The Washington Nationals made a move late last night, signing former Cincinnati Reds' utilityman Nick Senzel to a one year, $2M deal with up to $1M in incentives, per Jon Heyman.
There are layers to this deal the more you think about it.
First off, Senzel's "natural" position is Third Base, which the Nationals clearly have a need there. Senzel plays all over the field, but he played the most games at Third Base last season with 57, followed by 23 games in Left Field, 18 games at Center Field and Right Field each, and 6 games at Second Base. Between Senzel, Ildemaro Vargas and now recent Rule 5 Selection Nasim Nuñez, the Nationals have back-ups and contingency plays at almost every position outside of First Base and Catcher (they have options at Catcher, we just won't know who will win the back up job). In all likelihood, Senzel will be this team's starting Third Baseman.
So the Nationals took a flyer on their starting Third Baseman. Not totally uncharted territory, as they did the same thing with Jeimer Candelario last year, who just parlayed his bounceback season into a 3 year, $45M deal with Senzel's former team, the Cincinnati Reds. The biggest difference between Candelario and Senzel is that Candelario at least had a season or two that was positive offensively, whereas Senzel has severely struggled at the plate and has yet to figure it out.
If you are an optimist, the bright side is that Senzel had a much higher pedigree as a prospect. After being selected 2nd overall back in the 2016 MLB Draft out of the University of Tennessee, he was the Reds' Number 1 ranked prospect back in 2019 and reached as high as the 7th ranked prospect in baseball. He was non-tendered by the Reds last month after five seasons with the team, compiling a .671 OPS and a negative 1.8 WAR.
Senzel's best season was actually his rookie season back in 2019 when he had a .742 OPS in 104 games with 12 home runs and 42 RBI. For all intents and purposes, that is what we have to consider Senzel's ceiling at the moment until he proves capable of being the player he was touted to be, and that ceiling still leaves a lot to be desired from a starting Third Baseman.
Again, for the optimists out there, there is actually one strong aspect to Senzel's offensive game: he crushes lefties. Last season, 9 of Senzel's 13 home runs came against left handed pitching and he had a .347 AVG and 1.008 OPS in 126 plate appearances against southpaws. Senzel also had a .903 OPS overall in the month of September with a .333 AVG, so if he can be more like that and less like who he has been, now we're cooking. Although September also featured his worst K/BB ratio, as he struck out over 30% of the time and walked only 2.2% of the time.
For the Nationals, context matters. If this is their only move or if they only make subsequent moves that are equal to this "splash", then you're not going to be competitive. But if you supplement the Senzel signing with more established players elsewhere, then it is not so bad. I don't blame the Nationals for trying to strike gold with a former top prospect who is still just 28 years old. The key here is knowing when it the former top prospect is a lost cause, such as Jeter Downs last season.
There is still plenty of opportunity to improve through free agency if you are the Nationals, but the market is finally starting to move. In the past 24 hours, we have seen Juan Soto and Trent Grisham traded to the Yankees, Candelario signing and Eduardo Rodriguez signing with the Diamondbacks, with a potential Shohei Ohtani deal rumored to be signed in the coming days. The Nationals 40 man roster is currently full after signing Senzel, so any additional moves will require a subsequent move to clear space.
It could be the Nationals want to see if the last season was real or a fluke before they make significant moves. The underlying data suggests the Nationals had unsustainable performance, or a bit of luck, en route to winning 71 games. They could be running it back to get more data and learn more about their players. If they do well again, then it is time to go for it. If they regress, then you have some more answers on questions you currently have, and you are likely poised for a top lottery pick next season when you are eligible once again. If they do regress into a lottery team, hopefully they have the same drawing luck as they did this Draft Lottery.