Once-productive Smith is worth the gamble for Nats (updated)

In compiling a list Tuesday morning of remaining free agents the Nationals might have been looking at to play left field for them, we failed to mention the guy they actually agreed to a deal with later in the day.

Sorry, MLB Trade Rumors’ free agent page had Dominic Smith listed among the first basemen, not the left fielders.

It remains to be seen exactly how Davey Martinez intends to use Smith, who sources confirmed agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with an additional $2 million possible in incentives. But MLB Trade Rumors’ decision to categorize him only as a first baseman might shed some important light into the matter.

Though he has played nearly the same number of games in left field (182) as first base (187) in his major league career, Smith has been considerably better at the latter position. He’s totaled minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved at first base, compared to minus-11 in left field.

It’s more instructive to look at Smith’s minor league career, where he spent the overwhelming majority of his time at first base (565 games), not in left field (22 games).

So, how come he played so much outfield in the majors? Because the Mets had a guy named Pete Alonso who firmly entrenched himself as an All-Star first baseman, bumping Smith out of there.

That actually was the story of Smith’s last few seasons in New York. After what seemed like a breakthrough 2020 season in which he finished 13th in the National League MVP vote, he moved full-time to left field in 2021 and saw his production precipitously drop. That prompted the Mets to sign Mark Canha last winter, bumping Smith into a backup first baseman and part-time DH role.

It didn’t go well: The 27-year-old produced a meager .543 OPS in 39 games over the season’s first two months, then was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. He returned in late-June and stayed in the majors about one month, but then an ankle sprain landed him on the injured list, and by the time he was healthy again, he was sent back to Syracuse to finish out the year.

This isn’t to suggest Smith wasn’t to blame for his struggles. He certainly had opportunities to produce in the majors and didn’t. But his Triple-A numbers (.284/.367/.473, 10 homers, 38 RBIs in 54 games) were quite good and suggest there may still be something in his bat if he makes the most of his next opportunity.

The Nationals are in a position to give him that opportunity now. Maybe he starts at first base, bumping Joey Meneses to the outfield or the DH spot. Maybe he and Meneses bounce back and forth between first base and DH, with the Nats acquiring a more traditional left fielder before spring training. Maybe he actually does play left field himself.

Whatever the case, it’s not going to cost the Nationals much to see what they’ve got in Smith. And if he does perform well, they don’t necessarily have to look immediately to trade him at this summer’s deadline.

Because he was non-tendered by the Mets with 4 years, 81 days of big league service time, Smith won’t be eligible to become a free agent until after the 2024 season. If the Nats want to bring him back next winter, they can do it.

If it doesn’t work out, if Smith continues to put up the poor numbers he had in New York in 2022, the Nationals shouldn’t feel compelled to stick it out with him the way they did with Nelson Cruz last year. His low salary doesn’t demand he get a spot in the lineup every day, no matter what.

If it does work out, the Nats could have themselves a nice bounce back candidate who can help provide some much needed production in the heart of a very inexperienced lineup.

UPDATE: The Nationals announced the Smith signing is official this afternoon. To clear space for him on the 40-man roster, they designated A.J. Alexy for assignment. They had just claimed the right-hander off waivers from the Rangers last month.

The Nats also announced they've signed infielder Michael Chavis and left-handers Anthony Banda and Francisco Perez to minor league deals with invitations to big league camp this spring.

Smith expects to be Nationals' primary first basem...
Source: Nats signing former Met Dominic Smith

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