After historic debut, will Meneses prove he's the real deal?

PLAYER REVIEW: JOEY MENESES

Age on opening day 2023: 30

How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, January 2022

MLB service time: 65 days

2022 salary: $700,000

Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2026, free agent in 2029

2022 stats: 56 G, 240 PA, 222 AB, 33 R, 72 H, 14 2B, 0 3B, 13 HR, 34 RBI, 1 SB, 0 CS, 15 BB, 52 SO, .324 AVG, .367 OBP, .563 SLG, .930 OPS, 165 OPS+, -4 DRS (at 1B), -4 DRS (at RF), 1.5 fWAR, 1.2 bWAR

Quotable: “I don’t think the way he hit was a fluke. I think the kid knows how to hit.” – Davey Martinez

2022 analysis: Unless you were paying close attention to what was going on at Triple-A Rochester from April through July, you probably knew nothing about Meneses. A 30-year-old career minor leaguer who bounced around the world from the Braves to the Phillies to Mexico to Japan to the Red Sox, he wound up joining the Nationals organization this year and settled in as Rochester’s everyday first baseman, with little reason to believe there would be a promotion in his near future.

But when the Nats traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres at the Aug. 2 deadline, they desperately needed someone to fill those spots in the field. So Meneses (who was batting .286/.341/.489 with 20 homers and 64 RBIs in 96 games) got the call and came straight to D.C. He immediately homered in his major league debut to turn some heads, then put on a stunning display of power, becoming the first player in club history to hit five homers in his first nine big league games.

That was a shocking and fun start to an older player’s career, but Meneses began to make everyone believe there was more to him than one home run barrage. Displaying an impressive ability to hit the ball to all fields, to hit for both average and power and to make adjustments to opposing pitchers, he wound up putting together one of the best 56-game opening stretches for any hitter in major league history.

Here’s the list of players over the last 50 years who totaled at least 72 hits, 14 doubles and 13 homers in their first 56 MLB games: Ryan Braun, Bo Bichette and Meneses. That’s it. Who could’ve possibly seen that coming on Aug. 2?

2023 outlook: The obvious question everyone had as September progressed and Meneses kept hitting was: Is this sustainable? Could he actually be a big-time, big-league hitter? A 56-game sample size certainly is too small to declare anything definitively, but it’s also not so small as to not be able to draw at least some conclusions.

It’s impossible not to be impressed with Meneses’ hitting approach and results. He did everything well in his first two months in the majors. He hit fastballs (.319 average, .538 slugging percentage), breaking balls (.338/.592) and offspeed pitches (.313/.594) with equal success. He mashed lefties (1.084 OPS) but was still plenty productive against righties (.858). He hit .313 when he pulled the ball, .483 when hitting up the middle and .429 when hitting to the opposite field. He hit .333 when ahead in the count, .351 when the count was even, .297 when behind in the count and even hit .222 with two strikes (league average was a paltry .168 this season).

Given all that – and, to be honest, given the lack of other viable options within the organization – the Nationals have little choice but to enter 2023 with Meneses in their starting lineup, and probably in a prominent spot somewhere in the heart of that lineup. The more pressing question may be where he plays in the field, or if he plays in the field at all. The advanced numbers say he was below-average in both right field and at first base, though the eye test suggested he was better at first base. Martinez also suggested he might be better suited in left field, where his arm is less important. Depending on what happens with Luke Voit this winter, it’s possible the team could just have him DH most of the time and not worry about his defense.

Wherever he plays, Meneses should get a shot to prove whether he’s the real deal or not. It’ll be fascinating to see how he performs next April, by which point we may have a better sense whether he truly could be a part of the plan around here or just a remarkable (but fleeting) surprise for two months at the end of a miserable season.

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