Previewing the 2022-23 free agent class: Designated hitter

Obviously, any hitter is capable of serving as a DH. Many of the players we’ve mentioned at other positions in this series will see sporadic time at DH next year, typically as a way to get them off their feet defensively for a game without pulling their bats completely from the lineups. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll draw the line here at players who either started 40+ games at designated hitter or played more games at DH than at any other position this year. It’s an admittedly arbitrary cutoff but filters out most players who spent a significant portion of their time in the field (and were thus covered in one of our earlier positional previews).

Everyday Players

Aside from the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Martinez has been a well-above-average hitter every year since breaking out with the Tigers in 2014. That was again the case in 2022, although this year’s .274/.341/.448 line was his lightest offensive output since his breakout. The dip was tied almost entirely to a drop in his home run power, as his 16 long balls marked his lowest full-season total since 2013. Martinez saw a corresponding drop in his average exit velocity and hard hit percentage, all somewhat worrying signs for a player who’s now 35.

Even as his batted ball metrics and power dropped, however, Martinez was an eminently productive part of the Boston lineup. He didn’t hit as many homers, but he cranked out a career-high 43 doubles. His exit velocities weren’t elite as they’d been in prior seasons, but they were still above-average. Martinez continued to display a knack for roping line drives all around the ballpark, and his batting average and on-base percentage each remained roughly 30 points higher than the respective league marks. In short, Martinez is still a good hitter, even if he no longer looks like the elite masher he was at his peak.

Martinez has some prior experience in the corner outfield, but he didn’t log a single defensive inning this past season. Any team that signs him is doing so for his bat. His age, lack of defensive value and dip in power will all limit the length of his next deal, but there’ll no doubt be plenty of interest from teams on shorter-term arrangements. The Red Sox seem unlikely to tag Martinez with a $19.65M qualifying offer, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he lands a two-year deal that tops that overall guarantee (albeit with a lesser annual salary).

It’s difficult to imagine a more unpredictable 2022 season than Carpenter’s. The three-time All-Star hit just .203/.325/.346 between 2019-21, leaving him to take a minor league deal with the Rangers last offseason. He overhauled his swing mechanics, and while he performed well in Triple-A, Texas didn’t give him a big league look. After being granted his release from his Rangers deal, Carpenter signed a big league contract with the Yankees to work primarily as a left-handed bench bat.

He very quickly played himself into a more significant role with a staggering offensive explosion. Carpenter popped 15 home runs in just 154 plate appearances, posting a .305/.412/.727 line. He worked primarily at DH but logged some action around the diamond as a bat-first utility type, playing the corner outfield, first base and getting a brief look at third base. That was all a way to get Carpenter’s scorching bat into the lineup, but his incredible season was cut short in August when he fouled a ball off his left foot and suffered a fracture. He missed the rest of the regular season, and while he returned in a limited capacity for the postseason, the effects of the layoff showed. He went 1-for-12 with nine strikeouts in six playoff games.

Carpenter’s regular-season performance was incredible, though. He posted a 217 wRC+, indicating he was 117 percentage points more productive than the average hitter. Barry Bonds is the only other player since 2000 to have a wRC+ north of 210 in a season in which he tallied 150+ plate appearances. (Bonds got there every year from 2001-04.) Even in a relatively small sample size, it’s exceedingly difficult to do what Carpenter achieved. He certainly won’t replicate that kind of production over a full season, but teams will have to weigh this year’s incredible two months against what looked to be a rapid decline over the preceding few years.

The seemingly ageless Cruz remained one of the game’s prolific sluggers well past his 40th birthday. He was still tearing the cover off the ball for the Twins early in the 2021 season, but his production dipped in the second half following a trade to the Rays. The rebuilding Nationals signed him to a $15M guarantee last offseason in hopes he’d be a coveted midseason trade candidate. That didn’t happen.

Cruz played 124 games for the Nats, but he hit just .234/.313/.337 with 10 homers across 507 plate appearances. It was his first below-average offensive season since 2007. His plate discipline didn’t change much, but he saw a notable drop in his hard contact rate and posted his lowest average exit velocity since Statcast began tracking in 2015. Even that personal-low 90.9 MPH exit velocity is a few ticks above average, but Cruz muted his power impact by driving the ball into the ground. More than half his batted balls were hit on the ground, an alarming sign for a lumbering slugger.

He underwent left eye surgery after the season to clear some inflammation that impacted his vision, offering a possible explanation for his rapid drop in performance. It was an alarming season that’ll surely result in a notable paycut this winter, although he still seems likely to find a big league opportunity. Cruz is generally revered for his clubhouse leadership, and his pre-2022 track record is strong enough another team figures to take a shot on him as at least a part-time player.

Corner Outfield/DH Hybrids

Brantley has been the prototypical “professional hitter” for the past decade. That continued early this season, as he was off to an excellent .288/.370/.416 start across 277 plate appearances. He only managed five home runs, but he picked up 14 doubles and walked more often than he struck out. It was the kind of high-average, high-OBP skill set to which we’ve become accustomed from Brantley. Houston gave him 35 games at DH and 29 games in left field, rotating him and Yordan Alvarez between the two positions in an effort to keep both fresh.

While Brantley continued to produce, his season was cut short by a right shoulder injury. He first landed on the injured list in late June, and after six weeks of rehab, he underwent season-ending surgery. Brantley plans to continue playing and is expected to be ready for spring training, but he’ll turn 36 next May. The surgery was on his non-throwing shoulder, so he’ll probably continue to see some left field work, but it stands to reason a signing team will use him heavily as a DH to manage his reps at this stage of his career.

Mancini split his time rather evenly between DH and the field, although he bounced between first base and both corner outfield positions. He’s not a great fit in the outfield but plays a solid first base. Mancini has been a slightly above-average hitter for two consecutive seasons since successfully returning from his battle with colon cancer in 2020. Since the start of the 2021 campaign, he owns a .247/.323/.412 line in a bit more than 1,200 plate appearances.

While he lacks a standout tool, Mancini brings a well-rounded skill set to the table. He makes a fair amount of contact, draws walks and has decent power, although his 35-homer season from 2019 looks increasingly like an outlier. Pair that solid overall on-field package with a strong clubhouse reputation, and Mancini should be able to find a multi-year deal this offseason.

McCutchen signed an $8.5M pact with the Brewers last offseason to split his time between DH and the corner outfield. He spent the bulk of his days at designated hitter, appearing in 82 games there compared to 53 contests in the outfield. McCutchen stayed healthy and tallied 580 plate appearances, but he had the least productive offensive showing of his big league career. He hit .237/.316/.384, roughly league-average offense. He was fine but unexceptional against left’ and right-handed pitchers alike, a somewhat disappointing turn after he’d mashed southpaws over a three-year stint with the Phillies.

It’s likely McCutchen will be looking at a lower salary next season, and he may not find quite as much playing time as he did this year. Still, he’s a strong veteran presence who works plenty of walks and has decent power. In a more limited platoon setup, he could potentially recapture some of his earlier success against left-handed pitching.

Depth Types

Santana saw a fair bit of action at both first base and DH this past season, although the Mariners increasingly relied upon him as a bat-only player late in the year. He tallied 506 plate appearances between the Royals and Seattle, hitting at a roughly league-average level with both clubs en route to a cumulative .202/.316/.376 line. Santana is among the game’s best at drawing walks and is tough to strike out, but he consistently posts very low batting averages on balls in play and hasn’t hit above .214 in any of the past three seasons.

Aguilar was the primary first baseman for the Brewers and Marlins for a while, a run that included a 35-homer season with Milwaukee. His time in Miami came to an end when he was released in August after hitting .236/.286/.388 across 456 plate appearances. He latched on with the Orioles for the season’s final month but didn’t do much over 16 games. He could be looking at minor league offers this winter.

An everyday third baseman with the Diamondbacks early in his career, Lamb has functioned as a bat-first depth option for a handful of teams in recent years. He’s played for six different clubs since the start of 2020, including a ’22 campaign split between the Dodgers and Mariners. Lamb hit .239/.338/.433 in 25 games with L.A. but stumbled to a .167/.265/.300 line over 16 contests in Seattle before being released. He’s capable of playing all four corner spots in addition to working as a designated hitter and should get some minor league offers after a big showing in Triple-A.

A four-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Upton has had an accomplished 16-year big league career. He’s struggled significantly going back to the start of the 2019 season, however, and the Angels released him on the eve of Opening Day despite owing him a $28M salary. Upton went on to sign with the Mariners and got into 17 games for Seattle, but he managed just a .125/.263/.208 line over 57 plate appearances. He declined a minor league assignment in favor of free agency in July and sat out the rest of the season. There’d presumably be a spring training invitation out there for Upton if he wanted to give it another go, but having banked upward of $173M in career earnings, he certainly won’t feel any financial pressure to keep playing.

Another player who’s potentially at the end of what has been an impressive career, Lowrie has played 14 seasons and earned an All-Star nod. He was a decent hitter for the A’s as recently as 2021, but a return to Oakland this past season didn’t pan out. The switch-hitter posted a .180/.245/.263 line through 50 games, seeing essentially all of his time at DH. The A’s released him in August.

A longtime minor leaguer, Mercedes briefly vaulted himself into the national spotlight in April 2021 with an incredible first month for the White Sox. He tailed off midway through the season, though, finishing that year with a roughly average .271/.328/.404 overall line and spending the second half of the season in Triple-A. Chicago lost him on waivers to the Giants in mid-June, and Mercedes went on to appear in 31 games with San Francisco. He hit .233/.325/.342 while playing almost exclusively DH or the corner outfield. His days as a catcher look mostly behind him, leaving him as a bat-first depth player without a real defensive home. San Francisco outrighted him off the roster in September after he went unclaimed on waivers, and he elected minor league free agency at the end of the year.

Dickerson received a big league deal with the Braves, signing for $1M in spring training. He posted a .121/.194/.212 line in 13 April games before being designated for assignment and going unclaimed on waivers. Dickerson spent the rest of the year in Triple-A, putting up a slightly below-average .239/.305/.425 mark across 357 plate appearances. He elected free agency at the end of the season and could get another minor league opportunity as a corner outfield/DH depth player.

Players With Club Options

Turner got off to a slow start this year, seemingly raising questions about how much he had left in the tank at age 37. He went on a tear in the second half and put those doubts to rest, concluding the season with a quality .278/.350/.438 line over 532 plate appearances. The Dodgers are as willing as any team to pay a lofty one-year salary for a productive player, and it now looks likely they’ll keep Turner around for a 10th season in L.A. He split his time almost evenly between third base and DH this past season and could assume a similar role next year.

Note: Charlie Blackmon is excluded from this list after going on record with his intention to exercise a $15M player option.

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