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Since the introduction of the designated hitter, in 1973 (the rule change was put in place to boost American League scoring and attendance), the position has served mostly as a repository for old war horses such as Baines, Hal McRae, Don Baylor, Paul Molitor, Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas—premier hitters who had lost a step in the field, or didn't have one to start with. Until very recently the DH was a premium offensive position. In 2006 AL teams received an average of 28 home runs and a .469 slugging percentage from their DHs, making it the highest-producing position. The designated hitter was also typically the game's highest-paid player, earning an average of $8.5 million in 2007, nearly $3 million more than the next-highest-compensated position, third base.
But last year, as player salaries reached unprecedented levels, DHs made less ($7.4 million) than both first and third basemen. Says Cust, who has been a DH since he was pegged as a below-average fielder early in his career, "My agent told me that if I could just go to a National League team and play for a full year and not even hit much, maybe 18 or 20 [home runs] and .270, then I'd make more money than hitting 30 home runs [as a DH] in the American League."
As baseball moves further from the steroid era, teams continue to emphasize pitching and defense and building around younger, cheaper, more well-rounded players. Chicks may still dig the long ball, but teams no longer do, at least not as much as they used to. "The aging curve got so out of whack with steroids, you now suddenly no longer have guys late in their careers who are capable of doing what they used to do," says an American League general manager. "Power doesn't age well. There are still guys who can give you good power, like an Ortiz or Guerrero. The problem is teams now want guys who play both sides of the ball. If your DH doesn't hit, he doesn't give you any other value, and you're stuck."
The slot in the lineup has become a time-share that allows managers to play matchups and keep their stars fresh. "It's basically turned into a utility position," says Baines. Last year the Rays won the AL East with their DHs batting .239 with a .323 on-base percentage and 17 homers, with only the light-hitting Willy Aybar logging more than 90 at bats at the position. (Aybar, 28, is currently jobless and out of the game.) "Having flexibility in the lineup is huge," says Dombrowski, whose Tigers will slot catcher and new free-agent acquisition Victor Martinez at DH but will also use the position to give outfielder Magglio Ordoñez and first baseman Miguel Cabrera days off from the field. "Victor can also catch for us, and that frees up a spot for other guys. Magglio is 37; you're just not going to play him on an everyday basis out there. But you want to keep his bat in the lineup. We can keep Cabrera fresh without having to sit him, either."
Only a few teams are now willing to invest in a traditional DH. The Red Sox picked up Ortiz's $12.5 million option after the Boston icon returned from the dead to hit 32 home runs last season. But paying top dollar for a DH has too much risk for teams that can't afford to miss when they sign a high-priced player—the Indians inked Travis Hafner to a four-year, $57 million extension in 2007, and at this point "they would do anything to unload him," says an AL general manager. "A contract like that can sink your team if you're not the Yankees or Red Sox."
The White Sox are taking a big gamble on Dunn, whose new deal is the second largest ever given to a DH (after Hafner's). With the Chicago DH platoon among the worst in the American League last year (.247, .396 slugging and 18 homers), the White Sox stand to benefit from a big increase in production. Dunn is one of the game's premier home run hitters—only Albert Pujols has hit more since 2004—and fans of the Pale Hose have reason to be salivating over the mere thought of what Dunn can do at U.S. Cellular Field, the most home-run-friendly ballpark in baseball. Still, did the White Sox pay too much for a player who will be 34 in the final year of his contract? "There's still nothing wrong with a guy who hits 35 home runs," says an AL executive. "But paying top dollar for a guy that just does that one thing? Those days are probably over. Maybe if Dunn has a few MVP-type seasons in Chicago, that will change people's minds. I think there's a lot of interest in seeing how that turns out."
There are never any guarantees that a player will make an easy adjustment to DH—everyone from Dave Winfield to Jason Giambi to Pat Burrell has struggled with making the transition. Dunn has gone to his new first base coach for advice, though Baines says he doesn't have much wisdom to offer. "I tell him that every player is different," he says. "I was on a one-year contract every year in the last part of my career, and I didn't have time to fail. So I really had to study my craft to be successful." He adds, "I always thought I could pick up something, from a pitcher or how the catcher is calling the game. When you don't have to worry about defense, you can really study the craft."
Even in retirement Baines's legacy is affected by the changing perception of his longtime position: In January he was dropped from the Hall of Fame ballot when he failed to receive 5% of the vote. (With 1,628 career RBIs, Baines has the second most, after Rafael Palmeiro, among players eligible for the Hall who have not been inducted.) Edgar Martinez fared better, but he still received just 32.9%, far short of the 75% needed for election. Martinez, who spent the last 10 seasons of his career as Seattle's DH, is one of 26 players in history with a career OBP higher than .400 and a slugging percentage better than .500 (minimum of 5,000 plate appearances).
"[The DH] has been a position for over 30 years, so why not recognize it as one?" asks Baines. "I'm not saying I'm a Hall of Famer, but just recognize it as a position. Someone should be there. I know if it were up to the National League, they'd get rid of it. But if you want to see some of the great hitters continue to hit, you better keep it around."
The position itself isn't going anywhere anytime soon, even though baseball purists would like nothing more than to watch it die. No one, however, knows whether the everyday DH in the Harold Baines mold has any place in the game's future. The fate of the DH could very well rest with baseball's remaining few—with players such as Dunn, Ramirez, Ortiz and Guerrero. "Once you're pegged as a DH, it seems like you're always one," says Cust, who, once again, is playing for a new contract. "The game has changed a lot, and that's unfortunate for guys like me. But you kind of just have to accept that it may never go back to what it once was."