Nats face decision with Thomas, corresponding move

The Nationals need more offense right now, nobody’s disputing that. They’ve lost nine of their last 11 games, and in seven of those losses they’ve scored two or fewer runs. (Their pitching staff, meanwhile, has given up four or fewer runs in all but two of these last 11 games, so you can’t really place any blame on that unit.)

Given the current state of affairs, it’s going to take more than one hot bat to turn the lineup around. Far too many regulars are slumping, and there isn’t one magic bullet waiting in the wings to save the day. (Not even James Wood, though you’d have to believe he would help way more than he’d hurt the team right now.)

The Nationals should be getting one proven hitter back in their lineup soon, though. Perhaps as soon as tonight. Lane Thomas is just about ready to return from his knee injury, and his return will be fully embraced by his team.

“He’s a big piece to our lineup,” manager Davey Martinez said earlier this week. “He’s been that 2-hole guy, and he and CJ (Abrams) have seemed to work well together. Hopefully we get him back soon, because we definitely miss him. When he’s in the lineup, it stretches our lineup a lot.”

Indeed, Thomas’ absence since he sprained the MCL in his left knee one month ago has been noticeable, even though he wasn’t performing up to his past standards, producing a mere .503 OPS in 22 games. Martinez has scrambled to find someone else to bat second behind Abrams, from Jesse Winker to Nick Senzel to Ildemaro Vargas to Eddie Rosario.

Even Abrams was bumped down to the No. 2 spot for about a week and saw his previously electric numbers go into a tailspin after that.

Thomas may not provide an immediate jolt to a struggling lineup, but his return will be appreciated. Over the course of his Nationals career, he owns a .747 OPS. Only Abrams, Vargas and Luis García Jr. currently sport a higher mark this season.

It’s not a given the Nats will activate Thomas off the 10-day injured list tonight. He spent the last three days on a rehab assignment with Double-A Harrisburg, where he went 2-for-9 with a double, a walk, two strikeouts, a stolen base and an outfield assist. Most importantly, he played a full nine innings Thursday night.

The team could decide to give him a few more days to get his timing all the way back at the plate and not risk rushing him back before he’s truly ready. But whether the move happens today, Saturday or early next week, club officials are going to have to make a corresponding move. And there’s every reason to believe that move will involve a player of significance.

There are four full-time outfielders on the current big league roster: Rosario, Jesse Winker, Jacob Young and Victor Robles. Rosario has finally gone on a tear after a miserable April. Winker’s performance has been more erratic, but he’s still one of the team’s more productive hitters at this point (and could have trade value come July). Young, who didn’t make the Opening Day roster, has emerged as the everyday center fielder, showing off his speed on the bases and in the field to the extent few can imagine him being demoted at this point.

So that leaves Robles as the potential odd man out.

The 27-year-old has been on a wild ride not just this season, but over the last several seasons. He flashed signs of real improvement in spring training, only to get hurt less than a week into the regular season. He came back earlier this month and enjoyed a fantastic game in Boston, only to follow it up with an atrocious game two days later.

Since then, Robles hasn’t played much. And his numbers (2-for-23, five walks, nine strikeouts) haven’t done anything to bolster his case.

The Nationals have been waiting for years for Robles to blossom into the consistent big league player they always believed he could be. But his pinnacle came way back in 2019, and it’s been a steady fall from grace since. He’s out of options, so he would have to be designated for assignment, exposed to 29 other clubs on waivers. If he went unclaimed, he could be outrighted to Triple-A Rochester, staying in the organization but no longer on the 40-man roster.

If the Nats don’t want to make that move with Robles yet, their other option would involve Joey Meneses. The 32-year-old first baseman/designated hitter has also seen his production steadily decline from his out-of-nowhere debut two months in 2022 to a decent 2023 season to a weak start to the 2024 season. He did homer in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday, but even so he’s batting a paltry .234/.299/.299 while getting repeated opportunities to bat in the heart of the lineup.

Despite his advanced age, Meneses does still have minor league options, which is what happens when you don’t reach the majors until after turning 30. So the Nationals could demote him to Triple-A, have Winker or Rosario take over (or split) the DH job and open up right field for Thomas.

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