HomeTrending MLB NewsPreviewing The 2023-24 Free Agent Class: Designated Hitter

Previewing The 2023-24 Free Agent Class: Designated Hitter

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Over the past week, we’ve gone around the diamond with looks at the upcoming free agent class. We round out the offensive players with a look at the designated hitters.

It is obviously headlined by the two-way star who is likely to break the all-time contract record. There are a handful of accomplished veteran hitters below the market’s top free agent. Any position player can serve as the DH, of course. A number of players from the corner outfield or first base groups will see time there to give them respites from the field.

Since we’ve covered the bulk of those players in previous position previews, we’ll limit the scope of the DH class. This looks solely at players who have either tallied 200+ plate appearances as a designated hitter or taken 100+ trips to the dish while starting more games at DH than at any other position.

Note: only players who have been on an MLB roster in 2023 are included. Ages listed are for the 2024 season.

Top of the Class

Ohtani is the most fascinating free agent case in recent memory, perhaps ever. He’s a top five hitter, perhaps on his way to a second MVP award in three seasons thanks to a .304/.412/.654 batting line with an AL-leading 44 home runs. He’s a .277/.378/.585 hitter since the start of 2021. Of the 93 batters with 1500+ plate appearances in that time, Ohtani ranks eighth in on-base percentage and trails only Aaron Judge in slugging.

Judge’s $360MM contract with the Yankees stands as the largest free agent guarantee in league history. Ohtani seems likely to top it — potentially by a wide margin. He’s a slightly lesser offensive player but is more than a year younger than Judge was last offseason and, of course, has the potential to make an impact on the other side of the ball. Ohtani probably won’t pitch until 2025 after this week’s elbow surgery, but there’s no question he’ll try to get back on the mound once his elbow heals. While there’ll be some trepidation about his arm health after a second major procedure within the last five years, there’s a chance of him returning as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in the second season of the contract.

Ohtani’s elbow injury isn’t expected to affect his availability for 2024 as a hitter. He’ll be a strict DH for the first season of the deal, an impact power presence in the middle of a lineup. By the ’25 campaign, he’ll again be the highest-upside player in the sport.

Everyday Options

Garver has mashed his way from backup catcher in Texas to primary DH. The right-handed hitter has connected on 18 home runs and owns a .268/.370/.513 slash across 309 plate appearances. Bruce Bochy has penciled him in as the DH on 47 occasions compared to 27 starts behind the dish.

This isn’t out of nowhere. Garver popped 31 homers in 93 games for the Twins back in 2019 and hit .256/.358/.517 over 68 contests two seasons ago. When healthy, he’s an excellent offensive player. Garver has had trouble staying on the field, spending some time on the injured list in five consecutive seasons. He lost most of last year to a flexor injury that required surgery and has impacted his ability to throw. At age 33, it’s fair to wonder whether he can hold up as a team’s No. 1 catcher. Yet in the role he’s playing for Texas — a primary DH who can take occasional starts behind the plate — he’s a strong contributor.

Acquired from the Jays in the Gabriel Moreno/Daulton Varsho swap, Gurriel is batting .263/.313/.475 with 24 homers across 560 plate appearances. It’s a little below the .285/.329/.468 career mark he carried into the season, but it’s broadly in line with his overall track record. Gurriel makes a lot of contact and has 20-plus homer power while rarely taking walks to keep his on-base percentage around the league-average mark.

He’s a good but not elite offensive performer who is limited to left field or DH after moonlighting as an infielder early in his career. Unlike a number of players on this list, Gurriel can handle an everyday workload in the corner outfield. Public metrics are divided on his effectiveness — DRS rates him as an excellent left fielder, while Statcast pegs him a little below average — but he has topped 700 innings in each of the past three seasons. The D-Backs’ collection of plus defensive outfielders has allowed them to deploy Gurriel as a DH 49 times, easily a career high.

Martinez signed with the Dodgers on a $10MM free agent contract. It was a surprisingly light sum coming off a .274/.341/.448 platform season with the Red Sox. Martinez indicated he took less money than he could’ve gotten elsewhere to join an excellent L.A. roster and reunite with hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc.

It’s hard to argue with the results. Martinez has popped 30 homers and owns a .271/.325/.570 line through 442 plate appearances. A career-worst 30.8% strikeout rate is somewhat alarming, though it’s tolerable so long as Martinez is making this kind of power impact. By measure of wRC+, this has been Martinez’s best offensive season since 2019. He should field multi-year offers this winter.

McCutchen returned to Pittsburgh last winter as a fan favorite and veteran presence for a young core. He’s still a quality on-field contributor as well, hitting .256/.378/.397 across 473 plate appearances. The Bucs kept him mostly at DH, starting him in right field on just seven occasions. While McCutchen doesn’t have the same power he did at his peak, he still has impeccable plate discipline and serves as a consistent on-base presence in the middle of the order.

It’s highly likely Cutch will be back in the Steel City in 2024. He expressed a desire to finish his career with the Pirates when he signed there last winter. The team never seemed to consider trading him despite being out of contention at the deadline. McCutchen’s return season was cut short by a partial tear in his left Achilles. General manager Ben Cherington told reporters last week that the sides will reengage on talks about a new contract once the offseason begins.

Platoon Possibilities

Belt inked a $9.3MM free agent deal with the Blue Jays last offseason. He was coming off a middling season in his final year as a Giant that had been plagued by knee issues that required surgical repair. The Jays rolled the dice on a rebound and have been rewarded with a strong performance from the 13-year veteran.

The lefty slugger is hitting .251/.369/.470 with 16 longballs through 382 trips to the plate. While he’s striking out at a career-worst 35.1% clip, he’s walking over 15% of the time and hitting the ball with authority. The Jays have barely given him looks against left-handed pitching. He’s a “three true outcomes” platoon bat who is still a middle-of-the-order presence against right-handed starters.

The Rockies and Blackmon have expressed mutual interest in a reunion. That seems the likeliest course of action, though the career-long Rockie indicated he wouldn’t be opposed to going elsewhere if Colorado didn’t bring him back. Blackmon is limited to DH or right field at this point.

He’s still an effective hitter, posting a .284/.372/.444 slash with seven home runs in 376 plate appearances. Blackmon still holds his own against left-handed pitching, so he’s not a prototypical platoon bat. Teams could shield him from southpaws as a means of keeping his workload in check, though. Blackmon won’t come close to the $15MM salary he made this season, but he should get a one-year deal for a 14th big league campaign.

Pederson returned to the Giants upon accepting a qualifying offer last winter. He has again been an above-average hitter, but his offense is well down from last year’s career showing. Pederson owns a .245/.353/.434 line with 15 homers through 400 trips to the plate. That includes 52 poor plate appearances versus lefties; he’s hitting .253/.356/.456 with a strong 12.4% walk rate when holding the platoon advantage.

He has never been a threat against left-handed pitching and he’s a well below-average defender when asked to man the corner outfield. It’s a limited profile, but Pederson is very good at the thing he’s asked to do most often: hitting right-handed pitching.

Depth Types

Calhoun got into 44 games for the Yankees, hitting .239/.309/.403 across 149 trips to the plate. He elected free agency after clearing outright waivers last month.

Choi was an above-average hitter for the Rays from 2019-22. He has had a difficult platform year, limited to 100 plate appearances by an Achilles injury, a ribcage strain and a Lisfranc injury in his right foot. Choi has hit .170/.250/.420 with a 32% strikeout rate in 33 contests divided between Pittsburgh and San Diego.

The Padres took a $1MM flier on Cruz last winter, hoping that his down 2022 campaign could be attributable to an eye issue that required corrective vision surgery. The seven-time All-Star was released just before the All-Star Break after hitting .245/.283/.399 in 45 games. Cruz was an elite hitter into his 40s but has slumped to a .234/.300/.376 line in just under 900 plate appearances since being dealt from the Twins to the Rays at the ’21 trade deadline. He’d need to take a minor league deal if he wants to continue playing.

Miller’s two-year free agent deal with Texas didn’t work out. He hit .212/.282/.324 overall, including a .214/.328/.339 slash in 27 contests this season. A left hamstring strain ended his regular season. He could technically return for a playoff run but probably wouldn’t crack the postseason roster regardless. Miller has been a productive bat-first utility option in the past, but he’s in minor league deal territory at this point.

Pollock’s offensive productivity has collapsed over the past two seasons. He still hit left-handed pitching well a season ago but didn’t produce against pitchers of either handedness in 2023. Pollock compiled a .165/.215/.318 line in 54 contests between the Mariners and Giants and was released by San Francisco three weeks ago.

Winker once looked like an elite platoon option, mashing right-handed pitching for the Reds over his first four-plus seasons. He has never been a good defender, though, and his power has evaporated over the last two years. Winker hit .219/.344/.344 for the Mariners in 2022 and has mustered only a .199/.320/.247 slash in 61 games for the Brewers this summer. He has been out since late July because of back spasms. Winker might still find a major league deal from a club hoping for a rebound, but he’ll hit free agency coming off the worst season of his career.

Player Options

Bell has a $16.5MM player option for next year. The switch-hitting first baseman/DH probably hasn’t found enough offensive consistency to pass on that sum. He’s hitting .242/.318/.413 with 21 homers in 583 trips to the plate between the Guardians and Marlins. Bell has been better for the Fish than he was with Cleveland — thanks largely to an August power barrage — but his production has dropped again this month.

He’s hitting .233/.282/.370 since the start of September. His ground-ball rate has skyrocketed to a lofty 55.6% clip. Bell has intermittently tapped into his massive raw power upside during his career. He just hasn’t consistently shown the ability to keep the ball off the ground for extended stretches.

Carpenter is going to accept a $5.5MM player option for next season. He’s hitting .176/.322/.319 with five homers through 237 plate appearances and has had extended stretches without any game action for San Diego. The Padres hoped he’d replicate last year’s resurgent small-sample offensive showing with the Yankees. That hasn’t come to pass.

Soler has had a strong second season with the Marlins. After stumbling to a .207/.295/.400 line in the first season of a three-year free agent deal, he carries a .244/.336/.518 slash with 36 longballs through 550 plate appearances this year. He’s going to decline a $13MM player option in search of a multi-year pact as a result.

A well below-average defensive outfielder, Soler has only gotten 233 2/3 innings of right field work this season. He’s miscast as an everyday outfielder and ideally suited for primary DH work. Soler has the ability to carry a lineup when he’s going well, combining strong walk rates with top-of-the-scale power potential. He’s a streaky hitter but has 40-plus homer pop, as he has shown this season.

Nearing his 39th birthday, Turner has logged a career-high 93 starts at designated hitter. That’s partially attributable to the Red Sox having Triston Casas and Rafael Devers as their corner infield tandem, though it’s also fair to presume Turner might now spend the bulk of his time as a DH.

Turner hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down offensively, however. He has connected on 23 home runs in 596 trips to the plate, running a well above-average .280/.351/.467 batting line. His modest 16.8% strikeout rate is right where it sat over his final four seasons as a Dodger, while he’s walking at an average 8.6% clip. The bulk of his power impact has come against left-handed pitching this season, but Turner still owns a quality .278/.346/.449 mark versus right-handers since the beginning of 2022. His $13.4MM player option comes with a hefty $6.7MM buyout. He should easily surpass the $6.7MM difference on the open market, making this a straightforward call to decline the option.

Note: Miguel Cabrera will technically become a free agent once the Tigers decline an option for 2024. He has been excluded from this list after announcing his impending retirement.

Previous installments: catcherfirst basesecond basethird baseshortstop, corner outfield, center field

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