The idea of one day losing slugger Ryan Howard is worrisome, yet realistic, to Charlie Manuel. The longtime Philadelphia Phillies manager has seen National League All-Stars — and slugging first basemen — Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder depart for the American League and the lure of the designated hitter.
Howard, a first baseman who is 20 months removed from Achilles’ tendon surgery and battling knee problems, seems to be a perfect candidate to follow that path when his contract expires in 2016. But there’s a scenario that could keep Howard and other aging, sore-kneed run-producers in the NL.
The new model of interleague play, which finds the Twins at Miami on Tuesday night, has ignited an argument about the future of the DH. With 15 teams in each league — after Houston’s move to the AL West this season — there will be interleague series play throughout the season. Teams are traveling to the other league more often and are forced to adapt with or without a DH.
The changes have led many in baseball to believe that the National League eventually will adopt the DH rule. If it does, Philadelphia has a better chance of making Howard a lifelong Phillie.
“When you get to that point [in your career], it can be very enticing when you start thinking about it,” Howard said about the lure of the DH.
Manuel, like many traditionalists, is torn on the issue, believing that the long-standing differences of the American and National Leagues is a positive. The idea that endless interleague play creates an unfair playing environment is just talk, Manuel said.
“It’s something to discuss and people might try to make an issue out of it. But at the same time [the DH] has been in effect for a long time,” Manuel said. “I think both leagues are balanced out.”
Maybe. Watching Twins pitchers Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia strike out three times in four plate appearances during their visit to Milwaukee at the end of May made Twins hitters think otherwise.
“A lot of the guys were joking when we were in Milwaukee and the National League, we’d rather see [a Twins DH], than [Mike] Pelfrey or [another pitcher],” occasional Twins designated hitter Joe Mauer said. “Using that DH can really help.”
AL teams are asking pitchers to take more batting practice. NL teams are trying to turn pinch hitters into designated hitters. Neither is ideal.
“I don’t know which way they’re leaning. I know this sets up for some crazy stuff,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Worst-case scenario, you’re in the pennant race, and now your pitchers have to go hit and run the bases. It wouldn’t be a lot of fun. I know National League teams do it all the time, but we don’t. So there’s a difference.”
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig isn’t generally a fan of differences in the leagues. He has rid the AL and NL of separate presidents. He has eliminated league-specific umpiring crews. And this year, he has evened the number of teams in each league.
However, when it comes to the DH, the commissioner’s office hasn’t hinted of change coming.
General managers also haven’t spent much time discussing the DH.
“Whether it will be either disbanded or put into both leagues, that is going to come from the commissioner’s office,” Twins GM Terry Ryan said. “With interleague play taking place every day, it’s getting a lot more attention now.”
The 2013 season began with an interleague series and will end with one. It even had an effect on how some teams prepared for the season.
Kansas City pitchers were bunting and hitting since the first day of spring training. Their second series of the season was at Philadelphia. Detroit manager Jim Leyland has the opposite problem. The Tigers end their regular season at Miami and with no DH.
Leyland wants uniformity, referencing the NFL’s two conferences as examples.
“We’re the only sport where they have different rules,” Leyland said. “That doesn’t make sense to me. Synchronize it. Whichever way you want is fine … But at some point, you need to get it the same.”
If it’s not broken …
Major league players don’t appear to have a clear-cut opinion about the DH rule. During the Marlins’ April visit to Target Field, Giancarlo Stanton proclaimed himself a supporter of the DH moving to the NL. His reasons: rest for the body, protecting pitchers, more offense. From the chatter he’s heard, he said, a players’ union vote likely would favor adopting the DH in the NL 60 percent to 40 percent.
Veteran Twins infielder Jamey Carroll, who has experience in both leagues, said that would be a mistake. The strategy and small-ball philosophy of the NL are what make the World Series so special, he said. It would also mean fewer jobs for role players like himself, and more for big hitters like David Ortiz.
Carroll also attempted to refute the scheduling concerns by pointing out that every team plays the same number of games in NL and AL cities, just at different times of the year.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Carroll said.
Ryan Doumit, who signed with the Twins last year after seven seasons with Pittsburgh, cited all the good things the designated hitter role and the American League has done for his career. Then he said the rule doesn’t belong in the National League, adding that it would hurt the tradition of the game. Josh Willingham, another player who splits time at DH for the Twins, agreed.
“I’ve dealt with some concussions and other injuries in the past and [the designated hitter] allowed me to still be in the lineup as DH three times a week, still get my fix of catching, and be in the outfield,” Doumit said. “But there’s gotta be some sort of difference between the two leagues.”
The solution is eliminating the DH, said Correia, in his first year in the AL after 10 in the NL. He likes to hit. Baseball experts say that will never happen.
With so many big names in baseball settling into full-time DH jobs, it’s becoming more about career longevity and money. Examples include former Twins Ortiz and Jim Thome, and before the time of monster contracts, ex-Twins great Paul Molitor.
Billion-dollar TV deals, $100 million contracts, the love of home runs — all are reasons the DH is likely here to stay.
Other solutions mentioned to solve the debate include the addition of a 26th player for an interleague series, or making the DH rule a required piece of interleague play in every city.
“It gets brought up every few years. For a number of years, the American League was in favor and the National League was not. Until the powers that be reach a resolution, nothing will change,” said Bill Smith, who has played a role on the MLB scheduling committee and is Twins special assistant to the president and general manager. “Maybe the solution is to stay status quo.”