We knew there would be news Tuesday, what with the Nationals facing a late-afternoon deadline to add players to the 40-man roster and protect them from being lost in the Rule 5 draft. We didn’t know there would be quite this much news, though.
While the promotions of pitchers DJ Herz, Mitchell Parker, Cole Henry and Zach Brzykcy to the 40-man roster were newsworthy, the bigger story wound up being one of the corresponding moves made to clear spots for those prospects: Dominic Smith was designated for assignment.
This isn’t to suggest Smith was always a lock to return in 2024 after a very disappointing 2023 at the plate. But here’s what Mike Rizzo had to say when asked during the season’s final week about the roles both Smith and Jeimer Candelario played after they were signed the previous winter:
“Dom’s shown that his leadership in the infield, I think he’s made our young infielders much, much better and much more confident defensively,” Rizzo said. “And he’s starting to show some power late in the season. Those are always the type of people that you want to acquire, and guys that when you’re at this point in the rebuild, I thought was important for us to acquire.”
Smith was never supposed to be part of the long-term plan around here. But with no obvious replacement at first base waiting in the wings and based on the way both Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez talked about him at season’s end, it felt like he would be back for another year.
Instead, the Nationals decided to part ways with the 28-year-old Tuesday, and now that leaves them searching once again for a first baseman.
It’s safe to say the organization will be seeking one thing in particular when replacing Smith: Power. Smith didn’t provide nearly enough of that, given the position he played. His replacement will have to be someone who can be counted upon to hit at least 20 homers next season.
Of course, the Nats also are going to want someone who plays a competent first base, an absolute necessity with an infield of CJ Abrams, Luis Garcia and perhaps eventually Brady House. They could move Joey Meneses there full-time – Meneses would certainly appreciate that opportunity after admitting he didn’t enjoy being the everyday designated hitter this year – but they’re probably looking for better glove work.
Who are the potential free agent targets? There are a few big names in Cody Bellinger (who also plays the outfield) and Rhys Hoskins (who is coming back from a torn ACL). There are veterans at the tail end of their careers like Brandon Belt, Carlos Santana and Joey Votto. There are once-productive hitters who may not be able to recapture that form like Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini and Wil Myers. There are bounceback candidates in C.J. Cron and Jared Walsh.
Oh, yeah, there’s also the guy they signed last winter to play third base, flipped at the trade deadline for one of the pitching prospects they just added to the 40-man roster and is now available again to play either corner position: Candelario.
There’s a number of ways the Nationals could go here. We’ll have to wait and see which direction Rizzo prefers.