Revolving outfielders have more to prove over final weeks

Even with two extra spots in September, the Nationals are currently only carrying four true outfielders on their active roster. That’s usually the standard for any team: three starters and one backup on the bench.

But manager Davey Martinez, in fact, has utilized six players in the outfield since the roster shakeup at the trade deadline.

Victor Robles and Lane Thomas have been in Washington all season long. Joey Meneses (typically a first baseman) and Josh Palacios were brought up to fill the holes left by Juan Soto and Josh Bell, with Palacios making a couple of trips back-and-forth between the majors and Triple-A Rochester. Alex Call was selected off waivers from the Guardians on Aug. 7. And utilityman César Hernádez has appeared in left field four times to start September.

This is part of the process for the Nationals to see what they have in these players before the season ends in three weeks.

For the most part, they know what they have in Robles, who you may have noticed has not played since Sept. 7 in St. Louis. He was scratched from the starting lineup with a stiff neck the following day, but has been seen walking around the Nationals clubhouse this week with seemingly no issues.

The former top prospect in the organization is hitting .224 with a .588 OPS, nine doubles, two triples, four homers and 28 RBIs in 115 games this season. Over his six major league seasons, Robles is a .234 hitter with a .669 OPS.

Whether or not Robles is injured, the Nationals are now getting the chance to have an extended look at some of these new outfielders at the major league level.

Call, 27, has played left field in every one of his games with the Nationals except for Wednesday night when he started in center. He appeared in all three outfield spots over his 10 games with the Guardians in July. And he’s drawing significant interest from Martinez and his staff.

“I want to see him play everywhere. He's interesting to me,” Martinez said of Call. “The kid plays, like I said, he plays with his hair on fire every day and he's got a lot of energy. And I know he's played center before, so I just want to swap those guys a little bit and let him play some center field and see how he does.”

He’s only hitting .236 with a .743 OPS over 20 games with Nats, but he had a nine-game stretch to start September where he went 10-for-25 (.400) with a double, triple, two home runs and seven RBIs.

“When we got him, we ran some different things on him,” Martinez said. “And he's a guy that doesn't really chase a whole lot, puts the ball in play and can hit the ball. For a guy of his stature, he hits the ball a long ways. He hits the ball hard. And the fact that he, like I said, he understands the game, he knows how to play the game. I like that. So I just want to give him an opportunity.

“Look, like I said earlier, we're looking for players, players that could do multiple things. Whether he could play every day here or not, we're trying to figure that out. But he's a guy that could possibly do both. Play three or four times a week, come off the bench, play all three outfield positions. I know he can run. He can steal a base when we need to. So he's interesting to not only to me, but to this organization.”

Meneses, the 30-year-old rookie who has taken this team by storm, is also interesting to this organization. Coming up through the system as a first baseman, Meneses was bumped to right field with Luke Voit acquired in the Padres trade and veteran Nelson Cruz occupying the designated hitter role.

It’s there where he has found most of his playing time instead of his natural position of first base (22 games in right vs. 14 games at first). Even though the Nats expect him to man first in the future, Meneses is getting the chance to prove he can be versatile.

“In the big picture, Joey, we'd like him to play at first base,” Martinez said. “We like him playing some right field. I thought about even putting him in left field before the season's out just to see him over there. But we talk to him all the time that in our league, not only do you have to hit, you got to play defense.”

Hitting has not been a problem for Meneses: He’s batting .322 with an .894 OPS, 10 doubles, eight home runs and 22 RBIs since making his major league debut. It’s the consistent work at both first base and the outfield that the Nationals want to see heading into the offseason.

“He takes it seriously,” Martinez said of Meneses’ defensive work. “He goes out and takes a full group of (reps) during batting practice, and works on jumps and things. So he's got to understand that hey, part of the game is not just hitting. You got to be able to not allow the other team to score. And that's by playing defense, charging the baseballs, get the ball in.

“And like I said before, I was very shocked at how well he threw the ball and how accurate he can throw the ball, which is good. Now it's about continuing to work on his first step, getting back on balls coming in. He struggles a little bit coming in because his first step is usually back. So we're working on him just reacting to the ball coming in. But he's holding his own. He really is.”

Then there’s Thomas, who has solidified himself into the daily lineup after trading places with Robles for the first half of the season.

Tabbed as a great defensive outfielder, speedy baserunner and solid hitter when the Nats acquired him last summer, Thomas has proven to be all of that while consistently getting playing time.

With his versatility, Martinez has played Thomas in all three outfield positions and written him into every position in the batting order except third. And the manager has liked what he’s seen from the 27-year-old in just over a season’s worth of games with the Nationals.

“Lane's done really, really well since we've had him,” Martinez said. “I mean, you look at his numbers since we've had him, he's been very productive. And he's going to continue to get better. I really believe that. I think, Lane sometimes, it's more of a confidence thing with him and that we got to continue to pump him up, build them up, tell him that hey, I really feel like he can hit 20 (home runs). He might do it this year. But driving 80 runs for us one time. So I know it's hard to do when he's leading off, but I think he'd be a good 5-6-7 hole hitter at times where he can definitely drive in some runs for us.”

In 173 games with the Nats, Thomas has hit .257 with a .763 OPS, 38 doubles, four triples, 22 home runs, 76 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. He has already surpassed his career home run total entering the season over the 128 games he’s played this year and is on pace for his first 20-homer campaign, proving that he plays well with consistent reps.

But despite the speed and the strong arm, the Nats would like to see him improve his outfield defense, especially against the wall.

“He's gotten better,” Martinez said. “I like to see him getting better in the outfield as far as going back on balls, getting to the wall better. He's gotten better, but he's got to get there and not be afraid to get up on that wall. I look at him and every time I look at him, you kind of, you don't forget about him. You know he's there. But you look at his numbers and go, wow, this guy has really put up some good numbers. And he just does it very quietly and goes out there and performs.”

Palacios, selected off waivers from the Blue Jays in April, hasn’t had as many opportunities to play as the others. He’s only 7-for-36 (.194) in 22 games with the Nats. But he’s 6-for-29 (.207) with two RBIs and two multi-hit games over his eight starts. And he’s able to play both corner outfield spots.

Which begs the question why is Hernández playing left field?

Making just his fourth career appearance in left Wednesday night, the 32-year-old had a tough time fielding Gunnar Henderson’s triple into the corner and then committed a throwing error that led to a Little League home run.

Hernández and Martinez both insisted it was just a freak accident that didn’t have anything to do with his lack of experience in a corner outfield spot (he did play 22 games in center in 2013 with the Phillies, but has been exclusively an infielder since).

While definitely better than Palacios’ bat, it’s not like Hernádez’s offensive output is a must-have in the lineup: He’s batting .250 with a .637 OPS over 135 games this season.

Yes, the Nationals are doing Hernández a service by allowing him to show his versatility in the hopes of joining a contender next season. But are they doing themselves a disservice by not trotting out Palacios more often to see what the waiver claim can do?

Regardless, the revolving door that is the Nationals outfield will be something to keep an eye over these last three weeks. Some guys have solidified spots for next year. Others have more to prove. And they all have areas that they can continue to develop.

Game 144 lineups: Nats vs. Marlins
Nats seeing how their young players match up with ...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to