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Designated hitters: Why I Hate the Platoon

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At 8 PM on April 4th, when Josh Beckett took the mound, there were several big questions on the mind of most every Red Sox fan.  Two of the big ones were

How is David Ortiz going to perform this year?

and

What role is Mike Lowell going to actually be able to serve on this Red Sox team?

Pretty quickly (by my count, about 3 Ortiz at-bats), in the minds of most Red Sox fans, this question was solved.  Half seemed to think that Ortiz should be dropped immediately, that he was completely worthless and Mike Lowell should take over as DH.  Another decent portion thought that while Ortiz needed to be given a chance, he should not be playing against left-handed batters and that honor should be given to Mike Lowell.  Eventually, Francona bought into this strategy, and ever since, Lowell has been the sole DH against left-handed pitchers.

There is quite a bit of merit to this strategy- Lowell has recently hit left-handers significantly better than Ortiz does, plus, in order to have any kind of trade value at all, Lowell needs to be getting at bats somewhere.  Since neither beloved Youk or defensive wunderkind Beltre seemed likely to be sitting too often in favor of the creaky defense Lowell seemed to offer, DH was really the spot that made sense to slot him in.

But personally, I'm still not convinced.

And before I go into this, let me preface it by saying sure, I'm biased.  I've watched Ortiz for years and seen what he has done for the club.  I've seen him win countless games and perform what seemed to be impossible (plus his grill is awesome...).  In my mind, part of what I'm seeing is the old Papi, and I realize that he is probably never going to be that again, but I really do truly believe that sticking him at DH full-time is the best solution for the club at the moment, and here is why-

Basically, there is no way that we can carry out the year with 2 DH's on the roster.  Our bench is already handcuffed by it.  Essentially, the only reason I can see why we have Hall spreading his sub-mediocrity all over the field is that we need both a right-handed outfielder on the bench and someone that can play in the infield.  Reasonably, if we had two bench spots, we could easily bring in people who could probably both field (I know what UZR says, but Hall has looked lost to me everywhere but LF) and hit better than Hall. He is useful strictly because of his versatility.

This problem is obviously going to get aggravated over the course of the year.  As time goes on, more players will experience some sort of injury and will need more rest.  We have very few adequate replacements.  So, at least one of these guys is going to have to go.

Now, whichever one we send off, unless it is both at once, the other is presumably going to have to take over the full-time DH job.  If it is Lowell, OK, we've seen over the course of his career that he can hit about equally against both lefties and righties.  Historically, he is a little better against lefties, but isn't wowing the world against either.  Ortiz has certainly crushed righties much more effectively than lefties.  The obvious choice from that seems to be that Lowell should just be the full-time DH.

The problem with this, in my mind is that in this division, with this team we have built, even if Lowell can keep up his numbers, a DH with a career OPS of .810 and less speed than Sean Casey on stilts is just not going to cut it.  He always had a good (not exceptional, but very good) bat for a quality third baseman, but it just doesn't translate as well as a designated hitter.  It's the same as the way that Victor Martinez' .832 OPS would earn him $15 million a year if he was a quality catcher, but only a fraction of that if he has to move to first base.

Now Ortiz, obviously is much less of a given.  He could continue to straddle the Mendoza line, or he could well be popping up a month earlier than he did last year and become the hitter he was last summer.  It's a risk.  He certainly has a lower floor as a hitter than Lowell, but he also has a much higher ceiling.  He has potential to be a black hole in the lineup, but, unlike Lowell, he also has the potential to come out of this and be a top-notch designated hitter.  So far in May, he has had very few at bats, but has looked much better in them- hitting to the tune of .280/.321/.680 with 3 homers in just 28 plate appearances.  Now obviously, that's a small sample size, and we can't reasonably expect the slugging to continue at quite that level- but his BABIP looks about on par with what we'd expect for the line drives he's been hitting, and we have to think that if he does continue to hit more, he's going to get challenged less and walked more.  A very small sample, so we can't take it out of context, but it shows that he is bringing a bat to the plate these days.

In the time being, I feel that he not only needs to see at bats, but the coaching staff needs to see him against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers to evaluate whether he will be able to have a chance of effectively doing this job.  At this moment, it looks to me like this platoon is saying to both of them "if you're wearing a red sox uniform in October, it's gonna be while you're sitting on the couch watching us in the playoffs."  I personally think Ortiz, as he's heating up, should be out there everyday, but I'd rather have either one or the other than both.

I think that probably, by the end of the year, someone else will be batting in the Designated Hitter spot.  Essentially, my thought is that while Ortiz has a chance of being able to effectively hit, Lowell simply will not provide the production the Sox require out of a DH, so Ortiz should be given the chance.  If he fails, then they will need to find another solution, but in my mind, over the course of the season, there is no sense in pretending that this platoon is going to be working out.  In the short term, the platoon may help win an extra game or two, but in the long run, I think it hurts the team because we are not fully aware of exactly what we have.