Nats need to add more power next year

It’s no surprise a team that traded its top two power bats at the deadline finished the season as one of the worst power-hitting squads in the major leagues.

When the Nationals traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres for six players, including five prospects, they were giving up the majority of the power produced by their lineup.

They did get Luke Voit in return, the lone veteran in the trade package coming back to Washington, to help supplant some of that power and fill Bell’s position at first base. But his nine home runs and 21 RBIs with the Nats were not enough to lift his new club from the bottom of the power barrel.

But he couldn’t have been expected to do it all by himself. Nor could he have been expected to do it when coupled with CJ Abrams, the speedy contact hitter who didn’t homer and posted a .327 slugging percentage in 159 at-bats for the Nationals.

A lack of power was already an issue for the Nats before Voit and Abrams arrived in Washington, even when they had Soto and Bell. And in this day and age of baseball when we’ve seen more homers hit than ever before (not to mention when Nats pitchers gave up the most home runs in the big leagues), that’s not a great recipe for success.

The Nats ranked last in the National League and 27th in the majors with 136 home runs. The major league average was 173.7, leaving the Nationals about 37 short.

They also ranked 12th in the NL and 24th in the majors with a .377 slugging percentage. And although this isn’t a total indicator of power, they ranked 12th in NL and 22nd in the bigs with a .687 OPS.

Part of the Nats’ issues with power was their inability to get the ball in the air. We hear a lot about launch angle (something former hitting coach Kevin Long preached), but the Nats had trouble putting that philosophy into practice this year.

The Nats hit into the most groundouts and double plays in the majors. They also posted a 1.13 groundout-to-flyout ratio, which was the highest in the NL and second-highest in the majors.

They were 10th in the NL and 19th in the major leagues with only 37 sac flies, which isn’t a full indicator because it’s more situational, but still proves the point.

Not getting the ball in the air was Nelson Cruz’s biggest problem. That’s not something you want to see associated with your franchise’s first full-time designated hitter.

Cruz finished with 16 doubles, 10 home runs, a .337 slugging percentage and .651 OPS in 448 at-bats over 124 games this season. His lack of production wasn’t due to him not hitting the ball well. It was more to do with him not getting it in the air.

Per Mark Zuckerman in his player review of Cruz, the 42-year-old ranked in the 84th percentile in the majors with an average exit velocity of 90.9 mph. But his groundball rate inflated from 43.4 percent in 2021 to 53 percent in 2022.

When Cruz signed in spring training, the idea was that he would provide protection in the lineup for Soto and Bell. As the DH failed to produce at the plate, that vision never came to fruition.

With Soto and Bell traded and Cruz struggling, the power fell to others in the Nats lineup.

Lane Thomas led those who finished the season in a Nationals uniform with 17 homers, a .404 slugging percentage and a .705 OPS. That’s a great season for Thomas, the speedy outfielder the Nats acquired for Jon Lester in 2021.

But it’s a problem for the Nats if he’s their leader in power numbers.

Joey Meneses (13 homers and .563 slugging in 56 games) was a great story and offensive boost over the last two months of the season. He and Voit can be a powerful 1-2 punch as the first baseman and DH in next year’s lineup. But can the 30-year-old rookie continue that production next year over a full major league season?

Yadiel Hernandez can provide some occasional pop. But the 35-year-old only hit nine homers over 94 games before his season was cut short due to a calf strain.

Abrams and Luis García shouldn’t be counted on to provide power numbers. Carter Kieboom will be back in the fold next year, probably fighting for the third base spot with Ildemaro Vargas. But likewise, neither of them should be counted on to provide pop.

The Nats could hope for more power from Keibert Ruiz, who hit seven homers with a .360 slugging percentage. His scouting reports have suggested he could be a pretty solid power-hitting catcher, especially from the left side of the plate. He just needs to be more selective, swinging at pitches he can drive.

Free agency will provide the Nationals an avenue to add some more power to their lineup this offseason. It will be hard (and expensive) to try to convince some of the top bats to come play for a rebuilding team. But even though it didn’t work out the way both sides expected, they could try to go a similar route to the one they took with Cruz in signing a veteran bat with hopes of flipping him at the deadline. Double prizes if that free agent plays a position of need. Left field comes to mind.

However they do it, there is no doubt the Nats need to add more power next year. They don’t need to be the best power-hitting team in the sport. But they shouldn’t be the worst, either.

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