Well, that was easy. In the few short months since Joey Meneses debuted in 2022 and homered in his first game, he has ascended and assumed the mantle as the Nationals' most fearsome hitter. He mashed 13 home runs in just 56 games as a 30-year-old rookie, and his recent heroics for Team Mexico have added plenty to the hype. If Joey keeps it up in his second season, he should easily get to 25 homers or more. A better question to ask is who will be second on the Nationals in home runs?
If you're looking for home run hitters, the Nationals cannot offer much more than Meneses. Only 5 hitters reached double digits in homers last season, and of them, only Meneses and Lane Thomas return in 2023. Thomas has become a respectable role player, but he's ill-fitted as the number 2 slugger in a lineup. There are no certified mashers with the team, but that leaves plenty of at-bats to give to players with potential to establish themselves
As a team, the Nationals hit 136 home runs in 2022. That ranked as the third-worst mark in the majors, and the franchise's lowest full-season total since 2008, before the home run spike seen in recent seasons. That poor performance at the plate was made worse by a paltry pitching staff allowing 244 home runs, the most in MLB and 31 more than the second-worst Cincinnati Reds. The 2022 season saw a handful of league-worsts and franchise-lows for a depleted Nationals squad, but their -108 home run differential was especially demoralizing. When your opponent is hitting it out of the park more often on such a consistent basis, everything becomes much harder for an inexperienced team.
Thankfully, it's easy to improve your power hitting when the previous season set the bar that close to the ground.
The 2022 Nationals didn't just lack established power hitters, they saw some significant underperformance from players who will not be returning in 2023. Nelson Cruz mirrored the Nationals franchise by posting his lowest home run total since 2008 as age finally caught up to his legendary power. He has since signed with the Padres, while the Nationals hope to get more than Cruz's 10 home runs from their DH spot this season.
Cesar Hernandez knocked 21 homers in 2021, but confoundingly fell into a power sinkhole once he put on a Nationals jersey. While starting and batting leadoff in a majority of Nationals games, Hernandez went months and months homerless until he finally squeaked one out in September, which would be his first and last of the season. Hernandez has now taken his talents - which may or may not include power hitting - to the Tigers. In 2023, the Nats are all but guaranteed to get better production from second base. If we somehow find ourselves in August and Luis Garcia has yet to go yard, the team may want to consider not fielding a second baseman at all, or perhaps investigating for paranormal activity.
There are some new faces with the team this year who may not transform the Nationals lineup into Murderer's Row, but who can likely inch the power numbers up and out of the league's basement. Jeimer Candelario and Dominic Smith are young-ish corner infield players looking to prove their worth on 1-year contracts and each has some pop. Both are looking to hit 20+ homers for the first time in their careers, but if they do, the Nationals may look to trade one or both for prospects during the season. That would be probably be considered a success, and it's not hard to imagine them performing better than Maikel Franco did last year.
The Nationals corner outfield situation is a blend of average players that lacks any star presence but looks to have a decently high floor on offense. Corey Dickerson, another potential trade piece on a 1-year deal, has a career high of 27 home runs with Tampa Bay in 2017. That's a total the 34-year-old probably won't reach at this point in his career, but it is the highest career high of any player in the Nationals organization. Dickerson has hit just 12 long balls over the past two seasons with the Marlins, Blue Jays, and Cardinals. Lane Thomas is, well... he's respectable. He and Alex Call will see plenty of opportunity but neither appear likely to break out as power hitters. If anybody in the Nationals outfield can surprise in this respect, it is Stone Garrett. Garrett already looks the part of a slugger, as he hit 53 home runs between AA and AAA in the past two years, and four with the Diamondbacks last year. He has struggled a bit with strikeouts and making contact, but the power is there, and the Nationals could really use some power.
As I wrote in my previous season preview, the Nationals will be looking to their young core up the middle for offensive improvements in 2023. Luis Garcia, CJ Abrams, and Keibert Ruiz already look to be the future of the Nationals, and each of them has an advanced feel for putting their bat on the ball. Seeing increased home run totals should be the expectation for each of them as they get more comfortable in the majors. A breakout from one or more of those three would be much more valuable to the organization than a breakout from one of their free agents, and a streak of home runs would go a long way for any of them.
Abrams could especially use some home run ability to speed the pace of his development. He already has exciting speed and contact tools, but keep an eye on him to start hitting the ball with authority. Garcia and Ruiz likely have a higher ceiling in this respect, and the team will be looking for them to improve. Each set career highs of 7 home runs last season, and it's not hard to see the pair doubling that in 2023.
There's not much that's more exciting than a sudden power surge from one or more players in a lineup. There's no Kyle Schwarber on the team this season, but I think there's reasons for optimism up and down the lineup. To answer the question I posed earlier, I think Luis Garcia will be the one to finish second to Joey Meneses in homers. He doesn't have a long track record of power, but has shown some encouraging signs with a couple of massive blasts in the majors last year. After him, there's a real chance that Stone Garrett can get crushing if he can get an opportunity. Overall, look for the Nationals offense to surprise, or at least to be better than third-worst in the league.
Who do you think will break out as a power hitter for the Nationals this season?