We’re not quite there yet, but spring training is drawing near. Pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach in a mere 18 days, and at long last the 2024 Nationals will begin to take shape.
There will be more optimism surrounding this year’s team than there was a year ago, with the organization hoping to take another step forward after improving from 55 to 71 wins. But how much better should we believe the Nats actually are?
Nobody’s going to try to claim this roster stacks up with the best rosters in the National League. The key question is: How does it stack up to last season’s roster?
Over the last few days, we’ve been attempting to answer that question, position by position. We started Friday with the pitching staff. Today, we look at the position players. So, do the 2024 Nationals look better, worse or the same?
CATCHER: Slightly better
The Nationals actually had one of the better catching corps in the majors, in terms of offensive production, last season. Their collective .729 OPS ranked ninth in the big leagues, and their 84 RBIs ranked sixth. Keibert Ruiz returns as the top catcher and will hope to take another step forward in his offensive game while also hoping to make a bigger step forward in his defensive game (which was lacking in 2023). Riley Adams enjoyed a highly productive season in a backup role, and it will be interesting to see if he gets more than the 158 plate appearances he took last year.
FIRST BASE: Slightly better
The Nationals need to get more production from their first basemen this year. Dominic Smith (12 homers, 46 RBIs, .692 OPS) just didn’t provide enough at the plate, no matter how valuable his defense was. So there’s nowhere to go but up here. But who exactly will be attempting to provide that improved offense? For now, the job belongs to Joey Meneses, whose .722 OPS from 2023 won’t be enough, either. The Nats are counting on an increase in power from Meneses, who we learned over the winter was dealing with a bad knee throughout the season. You’ve still got to figure Meneses will have some kind of left-handed alternative at first base so he can have days off or serve as designated hitter instead. Joey Gallo could be that guy. Or the team could still add another free agent.
SECOND BASE: Same
The Nats didn’t get a whole lot last season out of their second basemen, who combined for a .260/.298/.364 slash line. Luis García Jr. returns as the starter, but he’ll be under real pressure to perform or else risk losing his job. The problem: Who’s the better alternative there? Jake Alu and Ildemaro Vargas aren’t everyday answers, and Rule 5 draftee Nasim Nuñez is a glove-first infielder who is probably going to struggle to hit major league pitching. Perhaps Trey Lipscomb or Darren Baker is called up from the minors at some point, but neither is a sure thing. The Nationals really need García to step up here.
SHORTSTOP: Slightly better
It took him a while to get going, but once he did, CJ Abrams was a force atop the lineup and in the field, with 48 runs, 11 homers and 33 steals in 35 attempts during the second half of the season. If he can deliver anything like that over the full 2024 season, he’s going to wind up with some big-time numbers. Just as important will be his play at shortstop, where he steadily improved over the course of the year, making both the routine plays look routine and the tough plays look makeable. If anything happens to Abrams, though, the Nats don’t appear to have anything in house capable of holding down the position for any length of time.
THIRD BASE: Worse
Jeimer Candelario delivered an .823 OPS during his four months with the team. So how did Nationals third basemen as a whole finish the year with a .710 OPS? That’s just how much Carter Kieboom, Vargas and Alu struggled in August and September, a dramatic drop-off in production. Enter Nick Senzel, previously one of the top prospects in baseball but now looking to resurrect his career after it never took off in Cincinnati. Senzel’s career slash line (.239/.302/.369) doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The Nats are hoping the change of scenery, and the chance to play every day at his best position rather than bouncing around the field, will bring the best out of him. Maybe it will, but it feels like the real focus at third base this season is going to be on Brady House, with everybody waiting to see if he’s big league ready by August or September.
LEFT FIELD: Better
It sure can’t get much worse. Nationals left fielders last season combined to hit 15 homers, drive in 70 runs and produce a .661 OPS that ranked 28th out of 30 major league clubs. Enter Gallo, who certainly has his flaws but still should be considerable better than that. Gallo owns a career .789 OPS (.741 last season with the Twins). He has averaged 30 homers each of the last six full major league seasons. The Nats will probably give some left field at-bats to Stone Garrett (once he’s full recovered from his broken leg and ankle). And, of course, James Wood and Dylan Crews are on the way at some point, with one of them likely to take over the left field job before season’s end.
CENTER FIELD: Slightly better
Again, it can’t get worse. Nationals center fielders last season combined for four homers, 44 RBIs and a .633 OPS that bested only the Guardians among all major league teams. The problem here: For the moment, it’s the status quo, with Victor Robles returning after an injury-plagued 2023 and Jacob Young and Alex Call as the fallback options for now. We’re long past the point of counting on Robles to put it all together, but it should be noted he was much improved last season before he got hurt (.299/.385/.364 in 36 games). If he can come close to duplicating that, wonderful. Young showed some flashes, but he remains quite raw and not nearly as highly touted as the organization’s other prospects. Speaking of those prospects, you have to believe Crews or Wood will have this job by mid-to-late summer.
RIGHT FIELD: Same, maybe slightly worse
Lane Thomas has built up enough of a resume now to give us a pretty good idea what he is. And what he is, is a very productive everyday player, one who sports a .751 OPS across 1,571 career plate appearances while averaging 30 doubles and 21 homers over a full 162-game season. He’s also got a cannon in right field and last season stole 20 bases while scoring 101 runs. Was that the absolute best version of him? Maybe. And maybe he’s due for some regression in 2024. But it’s not too much to ask for the same as he provided in 2023, which was plenty good on its own.
DESIGNATED HITTER: Who knows?
Who is the Nationals’ DH in 2024? Seriously, who is it? If Meneses is playing first base and Gallo is playing left field, that leaves … Garrett (if healthy), Alu, Vargas, Call, Adams and Kieboom among the current 40-man roster options. That’s not going to cut it. You have to believe Mike Rizzo is still seeking an addition here. Or seeking an addition at another position that would allow someone else to move to the DH slot, or at least share it with others. The key here: The Nats need more power from the position. Though they ranked second in the majors in DH batting average (.282) and 13th in on-base percentage (.331), they ranked 24th in slugging (.390) and last in homers (12).