Nats again will be seeking a backup first baseman

It has become something of an annual tradition for the Nationals: find a left-handed bat who can back up Ryan Zimmerman at first base and take over on a regular basis if (and when) the veteran starter gets hurt.

Clint Robinson held that job in 2015-16. Adam Lind did it in 2017. Matt Adams became the guy in 2018. And now the Nats find themselves once again looking for someone to fill that secondary-yet-important role.

It’s kind of a tricky thing, because ideally the player who holds this role only starts once a week but is asked to come up with big hits in one key at-bat off the bench against a tough reliever. But this isn’t just a search for a good pinch-hitter. The Nationals need to know this player is good enough to be a regular big league first baseman, because history says Zimmerman will make at least one trip to the disabled list per season.

So there’s kind of a limited pool of candidates. We’re going to look at the left-handed options today, acknowledging that, yes, the Nats could go with a right-handed bat (like Mark Reynolds), but would prefer someone who swings from the opposite side of the plate as Zimmerman.

Matt-Adams-Swings-Gray-Sidebar.jpgMATT ADAMS
Opening day 2019 age: 30
2018 stats: 337 PA, .239 AVG, .309 OBP, .477 SLG, .786 OPS, 21 HR, 57 RBI, +1 DRS, 0.7 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $4 million
Nats’ likely interest level: High. Honestly, the guy who had this job for most of this season probably makes the most sense to return. Adams checks off all the boxes the Nationals want, and he fit in well in the clubhouse and had nothing but good things to say even after he was traded to the Cardinals in August. It should be noted that he slumped badly down the stretch; after hitting .287 with a .921 OPS from April through July, Adams hit a paltry .122 with a .455 OPS in August and September, leaving his final numbers looking far less impressive than the season he actually had.

LUCAS DUDA
Opening day 2019 age: 33
2018 stats: 367 PA, .241 AVG, .313 OBP, .418 SLG, .731 OPS, 14 HR, 50 RBI, 0 DRS, 0.4 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $4 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate-to-high. Duda is awfully similar to Adams, who was awfully similar to Lind. He’s a couple of years older, but he’s a lefty slugger who has both come off the bench and been an everyday first baseman. He’s also more adept in the field than you assume a 6-foot-4, 255-lb. slugger probably is.

LOGAN MORRISON
Opening day 2019 age: 31
2018 stats: 359 PA, .186 AVG, .276 OBP, .368 SLG, .644 OPS, 15 HR, 39 RBI, +3 DRS, -0.3 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $2.5 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate. Morrison had a fantastic 2017 season for the Rays, hitting 38 homers with an .868 OPS. But he had a disastrous 2018 season for the Twins, one in which he tried to play through left hip pain for months before finally shutting it down in August. He had surgery to repair a hip impingement, and it’s possible he won’t be ready to return until April. That makes him a significant question mark as a free agent, but if club officials can be convinced he will make a full recovery, he could be a great buy-low candidate who pays significant dividends.

MARWIN GONZALEZ
Opening day 2019 age: 30
2018 stats: 552 PA, .247 AVG, .324 OBP, .409 SLG, .733 OPS, 16 HR, 68 RBI, +1 DRS, 2.5 bWAR
Projected contract: 4 years, $52 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate. We included Gonzalez last week on our list of available second basemen, but given his versatility, he could also fill the backup role at first base. The Nationals wouldn’t sign him strictly for that, not given the kind of long-term contract he’s likely to receive. But if the club wanted to go a different route and sign a true jack-of-all trades who can start five games a week at various positions (and still serve as Zimmerman’s backup) this would be the guy to get.

NEIL WALKER
Opening day 2019 age: 33
2018 stats: 398 PA, .219 AVG, .309 OBP, .354 SLG, .664 OPS, 11 HR, 46 RBI, -3 DRS, -0.1 bWAR
Projected contract: 1 year, $4 million
Nats’ likely interest level: Moderate. We also included Walker among the second base candidates earlier this week, but like Gonzalez he’s capable of serving as the left-handed backup first baseman as well. For the same price as Adams or Duda, the veteran switch-hitter could fill multiple roles for the Nationals.

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