Opening Day is less than a week away at this point and we have a pretty good idea of what to expect in regards to the Nationals' starting nine on Thursday against the Braves. Patrick Corbin was just named the team's Opening Day starter, which was really the only question left unanswered. Now the Nationals will face Braves' lefty Max Fried on Opening Day, which may alter their lineup construction slightly, but we will operate by forming the lineup we expect to, or at least want to, see most often throughout the season.
I do want to preface this by saying I understand Spring Training is a time where players and managers alike are working on different techniques and strategies, but some of the lineup construction deployed in Spring Training has me scratching my head. For instance, Corey Dickerson has frequently been hitting fourth. Dickerson, who only had 6 home runs last season and only has 19 the past three seasons combined, is not exactly your prototypical clean-up hitter and honestly shouldn't be in the heart of your order. The other head-scratcher to me is one that MASN Reporter Mark Zuckerman reported will likely be something we see often throughout the season: Lane Thomas leading off.
I'll make a long story short: Lane Thomas should not be leading off whatsoever. We had an extended look at him in that spot last season and he was not successful in the role, especially compared to his success when he hit in the bottom half of the order.
If you want a slightly larger sample size, Thomas was still much more successful when he hit 6th, 7th or 8th in the lineup versus when he hit 1st or 2nd. He has value to this team, it just isn't in the form of a leadoff hitter.
So who should hit leadoff? What does the middle of the order look like? What does the full lineup look like?
To answer that, we first need to take a look at the field.
C - Keibert Ruiz
1B/DH - Joey Meneses/Dominic Smith
2B - Luis Garcia
3B - Jeimer Candelario
SS - CJ Abrams
LF - Lane Thomas
CF - Victor Robles
RF - Corey Dickerson/Alex Call
Meneses and Smith will likely platoon with each other between first base and designated hitter while Corey Dickerson and Alex Call will also platoon depending on the righty-lefty matchups. The rest is fairly set in stone. So knowing this, let's construct a lineup.
Again, let me start by saying: not Lane Thomas. You can also exclude players like Joey Meneses, Dominic Smith and Jeimer Candelario with the threat they provide with runners on base. You can also exclude Keibert Ruiz and Victor Robles as their primary contributions to the team, at least in the short term, come more on the defensive side of the game.
That just leaves three potential candidates: Luis Garcia, CJ Abrams and Corey Dickerson/Alex Call. Assuming Dickerson and Call do platoon, that likely eliminates them both from consistent leadoff hitter contention. They might lead off in certain games or even series, but I don't expect Davey Martinez to award the leadoff spot to a platoon pair. But for what it is worth, I do expect Corey Dickerson to play more than Alex Call, so for this exercise, we will primarily consider him.
That just leaves the young middle infield duo in Garcia and Abrams. In all honesty, I would be happy with either pair leading off. Just a couple weeks ago, Ryan wrote a compelling case to have Garcia hit leadoff for the Nationals, a strategy the Nationals actually used this week. But to break the tie, I think you at least need to give CJ Abrams a shot to develop into the prototypical leadoff hitter most teams covet: good bat-to-ball skills, gets on base, great speed and a threat to steal. Abrams still needs work in the first two aspects of the position, but with the ban on the shift, Abrams should find himself with more base hits and many more opportunities to swipe bags and get himself into scoring position.
The pick: CJ Abrams
Now that we have Abrams, a lefty, leading off, conventional wisdom tells us we want a right-handed hitter put behind him so that opposing pitchers have to change their strategy batter to batter. Davey Martinez has historically been fond of this mindset, so this eliminates Luis Garcia, Dominic Smith and Corey Dickerson. Victor Robles could be an option at times, but like we said before, his contributions are almost solely defensive and he also seems to be married to the 9th spot in the order at the moment. Same goes for Keibert Ruiz, who while a switch hitter, is likely to start the year in the bottom of the order.
This leaves Joey Meneses, Jeimer Candelario and Lane Thomas. Using the reasoning we gave as to not hit Lane Thomas lead off, we will exclude him, so it is really Meneses and Candelario.
There is a growing strategy around baseball to put your best hitter in the two spot in the order as opposed to third or fourth. While there might not be as many runners on base in front of him in theory, he statistically gets more at-bats hitting second than he would third or fourth. We have seen teams like the Yankees and Phillies employ this strategy with Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper and even saw the Nationals do this when they employed Juan Soto. Getting your best hitter more at-bats is good business. And currently, this team's best hitter is Joey Meneses.
The pick: Joey Meneses
Following the alternating strategy of right-left-right-left, this realistically leaves the three lefties as options: Smith, Garcia and Dickerson. Dickerson has been hitting fourth frequently in Spring Training, but we mentioned how odd that decision was by Davey Martinez.
Instead, the lefty who has displayed his power often in Spring Training should fill this crucial spot: Dominic Smith.
The pick: Dominic Smith
Things are starting to fall into place now. With a lefty hitting third, we want a righty hitting fourth. We are entering Lane Thomas territory as he had 17 home runs last year, but I think the wiser move would be to insert Jeimer Candelario into the clean-up spot.
Candelario hasn't wowed anyone with his home run power over the past few seasons, but it is important to remember that he was playing the majority of his games in the park where hitters' power goes to die: Comerica Park in Detroit, one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in Major League Baseball. Now that Candelario is in Nats Park a majority of the time, it is conceivable that we see his power numbers escalate. In doing so, the Nationals would have an attractive asset on their hands come time for the trade deadline.
The pick: Jeimer Candelario
Now it is time for a lefty, and I have the perfect one in mind. While giving him strong consideration for leading off, I think Luis Garcia could have a lot of success hitting fifth for this team. Opposing teams frequently pitch around the third and fourth hitters in lineups, leaving the fifth and sixth hitters with good RBI opportunities in situations they're likely to see a lot of fastballs since there are runners on base. And when it comes to hitting fastballs, Luis Garcia is pretty good at it.
Garcia has shown flashes of pop and power in his young career, and if we're giving CJ Abrams the opportunity to develop into a lead off guy, then we should also give Luis Garcia the opportunity to develop into a middle of the order guy.
The pick: Luis Garcia
The slide stops here for Lane Thomas. In our tweet embedded above, you see the splits for Thomas when he hits sixth. While others may choose to ignore it or brush it off due to a small 20 game sample size, we choose to embrace it and put Thomas in a spot in the lineup where he has shown the ability to succeed, something that the Nationals need out of their hitters this year.
The pick: Lane Thomas
We are winding down here with just three players remaining: Corey Dickerson, Keibert Ruiz and Victor Robles. With a right-handed hitter ahead of here and still two lefties available in Dickerson and the switch-hitting Ruiz, we will return Robles to his rightful 9th spot in the lineup.
So it comes down to Dickerson and Ruiz, with the large edge to Dickerson based on how high he's been hitting in the order throughout Spring Training. He's a fine player, but you just know what you are going to get from Corey Dickerson at this point in his career. Entering his age 34 season, I don't expect all that big of a renaissance from Dickerson this season. Hitting seventh is appropriate for him at this stage.
The pick: Corey Dickerson
By default, we have Keibert Ruiz hitting eighth. I would like to see him a bit higher, especially with the large commitment the Nationals made to him this offseason, but he can start here and work his way up the lineup as his major league offense catches up to his major league defense.
As the only switch hitter on the roster currently, Ruiz provides versatility that no one else can. If his bat comes around, Ruiz could be the key chess piece for the Nationals' lineup this season.
The pick: Keibert Ruiz
Victor Robles. What was supposed to be. What could have been.
We hope that his strong performance this spring is a sign of things to come and not just a mirage, but we have been fooled by Robles before. And you know what they say, fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Strike three.
The pick: Victor Robles
With all that being said, here's a look at our personal lineup for Opening Day and beyond:
1. CJ Abrams - SS
2. Joey Meneses - DH
3. Dominic Smith - 1B
4. Jeimer Candelario - 3B
5. Luis Garcia - SS
6. Lane Thomas - LF
7. Corey Dickerson - RF
8. Keibert Ruiz - C
9. Victor Robles - CF