Welcome to the 2023 Talk Nats season positional preview! Between now and Opening Day, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about a particular position, eventually covering every spot on the diamond. Below is a deep dive into the first base position. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section, and as always, Go Nats!
The Starter – Dominic Smith
The Nationals had an interesting decision to make at first base when they signed first baseman Dominic Smith over the offseason. Although Smith has had an inconsistent career, he will bring veteran experience to first base. Per reports, Smith will be guaranteed $2 million and could make an additional $2 million in incentives.
Washington had one of the best hitters late in the 2022 season as Joey Meneses went on a historic run, hitting .324/.367/.563/.930 in 56 games. Although the sample size is small, it’s noteworthy that Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez values Meneses too as a first baseman. He has also said Meneses could play left field, and of course designated hitter.
Before the Nationals signed Smith, Martinez had spoken at the winter meetings, “I would like to keep Joey at first base, and the days that he doesn’t [play first base], D.H. him to give him a breather,” Martinez said.
Although the projected starter is Dominic Smith, it should be noted that Meneses could get some work at first base.
“They want me to come in and play first base,” Smith said when his deal became official. “And obviously just share my knowledge of the game and help some of the younger guys get over the kind of speed bumps I’ve had in my career. I think I can share my knowledge. I’m just excited for the opportunity. I know my ability and what I can do out there.”
New York drafted the former Met in the 1st round during the 2013 draft. Smith worked his way to the Majors, where he debuted in 2017. During his tenure in New York, Smith was versatile in playing first base and left field, as Pete Alonso was the primary first baseman.
The Mets DFA’d the veteran in November after an underwhelming 2022 campaign. Smith posted career-low numbers last season as he hit .194/.276/.284 with no homers in 152 plate appearances. The left-hander finished 13th in the NL MVP race during the 2019 season. Smith played 89 games and slashed .282/.355/.525 during his career year.
Although the former first-round draft picks never settled into a starting role for the Mets, the hope is Smith could provide value for the Nationals. Additionally, a change of scenery could help Smith return to his 2019 self.
Bench players – Joey Meneses, Jeimer Candelario, Riley Adams, Matt Adams*
* – May not start the season on the 40-man roster
After spending 11 years in the Minor leagues, Meneses was called up to the Show after the Nationals traded away star outfielder Juan Soto and first basemen Josh Bell to the Padres. Meneses shattered records; his performance was one of the greatest stories last season. Although Meneses only played in 56 games, he posted an impressive 165 OPS+. Additionally, through 56 games, Meneses recorded 72 hits, which was the most by any Nats’ player to start a career through their first 56 games. Can Meneses perform another jaw-dropping performance this season as the team’s primary designated hitter?
Jeimer Candelario signed a one-year contract with the Nationals early in the offseason and looks to be their starting third baseman in 2023. However, Candelario offers versatility and can also play first. The 29-year-old started his career in Chicago before being traded to Detroit. Candelario has played 60 games at first base with a .989 fielding percentage. The veteran is a switch hitter who has constantly been able to produce numbers. The rumor is that he will actually play some first base in the WBC for the Dominican Republic.
Riley Adams is another Nationals player able to play first base, although clearly he is the backup catcher. Last season he played one game at first, but Davey has expressed that Adams can play at the spot. Adams won’t see much time at first but could emerge as an emergency first baseman.
It was reunion time in the Nations’ capital when they announced signing Matt Adams to a minor league contract. Many remember Adams’ first stint with the Nationals in 2018, and he provided a big bat off the bench during the Nationals’ 2019 World Series run. At 34, Adams has been in the league for a while until he went to independent baseball last year. With the new defensive shift rules, it was worthwhile to see what the World Series champion could do. He has played in Atlanta and Colorado after he left the Nationals but hasn’t put up great numbers as he’s slashed .176/.231/.282. Adams, however, can provide veteran experience to a young infield and could be a bench bat during the season. His odds of making the team is long, but let’s see where this goes.
Minor Leaguers – Michael Chavis
The Nationals signed Michael Chavis during the offseason to a minor league deal. The former first-round pick was an intriguing college prospect and continued his minor success, cracking Baseball America’s Top-100 list. Chavis is a power-hitting monster who can rake, although he often strikes out. In his 309 major league plate appearances, he’s only walked 5% of the time. After spending time in the Red Sox organization, the 27-year-old was traded to the Pirates in 2021. However, it was only a short time until Pittsburgh DFA’d Chavis. Expect that Chavis, Adams, Jeter Downs, and Jake Alu are all fighting for the last bench spot, and Alu has the edge currently. Washington has an interesting decision with Chavis, but can he crack the roster or just be Triple-A filler?
- Pete Alonso, New York Mets
- Matt Olson, Atlanta Braves
- Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies
- Dom Smith/Joey Meneses, Washington Nationals
- Garrett Cooper/Yuli Gurriel, Miami Marlins
The N.L. East is stacked with first basemen and All-Stars. Marlins first baseman Garrett Cooper comes in at fifth, although he has plenty of talent, and could match up with Yuli Gurriel who is rumored to be heading to the Marlins. Cooper had a career season last year, appearing in his first All-Star game, and was one of the best hitters early in the season. Before the All-Star break, the California native was hitting .300. However, during the second half of the season, Cooper couldn’t replicate his success, and his season ended early because of a left metacarpal fracture.
For the Phillies, Rhys Hoskins comes in at three, and although the first baseman is a big-time power threat, he’s inconsistent. Last season, he had plenty of ups and downs and hit in the middle of the lineup. The Phillies developed Hoskins; the 29-year-old led the team in walks and doubles (33) and was third in RBIs (79). If Hoskins can become less streaky, Hoskins can have a significant statistical year.
Matt Olson began his first season trying to do whatever he could to fill the shoes the departed legend, Freddie Freeman, in Atlanta, and Olsen did a good job. After a monstrous year at the plate the previous season in Oakland, Olson and the Braves should be stoked to have each other, and the pair should benefit from each other’s value. Olsen dominates on both sides of the ball, and his outstanding defensive performance nominated him for a Gold Glove. In addition, Olsen is a big power hitter, tallying 34 home runs with a .477 slugging percentage last season.
Fan Graphs Stats Projection
The best-case scenario for 2023: Smith and Meneses both play a full season without injuries and have All-Star worthy seasons. Smith hopes to bounce back from a rough 2022 season and perform like his 2019 breakout campaign. Meneses wants to continue building on his big league success, and show that his 2022 numbers were no fluke as a 30 year old rookie.
The worst-case scenario for 2023: You know the answer to this. Of all of the Nats positions, this one has the most depth. If Smith can’t make it, the Nats will look to Plan B, and some of those we mentioned. Let’s say Candelario was hot, that could prompt a move to first base with Alu or Carter Kieboom playing at third base. But again, the Nats don’t want to deviate from their Plan A with Smith resurrecting his career with the Nats where he is under team control again for next year. That’s right.
Overall position grade: B+