Spring Training is rapidly approaching, and that means the Washington Nationals are likely done making significant additions. What is funny is that even with the recent signing of the inconsistent power-hitting Joey Gallo, they barely made any additions this offseason.
We’ll circle back to pitching soon, but for now, let’s focus on the lineup.
Last year, Washington’s offense ranked 21st in on-base plus slugging (OPS) and runs scored. Keep in mind, that was with Jeimer Candelario (arguably their most productive hitter) on the team for most of the season. But they traded him away last summer, and when given the opportunity to re-sign him, they declined – both on signing him, and towards anyone else to really supplement what he provided.
Starting with the hitters, the unit doesn’t appear to be complete, and yet it seems like the franchise is not looking to add any more significant bats – especially now that they have the left-handed hitting left fielder they claimed to be seeking at the conclusion of 2023.
Here’s how each position player unit looks, as well as a sneak peak at potential lineups. And before you ask, this story will not include minor league phenom James Wood – but stay tuned for that to come soon.
It’s no secret who the starter is. Since being acquired as part of the trade that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers, Keibert Ruiz has been viewed among the core pieces in the Nationals’ lineup.
Now 25 years old, the switch-hitting backstop took a step forward at the plate in 2023, elevating his batting average to .260 and taking a considerable step forward in terms of power. There’s still more to dream on for Ruiz as a hitter. However, it’s the less tangible areas behind the plate where Ruiz needs the most development. Nonetheless, the starting job belongs to him, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make the necessary improvements.
Behind him, it appears that Riley Adams will remain Ruiz’s primary backup. The 27-year-old righty was an underrated asset in relatively limited playing time last season, with an offensive slash line of .273/.331/.476. He was also marginally better behind the plate than Ruiz, according to most analytical models.
Down the stretch of 2023, the Nationals began to play both Ruiz and Adams at times, typically with Ruiz as a designated hitter. Given the current construction of the roster, that option appears to be on the table again this season. Drew Millas, who is also on the 40-man roster and received his first cup of coffee last season, will almost certainly revert to Triple-A Rochester – despite his considerable success in that small sample.
As of now, Joey Meneses is effectively assured an everyday role at either first base or designated hitter. Of note, Meneses played most of 2023 with a knee injury. Soon to be 32 years old, Meneses likely won't be a key contributor once the Nationals’ championship window reopens. Still, he figures to factor into the heart of their lineup in the immediate future. Joey Gallo will also play more often than not, essentially replacing Dominic Smith as a left-handed option at first base – although he’ll also factor into the mix in left field.
Equally obvious, CJ Abrams returns as the everyday shortstop. Contrary to Meneses, Abrams took a substantial leap forward last year. In his age 22 season, the lefty speedster posted league-average numbers from the batter’s box, as well as a whopping 47 stolen bases in 51 attempts. As is well documented, this was driven by a gigantic jump in the second half of the season, particularly the month of July, during which he batted .327/.391/.500 with 16 swipes in 25 games.
By all accounts, newly-acquired utilityman Nick Senzel will handle the hot corner. The 28-year-old former No. 2 overall draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds has yet to find his footing at any one position (he’s most frequently played center field), nor as a hitter. He also only managed to produce a lowly .696 OPS in 2023. In truth, his more obvious role is as a platoon option against lefties, off whom he boasted an outstanding 1.008 OPS in 126 plate appearances. Although that level of productivity is an outlier for him, he has pretty consistently had more success against lefties than righties.
Second base is similarly uncertain. For parts of the last four seasons, the everyday job had belonged to young left-hander Luis Garcia. However, the team has typically resisted allowing him to keep that spot for a full season, and late last year in particular, questions arose about his approach and work ethic. That resulted in fellow lefty Jake Alu getting a crack at the role from August until the end of the season. He had no more – and honestly, less – success than Garcia though, leaving the keystone very much up for grabs.
Ildemaro Vargas also returns for a third season in Washington, and the club selected Nasim Nuñez with the fifth overall pick in the Rule 5 draft. The former has been reasonably productive, but profiles best as a backup at every infield spot – aside from first base – and can also play left field in a pinch. Nuñez, on the other hand, will likely stick on the roster as a mostly last-resort option and as a pinch runner, with the team’s realistic goal being to retain him long enough to option him to the minor leagues in 2025.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that former highly-touted prospect Carter Kieboom is also back on the roster. He resurfaced at the major league level for the last month and a half of 2023, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2022. Much like Senzel, he’s had more success against southpaws, but with much less defensive versatility. Don’t expect him to be in the lineup too frequently if he sticks on the roster.
This appears to be somewhat of a hodgepodge. What seems certain is that Lane Thomas will return as the everyday right fielder. The former St. Louis Cardinal, who is quietly now well into his late 20s, enjoyed by far his most productive major league season as a hitter in 2023, setting career highs in nearly every volume and efficiency stat. Most notably, he slugged 28 home runs and stole 20 bases, to go along with an impressive 16 outfield assists. Until he gets traded (if that ever happens), Thomas is sticking in the starting lineup.
Everything else is a question mark. In terms of longevity on the roster, Victor Robles is the elder statesman and incumbent center fielder. In fact, he’s coming off his most successful offensive season since at least 2019. Just one problem: he only played 36 games, as he battled recurring back spasms that ultimately ended his season in mid-June.
Returning players who preyed on Robles’ downfall in 2023 include Alex Call, Stone Garrett and Jacob Young. The first and last (especially Young) emerged as viable defensive options in center field. On the other hand, Garrett was restricted to the corners, but was by far the most prolific hitter of this trio. Garrett’s availability for Opening Day is unclear, as a result of the gruesome tumble he took near the right field wall last August. But once he’s back, Garrett can be expected to fill a platoon role against left-handed pitchers, at a minimum. His recovery efforts may also benefit from reps as the designated hitter.
And of course, then there’s Gallo, who has seen considerable time in all three outfield spots and first base in recent seasons, to go along with designated hitter. He is no more than serviceable in center though, and with Thomas entrenched in right, it appears that left field is the spot for Gallo. He’ll strike out as frequently as anyone in the sport and likely hit below .200, but he also has 40 home run ability. On a reported 1-year, $5 million contract, there’s considerable upside without much risk, and he’s also a likely trade candidate this summer.
It’s conceivable that few, if any, of these players will be starters for the Nationals by the end of this season, considering the numerous high-profile minor league outfield prospects the franchise controls. Even so, this is who we’ll likely see in April and May, if not longer.
Here’s an amateur attempt at predicting what the lineup will look like. We’ll use the order from 2023 as a reference point, along with where new players (i.e., Gallo and Senzel) typically bat from.
- SS CJ Abrams
- RF Lane Thomas
- C Keibert Ruiz (vs. right) / 1B Joey Meneses (vs. left)
- 1B Joey Meneses (vs. right) / DH Stone Garrett (vs. left)
- DH Stone Garrett (vs. right) / C Keibert Ruiz (vs. left)
- LF Joey Gallo (vs. right) / 3B Nick Senzel (vs. left)
- 2B Luis Garcia / Jake Alu
- 3B Nick Senzel (vs. right) / CF Victor Robles (vs. left)
- CF Victor Robles (vs. right) / LF Jacob Young (vs. left)
It’s not very inspiring, and possibly overthought, but this arrangement seems to be most likely, based on the available tea leaves.
All told, there are some intriguing players, but the position player portion of the roster has quite a few holes. Unless they shift course and sign someone like Cody Bellinger or Matt Chapman, that’s just the reality for much of 2024. By the looks of the situation, it seems that the organization values keeping a clear path for its top prospects over fielding a competitive lineup.