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2023 Positional Preview: The DH Is Dead! Long Live The DH!

It’s been a long time, getting from there to here

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s 2023 Season Preview! Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Positional Preview Series, in which we do a deep dive on each positional group. Let’s get things started at third base.

* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.

The Red Sox signed David Ortiz on January 22, 2003. Just over twenty years ago. And he was, essentially, the designated hitter (he’s also a race car driver) until the end of 2016. And things were good. In 2017. The Sox followed many teams around the league in not having a David Ortiz or a Travis Hafner or a Jason Giambi. A dedicated DH had become something of a thing of the past across baseball.

Anchored by Hanley Ramirez (108 games) and Chris Young (26 games) the DH slot in 2017 was used to rest guys and rotate at bats for more than the occasional game in a National League park back when the universal designated hitter did not exist. Ramirez and Young alone were worth a combined -0.8 fWAR and if you remember the Hanley 2.0 era it wasn’t great.

And so, J.D. Martinez was brought in, and, once again, things were good. Martinez hit .292/.363/.526 over his five years in Boston and restored the DH to its former glory. With the team and player parting ways in the offseason it looked as though the Sox would go back to a rotating designated hitter. The biggest bat was Rafael Devers and he’s coming off a great defensive season at third base, reducing anxiety about his need to move to the opposite corner any time soon. Bobby Dalbec lost his bat at the end of 2021 and is still looking for it. Who would make sense to take over at DH more than just using it for rest?

Enter Justin Turner.

The Starter - Justin Turner

Famous for his red beard, powerful bat, and transformation from bust to All Star as soon as he was freed from the New York Mets, Justin Turner has anchored third base for the Los Angeles Dodgers the last nine years. From his arrival in 2014 through the 2021 season third base was his home, with a spattering of time at DH and the other infield positions as the situation arose. Earlier in his career this meant a little time at shortstop and later it meant first base.

Because he came up through the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system and then spent time with the Mets, Turner didn’t even arrive in Los Angeles until his age 29 season. He’s the definition of a late bloomer. In the three seasons preceding his move to the West Coast, Turner put up a wRC+ of 96, 98, and 99. Then 158 for his first year in Dodger blue.

In his prime LA years he was striking out about 14% of the time and walking 10% with a batting average of .300 or better. He had four seasons with the OBP north of .400 (granted, one was 2020 so a small asterisk on that). In another four seasons (2020 not among them), Turner hit more than 20 home runs. In fact, as recently as 2021 his home run total was 27. Until 2022 he had just one season in LA (the shortened 2020) that was worth less than 3.4 fWAR.

Although Tristan Casas is likely penciled into the starting job at first base, he’s a rookie, doesn’t have much MLB experience, and has an little bit of an injury history, presumably Justin Turner won’t be in a time share. He’ll be manning the DH spot.

Now entering his age-38 season, Turner will again have to prove himself. While his career in Los Angeles was exemplary, 2022 might be the beginning of the end. Some players fall apart overnight. Some slowly over a few seasons. Some have a down year and then never really put things back together. However, his strikeout and walk rates were still close to his 2021 season. And after missing a little time at the end of July and beginning of August he seemed fully back to his normal self while slashing 319/.384/.503 compared to a .257/.332/.405 line over the season’s first four months.

Signed to a one-year deal with a player option, Turner isn’t the new Big Papi or J.D. Martinez. But if he’s the DH and a mentor to the infielders for a season or two, Chaim Bloom and crew can find the next long term flag bearer for the position.

The Bench and Minor League Depth

What can we say here? If Turner is healthy he’s probably getting the bulk of the playing time at designated hitter. In an odd twist of fate he’s likely to play third base on days when Rafael Devers gets a little rest and takes off fielding for a start here and there. Depending on the state of Bobby Dalbec, Turner will likely spell Casas at first base as well. Expect everyone to get some time freed from defense. Turner missed a bit of time in 2018 but he’s usually good for 126 games or more. Once again, he played in 151 just two years ago. Health is a funny thing. Maybe the added DH time will actually raise his play total a bit?

It’s always possible that Trevor Story is back but not ready to throw while Casas is in a slump a Turner plays a bit more first base while Story works his way back from surgery.

Divisional Rankings

  1. George Springer - Toronto Blue Jays
  2. Justin Turner - Boston Red Sox
  3. Giancarlo Stanton - New York Yankees
  4. Josh Lester - Baltimore Orioles
  5. Harold Ramírez - Tampa Bay Rays

ZiPS sprinkles three Blue Jays across this list with Springer projected to earn the most fWAR, so we’re only counting him as the starter.

With ZiPS projecting a .285/.363/.442 line worth 3.2 fWAR, Turner should be a fine addition to the 2023 Red Sox lineup.

Josh Lester only played in two games last season for Baltimore but the DHs on the depth chart that lists Anthony Santander, Adley Rutschman, and Ryan Mountcastle at their defensive positions.

Similarly, Randy Arozarena appeared at DH in 27 games last year and Ramirez in 52. Expect the Rays to continue mixing up the DH position more than most of these other teams.