The DH traditionally has been the spot in the lineup that you would expect the most offense from as their job is to only hit; no defense required. Recently, though, the trend has shifted away from full-time DH’s such as David Ortiz, Travis Hafner and Jim Thome and instead have the position used as a half-off day and a tool to get more players their necessary at-bats. The luxury of having two super-utility players in Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez allows the Tampa Bay Rays to use the DH spot even more effectively, but the Rays tried to have more of a full-time DH the last two years with Luke Scott with mixed results before Delmon Young got hot as the DH at the end of the year. With Scott, Kelly Johnson, and Young all free agents, the Rays would lose the top three players to start at DH. Let’s see what is out there in free agency to help the offense if the Rays look for a semi-regular DH once again.
In-House Options You don’t really see a lot of DH-only players in the minor leagues as that would put even more pressure on a players’ bat to succeed. The players to appear the most at DH in the minor leagues for Tampa Bay in Double-A and Triple-A were Young (who we already knew was a DH only), Shelley Duncan (now released), and organizational player Keith Castillo, who appeared in 32 of 34 games at DH for Montgomery. If the Rays were to sign a first baseman but go with internal options for DH, it could include Matt Joyce against right-handed pitching and Sean Rodriguez against lefties.
Travis Hafner- As mentioned earlier, Hafner was a full-time DH for the Cleveland Indians from 2003-2012 and falls under the first base in name only category. Of the free agents in the class, Hafner certainly has some of the most power in the group. The problem (as it always seems) is that injuries have hurt Hafner’s career as he has spent time on the disabled list the past six seasons for related injuries. For a DH this can be frustrating as this puts more pressure on the bat to succeed once they come back. This falls under the low-risk, high-reward category as Hafner only made $2M in his one year deal with the New York Yankees. A similar deal might find Hafner as an American League team (yes, even the Rays) can afford to make this kind of transaction without blowing the overall budget. While this could be a longshot, “Pronk” is definitely a player to keep an eye on this off-season for Tampa Bay.
Delmon Young- The former Rays prospect who became a current Ray once again after getting released by the Philadelphia Phillies, Young’s career has not gone as well as most people inside and outside of baseball would have thought. He went from an athletic five-tool right fielder to a below average defender and now to a player best served as a full-time DH. But could he provide value to the club as a DH only bat? He doesn’t have good discipline and his career batting line is skewed by his overall success vs LHP (.303/.341/.471) rather than RHP (.274/.305/.404), but he looked great at the end of the year for the Rays and could be an interesting fit to return. After making $6.75M in 2012 in Detroit, Young only signed for a $750K with Philadelphia and would’ve made more money based on weigh-ins and plate appearances bonuses. How motivated could Young be to take another small deal to be a part-time player for the Rays?
Paul Konerko- A member of the Chicago White Sox since 1999(!), Konerko could be one of the last players in MLB to have 10-5 rights if he were to leave the South Side for another club. Would he leave if the possibly arose to win a ring with another club? The White Sox have seemed to push him out as the signing of Jose Daniel Abreu to play first base to go along with DH/first baseman Adam Dunn gives Konerko little playing time. This might be the swan song for Konerko as at age 38 he set career-lows in games played (126), Home Runs (12), Slugging Percentage (.355) and OPS+ (80). There are reasons though to bring him into Tampa Bay: He hits right-handed, has only had 2-DL stints since 2008, and has only struck out 100 times once since 2008. Even as a shell of himself this past season, Konerko still drilled lefties to the tune of a .923 OPS in 113 PA’s, and he was a great player just two years ago. He would balance a line-up of predominant left-handed hitters, be a consistent performer, and make opposing pitchers work for outs. Even at age 38, don’t give up on Konerko yet.
Jason Kubel- Kubel would be a full-time DH if he signed with the Rays as his outfield play is atrocious. Combining multiple knee injuries with a below-average arm means that Kubel can no longer play their everyday. Luckily, there is still reason to think that he will hit enough to continue his career in such a role. Kubel is the dictionary definition of a bounce-back candidate as he has shown the ability to hit in every year besides 2013 and provide a club with legitimate left-handed power. As recently as 2012, Kubel hit a career-high 30 homers while playing in the thin desert air of Arizona, and he has the ability to be much better than the lost hitter he was this past season. Complicating the Rays’ pursuit of Kubel, though, is that he is another full-time DH candidate but should get a more lucrative deal than Hafner. How much would the Rays pay for a pure DH who cannot really play the outfield anymore? Nevertheless, Kubel’s bat makes him a player for the Rays to look at, and they will have to consider bringing him aboard.
The biggest question for the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason is going to be whether to acquire a full-time designated hitter. It seems like every they have plugged in at the position–Pat Burrell, Manny Ramirez, Hideki Matsui, and Scott immediately come to mind–and when they fail to hit, their lack of positional flexibility makes them dead weights. Will the Rays find both a designated hitter or first baseman or will they simply sign a first baseman and mix their current players around the fill the DH hole? The low-cost options are out there, but will the Rays get one of them signed? No matter what the Rays are planning, though, designated is a huge hole right now that needs to be addressed.