As we read the tea leaves minutes after we confirmed the news that Dominic Smith was signing with the Washington Nationals, our first instinct was to tweet that Joey Meneses was going to play left field — thinking Smith to first base. But some of the beat writers were putting it out there that Smith could be the starting left fielder. Sorry, but after watching enough of Smith playing the outfield against the Nats, I was having Josh Willingham flashbacks (no offense to Josh). In 2021, with only 190 chances in left field, Smith was an horrific -10 OAA, and yes, that was the worst in the Majors and Smith was only a part-time player there. He was only playing LF because first base was taken by Pete Alonso. Look, this Nats’ team has had to endure enough poor decisions by management over the years like Luis Garcia at shortstop last year, but if you give two ####s about winning, you have to follow the analytics and the eye test here.
Thankfully, we do not have to wait for Spring Training to have our answer as Smith quickly made the point on a media ZOOM call last night that he was signed by general manager Mike Rizzo to play first base. Whew, good news to get that cleared up quickly.
While Meneses to left field is a working theory, it could certainly be the RH outfielder Alex Call in a starting role or some other new acquisition or even Stone Garrett. Of note, Call has extreme reverse splits hitting right-handed pitchers 258 points of OPS higher than against lefties. Of course those numbers are in a small sample size as Call made his MLB debut last year. His .952 OPS in just 63 plate appearances against RHPs for the Nats doesn’t give us enough data. If he could do that for a full year, he would be an All-Star. The issue is the Nats gave him 52 PAs against lefty pitchers and Call hit below Mendoza at .188. Garrett also bats righty and his splits are better against lefties where he shined at .304/.313/.565 with a .878 OPS in 51 plate appearances.
What we do not know is what Rizzo or manager Dave Martinez think about their left field candidates or whether they go the free agent route to David Peralta who is one of the best fielding left fielders per Statcast. Peralta is a lefty batter who struggled to an overall .652 OPS last year with Tampa after he was traded there. He has really become more of a platoon player as he hits RHPs much better over his career.
Does Rizzo pair back up the former Diamondback teammates of Garrett and Peralta for a left field platoon and have Meneses as the primary DH? That would give the Nats potential Gold Glove defense with Peralta who won the award in 2019 and Victor Robles has been a Gold Glove finalist in center field. Lane Thomas is learning right field and was slightly below league average in his defense last year.
The issue with going for the best defense is that it might hinder the team on offense. Having the proper balance is a key. For instance Adam Duvall is also a free agent, and he won the Gold Glove in 2021 but went through an injury riddled season last year and only batted .213 with a .677 OPS. But he did have an .844 OPS against left-handed pitchers last year. AJ Pollock has a Gold Glove too, and his is from 2015. FanGraphs projects that Pollock will just beat out Peralta in WAR at 1.1 to 1.0. They have Duvall projected at 0.4. It is clear to me, that on paper, adding one of these veteran outfielders would improve this roster over internal options. It is also fair to mention that all three of the outfield free agents aforementioned are 34 years or older with recent injury histories.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution for left field, and several people feel that the team could even play minor leaguer Jake Alu out there. The left-handed batter has played top defense at third base, but has also played left field and second base. He is just another idea out there as we should get to see him in some Spring Training games this year.
As of now, it looks like the infield is set with Jeimer Candelario at third base, CJ Abrams at shortstop, Garcia at second base, and Smith at first base. The issue — if we can be brutally honest is that all four of those players struggled to get on-base last year. That quartet averaged .239 in batting average in 2022 with an awful .287 OBP and a .625 OPS. The shining star in that group was Garcia who was above that average across the board. This is where the greatest risk is for the 2023 lineup that Rizzo and Martinez have to hope that while neutralizing the new shift rules that Candelario and Smith return to form, and Abrams and Garcia progress as baseball players.
Added to all of this, the team is hoping that Meneses’ 56-game sample size from last year is legitimate. If Meneses has a deep sophomore slump, this lineup could be in trouble. Robles has been in a 5-year offensive slide where his OPS for the first time finished below .600 at .584. Normally that earns you a DFA, but the team is counting on a rebound just because they think he has to improve. Right?
This offense has more -ifs- than that song by Bread. Rizzo always says to look at the back of the baseball card. Well, that’s what we did, and it ain’t pretty. But it worked last year for Rizzo shopping in the bargain bin when he plucked Meneses and Call, but not with Maikel Franco or Cesar Hernandez. Ironically, the team’s largest expenditure last year was $15 million for Nelson Cruz, and he was the worst of them all.
The truth is that you usually “hit” on half of your signings. Rizzo has to hope he does better than 50 percent. He needs to hit on most of these new acquisitions to have a successful 2023 season. If nothing else, the defense on paper looks like it will be better than average, and that will help the starting pitchers.
Here is what a Nats lineup and roster could look like today:
Starting pitchers (5): Cade Cavalli, Patrick Corbin, MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, Trevor Williams
Relief pitchers (8): Sean Doolittle (NRI), Carl Edwards Jr., Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Andres Machado, Erasmo Ramirez, Mason Thompson, Thad Ward
Catchers (2): Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams
Infielders (7): CJ Abrams, Jeimer Candelario, Luis García, Dominic Smith, Ildemaro Vargas, Matt Adams (NRI), and Michael Chavis (NRI) -or- Jake Alu
Outfielders (4): Joey Meneses, Victor Robles, Lane Thomas, Alex Call
Right now it looks like eight of the positions are set with the opening in left field or designated hitter. Meneses will fill one of the spots just leaving one spot left to fill. That could come via a new acquisition or internally. Garrett could certainly compete with Michael Chavis, Matt Adams, and Alu for the final spot. Also Carter Kieboom will be in the mix but with Candelario all but assured the third base spot, Kieboom should start in Triple-A. The advantage that Garrett and Alu have is that both are on the 40-man roster. While the team could add that LF to the roster, they would also like to add another starter per a source — but don’t be surprised if that starter is on a minor league deal. Think of someone like Anibal Sanchez.
We are a little over 40-days from pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training camp in West Palm Beach and a lot can change over the remainder of the offseason and nearly 45 days of Spring Training.