Better, worse or the same in 2023: Position players

The Nationals were bad last year, but you already know that. They want to be better this year, and you probably do, too.

But will they be better? That’s what we’re going to attempt to predict the next two days.

Though there’s still a month to go until spring training, and more additions or subtractions are possible, the Nats have already assembled what looks like it could be their Opening Day roster. So, it’s not too early for this exercise.

We’ll look at position players today, running through each of the positions (included designated hitter). Then we’ll look at the pitching staff tomorrow. Will the 2023 Nationals be better, worse or the same as the 2022 Nationals? Here we go …

CATCHER: Moderately better
As a group, Nationals catchers posted a .223/.286/.330 offensive slash last season, with 26 doubles, 12 homers and 48 RBIs. Keibert Ruiz (.249/.313/.361) was better than that, and there’s good reason to believe he’ll improve as a hitter in his second full big league season. The Nats would love for his power production, in particular, to improve. Defensively, Ruiz already is solid, but there’s also room for improvement there with experience. The real issue comes on days when he doesn’t start. The team’s backup catchers were really bad last season, with Riley Adams, Tres Barrera and Israel Pineda batting a collective .198/.233/.273 over 215 plate appearances. Somebody from that group is going to have to be better this year.

FIRST BASE: Worse
When you combine the numbers Josh Bell, Joey Meneses and Luke Voit produced as first basemen in 2022, you get an impressive .299/.375/.491 slash line, 30 doubles, 27 homers and 85 RBIs. Is there any way this year’s group of first basemen can duplicate that? That seems far-fetched. Dominic Smith appears to be the starter there, and while he should be an improvement in the field, a full return to his 2019-20 offensive form with the Mets is a tough ask. Meneses could also get some time at first base, but it’s also not reasonable to ask for him to fully duplicate his awesome two months at the end of last season. When it’s all said and done, the Nationals probably would be happy to get a .260/.320/.450 combined slash line out of first base this season.

SECOND BASE: Better
Hey, remember Cesar Hernandez? You’ve probably tried to forget him, but he led the team with 617 plate appearances last season, 541 of them as a second baseman. As a position, the Nats got a .240/.295/.321 slash line there, with 37 doubles, three homers and 47 RBIs. With Luis Garcia now the everyday starter, there’s hope for a higher batting average and more power. Garcia still has plenty of room to grow, but you’d sure like to believe a full season of him will produce better numbers than a full season of Hernandez did.

SHORTSTOP: Similar offense, much better defense
CJ Abrams actually produced worse offensive numbers (.258/.276/.327) than the rest of the Nationals’ shortstops (.264/.285/.353) did last season. (Though most of the positive production there came from Garcia, before he switched positions.) The dynamic young infielder should show improvement in his first full big league season, but you also have to be careful about not expecting too much from him at the plate. Abrams’ most significant contributions should come in the field, where he dazzled in August and September. Nats shortstops were awful defensively in 2022. Abrams’ presence there should have a real positive impact on matters in 2023.

THIRD BASE: Better
Hey, remember Maikel Franco? You’ve probably tried to forget him, but he took 388 plate appearances last season and delivered a .597 OPS and minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved at third base. So, the bar has been set awfully low for Jeimer Candelario. Candelario had a rough 2022 in Detroit, but even then, his .633 OPS was better than what Franco did. And over the course of his career, he owns a .723 OPS, having led the American League with 42 doubles as recently as 2021. So there’s good reason to believe he’ll make the Nats better at this position. How much better remains to be seen. But definitely better. And if Ildemaro Vargas can come close to duplicating his .706 OPS whenever (and wherever) he plays, that will only help matters.

LEFT FIELD: Same, maybe worse
Nationals left fielders actually did a decent job last season, combining for 23 homers, 73 RBIs and a .737 OPS. The best hitter from the group was Yadiel Hernandez, who was taken off the 40-man roster in November. The team is hoping Corey Dickerson can at least duplicate Hernandez’s offensive numbers (.270/.320/.430) while playing better defense, but that’s no guarantee. Dickerson probably won’t play much against lefties, so that also puts pressure on Alex Call, Stone Garrett or someone else to produce on a part-time basis. That’s a lot of question marks for what should normally be a sound offensive position.

CENTER FIELD: Same
Victor Robles returns, so you pretty much know what you’re going to get at this point. Strong defense (with the occasional ill-advised throw), very little offense. Robles finished with a .584 OPS last season. You want to be believe he can improve upon that, but he’s given little reason to believe it. The Nats could wind up seeing improvement at the position if Lane Thomas gets some time in center instead of Robles. And there’s also a chance we see top prospect Robert Hassell III before season’s end. Who knows what he would produce in the majors, but it would be exciting to find out.

RIGHT FIELD: Worse
Unless the Padres trade Juan Soto back before Opening Day, it’s hard to see how the Nationals could possibly get comparable production in right field. The guy who replaced him in August actually put up better numbers, but Meneses probably isn’t playing right field this season. This is Thomas’ spot now, and while his defense will be an upgrade over Soto and Meneses, there’s just no way his offense is going to match them. If Thomas can just give the Nats a .725 OPS and 17-to-20 homers, everyone will probably be satisfied.

DESIGNATED HITTER: Better
Nationals designated hitters were wretched last year, and it wasn’t only Nelson Cruz’s fault. Voit was even worse, delivering a .472 OPS in 111 plate appearances as DH, well below Cruz’s below-average .648 mark. It’s looking like Meneses will be the primary DH entering the season, with the possibility of others getting at-bats there as well in some sort of rotation. All told, it should result in markedly better numbers than the Nationals got in 2022.

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