Realignment would bring back DH debate

Next week, the GM and owners’ meetings in Milwaukee will have a number of issues to address, but one of the ones I’m most intrigued by is the sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane. The deal is hung up on a few things, but perhaps the most interesting sticking point is the suggestion that the franchise is worth $50 million less if forced to be moved to the AL West.

The benefit of moving the Astros seems straightforward enough. It would end the unwieldy oddity of baseball’s split between the two leagues, ridding us of both the AL West’s short stack and Bud Selig’s old six-pack in the NL Central. It would also eliminate the stagy quality of interleague play. Instead of lining up interleague for weekends to get top turnout and then calling it a success, AL vs. NL on the schedule necessarily becomes a season-round phenomenon. Don’t be surprised when interleague attendance and ratings drop as these games get welcomed to cold, wet Aprils and irrelevant teams’ Septembers.

There’s plenty to say about what the Astros’ move to the AL would involve, but right now I’m wondering about one element of it: Whether or not moving the Astros to the DH league from the classic-recipe circuit means it’s time to reopen the age-old Designated Hitter debate. If Jim Crane doesn’t want to employ a DH and doesn’t want to bring AL-brand baseball to Houston, maybe it’s time to pop the game’s hood and ask whether or not the DH is an artifact of the ’70s whose time has passed.

First, there’s the irony of the financial side of the proposition. At its foundation, the DH was founded as a money-maker. Across baseball’s long history, runs have reliably equaled attendance, and the American League wanted paying customers. If being forced to be in the DH league is part of what might arguably make the Astros less valuable, that’s a remarkable change within the industry. Admittedly, there are other factors to why Crane sees a move to the AL hurting franchise value, but work with me for a minute.

What if, instead of knocking down the Astros’ sticker price by $50 million, the owners instead tried to accommodate Crane and do away with the DH altogether? The owners can’t do such a thing unilaterally, of course -- they need the agreement of the union. But the new CBA is open and being negotiated at the moment, which means that this might be an item open for discussion. The 2012 season’s schedule is already set with the Astros in the NL, but realignment in 2013 could make for a convenient time to phase out the DH.

The argument from the players’ perspective for keeping the DH has always been about compensation -- in the abstract, they’re protecting the interests of 14 jobs open to well-paid veteran players. But who are today’s DHs? Not Jorge Posada, he just lost his gig in New York. And not Jim Thome -- he risked a move back to the NL. Are we really down to just David Ortiz as the lone example of a DH who lives up to the name? OK, there’s also Billy Butler in Kansas City.

A defense of the DH as a place where great hitters reside and get duly compensated would sound a lot better if we still had Frank Thomas or Edgar Martinez or Harold Baines playing. But we don’t get that; instead, we get the used-up husk of Hideki Matsui, and rest days for regulars. In the past 10 years just 10 players have accumulated more than a thousand plate appearances while DHing 50 percent or more of the time: Papi, Thome, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez, plus Travis Hafner, Jack Cust, Erubiel Durazo, Brad Fullmer, Mike Sweeney and Josh Phelps, or a lot of fine inheritors to the epic legacy of Ron Blomberg.

So other than the Indians’ long-standing regret for overpaying Pronk, maybe we’re back to this really being about David Ortiz’s job, and Butler’s, and perhaps Jesus Montero’s future. And on the other side, there’s a $50 million suggestion that the NL brand’s more valuable, with realignment and whatever goodies the owners might want to toss onto the scales to incentivize the players to get rid of the DH all hanging in the balance.

Not that I think this is likely. Slow news days encourage idle thought. And I’ll admit to a bit of sophistry here: I much prefer the DH and watching people who can hit to watching non-hitters flail away when they’re not just robotically surrendering outs in automatic sac bunt situations. Some call that strategy, but how much strategy can it be when that’s the default move? I like the DH because it keeps pitchers safe(r) from doing things that don’t involve pitching, and because it’s a handy way of letting position players take a break from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup. But I like baseball just fine either way.

The big-picture questions remain, though. If the Astros don’t want to be a DH team, and if being a DH-league franchise is seen as intrinsically less valuable, maybe it’s time to go over why Charlie Finley’s last good idea is still with us for reasons beyond “it’s good for Papi.”

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.