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MLB managers, GMs step up to the plate on DH debate

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What to do with the DH (3:02)

ESPN's David Schoenfield and Eric Karabell discuss what MLB should do about the DH position. (3:02)

PHOENIX -- MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is busy trying to resolve all three domestic violence cases on his agenda. He has a collective bargaining agreement negotiation to oversee, exhibition games in Cuba and other foreign markets on the horizon, pace of game rules to monitor, and middle infielders whose medial collateral ligaments need safeguarding.

If 13 months on the job have taught Manfred anything, it's that certain issues hit closer to home than others. The designated hitter rule, for example, generates a more impassioned debate than MLB's efforts to expand its global reach or make streaming video available on mobile devices in all 30 markets (even if those initiatives have huge long-term financial ramifications).

In January, Manfred made some comments that suggested National League clubs might be warming to the DH. Although he quickly backed off, the frenzied fan response showed how hypothetical debates can rile up the ticket-buying public. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

"I'm a status quo guy on the DH, for two reasons," Manfred said last week in Arizona. "I always thought the debate about the DH was a healthy debate for the industry, in the sense that people are talking about the game. I see that as a good thing.

"More important, since we got rid of the leagues as functioning business entities, they remain really important competitive devices for us. You play within your league up to the World Series, and the principal differentiator between the two leagues is the DH. I would be really reluctant in the age of interleague play to give up that differentiator."

Fans have their opinions, and the commissioner has made it clear where he stands. But where do the people entrusted with roster-building and game management come down on one of the sport's most polarizing debates? ESPN.com surveyed 14 managers and general managers early in spring training, and their comments shed some light on their personal preferences and hopes for where the game is headed.

The most surprising finding in our little endeavor: Almost everyone likes or at least understands the value of the current setup, which includes a designated hitter in the American League, no DH in the NL, and a revolving dynamic based on home park during interleague play. Manfred has a lot of company in the "status quo" club.

"There's so much interleague play now, if you had the designated hitter in the National League, it would just seem like one big league," said Oakland manager Bob Melvin.

How do managers and GMs line up on the topic of the DH? Here's a look:

The pragmatist

Ever notice how proposed approaches always come down to sticking with the current system or introducing the DH to the NL? No one ever suggests eliminating the DH and returning to the pre-1973 baseball order.

Economics obviously factor into the equation. The Yankees have Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann on the roster and need to park one of those hitters in the DH spot every day. And the Angels and Mariners spent a combined $480 million on 10-year contracts for Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano, respectively, with the expectation those players would gravitate more toward DHing as they age.

"I love the National League game. It's pure baseball -- the essence of baseball. It's much more cerebral. I would hate for us to take away all that nuance and just plop a DH in there. Being in the corner of the dugout, I can tell you this: There's a lot more to think about."

Joe Maddon, Chicago Cubs manager

Even as more clubs disdain the $15 million per-year DH and rotate multiple players in and out of the spot, the players' association would obviously resist a change that eliminates high-paying jobs in favor of middle relievers and Willie Bloomquist-Nick Punto types.

"I grew up a National League fan, and I've spent most of my playing career and post-playing career in the National League," Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "I like that you have to think your way through the last three innings of a game. The NL game tends to be a little more of a chess match, and I like that style.

"That being said, I don't know that logically there's a time on the horizon where you're going to be able to unplug the DH in the American League. Contracts are what they are. You sign players for 'X' number of years with the idea they may ultimately be able to drift toward DHing. That gives an advantage to American League clubs in building an offense because they don't have to worry about one player defensively. If in any one season you change that, it changes everything about the way the American League club is built."

An alternate view

Angels manager Mike Scioscia grew up following the Philadelphia Phillies and spent his entire 13-year career as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so his NL sensibilities run deep. But he has spent his entire 2,592-game managerial career playing under AL rules in Anaheim.

"I've always been a fan of pitchers hitting," Scioscia said. "I've come to warm to the DH because I've lived it now for 17 years in the American League. I do think both leagues will eventually come to a point where there's a singular way to play baseball. Unfortunately, I think everybody is going to go to the DH."

Viva la difference

Here's a recurrent theme: Playing under a distinct set of rules is a good thing for the AL and NL because it establishes a line of demarcation that has blurred through the years. Umpires now drift seamlessly between the AL and NL, and the leagues dispensed with presidents after Leonard Coleman and Gene Budig held those roles in 1999. Now that teams commingle daily because of unwieldy 15-team alignments, the DH is the one thing that makes the leagues feel different.

"I kind of like the current structure," Angels general manager Billy Eppler said. "I think it's part of the uniqueness of baseball. We're not basketball that has the exact same court and the same height rims. We're not football that has the exact same look every single time. You can't tell a football field apart. Baseball has character and a uniqueness about it. The qualities of each league are part of that character."

The DH rule has an entrenched history in its 43rd year of existence. Frank Thomas and Paul Molitor made the Hall of Fame while spending healthy chunks of their careers in the role. Edgar Martinez received 43.4 percent of the vote in this year's Hall balloting, and David Ortiz is sure to be a lightning rod for discussion when he appears on the ballot in 2021.

"I'm a baseball traditionalist," Arizona GM Dave Stewart said. "If you ask people who don't watch baseball, 'What's the difference between the American and the National Leagues?' the easiest thing to say is, 'The American League has people that hit for the pitcher -- a designated hitter -- and the National League doesn't.' I like the separation. I think the sport should stay the way it is."

Strategy vs. fan appeal

While Dave Roberts' signature moment came via a 2004 playoff stolen base in a Boston Red Sox uniform, he played 712 of his 832 MLB games in the NL and worked as a coach in San Diego before signing on as the Dodgers' new manager in November. He sees appeal in both setups.

"I like the National League strategy, with the double-switches, and the accountability factor that comes when pitchers throw inside to hitters and then have to step in the box," Roberts said. "On the other side, the DH extends guys' careers. As a pure fan, I like watching David Ortiz take four at-bats. As much as it makes sense to have both leagues doing the same thing, there's also something to them separating themselves."

Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura spent most of his playing career in the AL, but came to appreciate the relevance of bench players during stops with the Mets and Dodgers.

"Guys get to play a little bit longer," Ventura said. "Harold Baines. Edgar Martinez. Jim Thome. Frank Thomas. You have these talents who get to stay around the game a little longer and be productive -- not just take up a roster spot.

"But the argument goes both ways. I enjoy the National League flavor as far as what it means to a team. Your roster has to be more prepared and ready, because those guys get used more. I remember when I was with the White Sox playing against Cleveland. They had a bench that was better than our team, and none of those guys played because their starters were so great. They would sit over there, and it was like they were lying down with their tennis shoes on."

Practical concerns

If you're St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak, imagine your sense of horror when staff ace Adam Wainwright tears an Achilles tendon running down the first-base line and misses almost the entire season. The same applies to Washington GM Mike Rizzo, who had to be nervous when $210 million man Max Scherzer suffered a sprained thumb while batting in April.

AL executives fret just as much during forays to NL parks, when they watch their pitchers bat with a "don't go in the basement" sense of foreboding.

"When I was managing in Arizona, I would have told you the National League style was better. I don't know that I believe that anymore. In the National League, a lot of times your pitching changes are made for you. If you're down in the game, you have to hit. In the American League, you've got to know when your guy is done and when he's not. Period."

Bob Melvin, Oakland A's manager

"As a general manager, I don't like seeing our guys hit when we go to the National League," Oakland's David Forst said. "I spend every minute hoping they don't get hurt. If you're in the National League where guys are more conditioned to do it, it makes more sense. For us, it's a huge disadvantage.

"I grew up a National League fan, but the National League is the only place in the world where pitchers hit. So if you play high school or college baseball or whatever, you play with the DH. If you're asking me, I'd say, 'Have the DH in both leagues.' "

When interleague play was confined to a couple of spots in the schedule, AL teams could hold pitcher batting practice en masse to prepare. Now that it's sprinkled throughout the schedule, more thought has to go into maintaining a state of readiness -- and disaster avoidance.

"We start probably two to three weeks before a projected start with a guy to get him introduced to bunting or swinging easy," Scioscia said. "There's more risk [of injury] because we're adding something that's not normal. You don't want pitchers swinging all year for what might be one start in a National League park. You just try to get them as proficient as you can."

Who has it tougher?

Joe Maddon spent 12 years as a coach with the Angels and made his mark as a manager in Tampa Bay. But he's more in his element in the NL, with all that opportunity for outside-the-box thinking. Cubs chat boards are already debating whether Maddon will or should hit shortstop Addison Russell in the ninth spot in the order this season.

"I love the National League game," Maddon said. "It's pure baseball -- the essence of baseball. It's much more cerebral. I would hate for us to take away all that nuance and just plop a DH in there. Being in the corner of the dugout, I can tell you this: There's a lot more to think about."

Understandably, AL managers take issue with the notion that they're largely superfluous during games.

"When I was managing in Arizona, I would have told you the National League style was better," Melvin said. "I don't know that I believe that anymore. In the National League, a lot of times your pitching changes are made for you. If you're down in the game, you have to hit. In the American League, you've got to know when your guy is done and when he's not. Period."

The final arbiters

Complications from distinct sets of rules become readily apparent in the World Series, when managers are forced to make strange and difficult lineup decisions. Should Kansas City manager Ned Yost give some thought to using DH Kendrys Morales at first base and playing Eric Hosmer in right field when the Series shifts from Kauffman Stadium to Citi Field? Conversely, Mets manager Terry Collins had to go with Kelly Johnson and Michael Conforto at DH in the first two games of last year's Fall Classic.

"I like the National League strategy, with the double-switches, and the accountability factor that comes when pitchers throw inside to hitters and then have to step in the box. On the other side, the DH extends guys' careers. As a pure fan, I like watching David Ortiz take four at-bats. As much as it makes sense to have both leagues doing the same thing, there's also something to them separating themselves."

Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers manager

San Francisco's Bruce Bochy is the acknowledged master of adjusting on the fly in October. In the Giants' 2012 World Series sweep of Detroit, Bochy used Hector Sanchez and Ryan Theriot as designated hitters during the Comerica Park portion of the program. His options weren't exactly plentiful.

That said, the purist and traditionalist in Bochy enjoys the NL style too much to embrace a universal DH.

"I like the strategy in the National League game," Bochy said. "Some things are forced on you. And I appreciate a pitcher who can help himself as an athlete, maybe getting a bunt down or getting a base hit or running the bases well. I know people don't pay to see the pitcher do that, but I appreciate having a [Madison] Bumgarner on the roster. It would be sad for guys like me who like managing with the pitcher hitting to go full-time to a DH."

Bochy can take solace in knowing that the big boss on 245 Park Avenue in New York shares that opinion. For the foreseeable future, baseball's two leagues will alternately argue, adapt and embrace the on-field feature that most distinguishes them from each other.