. Collins came up as a catcher but will likely have to learn a position to hack it in the big leagues due to his questionable contact skills, while Solak is far more interesting (as in potentially 15-team relevant) and is said to have a shot at winning an outfield gig in camp. He’ll need to win a positional job to be worthy of consideration in deep leagues since his 20 home run power doesn’t come with enough additional fantasy goodness to be worth a roster spot if he can’t fill in as a fifth outfielder.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)