Senzel can be more successful by sticking to one spot

The Nationals almost left the Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville without a major league signing.

On Wednesday, the last official day of the meetings, they added infielder Nasim Nuñez through the Rule 5 Draft and signed first baseman/outfielder Juan Yepez to a minor league deal.

But in the wee hours of Thursday morning, before the Nationals braintrust left for the Nashville airport, they finally made one major addition by signing former Reds utilityman Nick Senzel to a $2 million contract that includes an extra $1 million in incentives.

Parallels have already been drawn from this signing to the addition of Dominic Smith last offseason.

They both were former first-round picks: Smith out of high school by the Mets in 2013 and Senzel out of the University of Tennessee by the Reds in 2016. Both were non-tendered by their respective clubs after not realizing their full potential and then signed with the Nats for $2 million with another year of club control.

Another commonality can be found between the two in that of where they play in the field.

No, not their positions to be exact (Smith is more of a first baseman while Senzel is more of a third baseman). More of how many positions they play.

The Nationals value versatility. General manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez like having guys that can play multiple positions in the field to diversify lineups and play matchups.

But when Smith arrived in Washington after playing a mix of first base and the outfield in New York, he mentioned that he felt he produced better while playing just one position, specifically first.

Though the Nats cut ties with Smith after a poor offensive season, they did praise his defense and how he helped their young infielders and pitchers. In fact, Smith had a career year defensively, posting his best marks in seven seasons in most defensive metrics.

As for Senzel, calling him a “utilityman” is a key term here. The Nationals are hoping for similar defensive results with a return to his previous offensive production if he stays in one position. Though they do value his ability to play all three outfield spots and second base, they believe he’ll perform better if he sticks mostly at third base instead of moving all over the field, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking.

Looking at the numbers, the Nats have good reason to believe it.

Senzel’s best offensive year came in his rookie season, when he slashed .256/.315/.427 with a .742 OPS, 20 doubles, four triples, 12 home runs, 42 RBIs, 14 stolen bases in 19 chances and 30 walks in 104 games. Though drafted as a third baseman, he played 95 games in center field and only one at second (for a grand total of 1 ⅓ innings), with his other eight appearances coming as a pinch-hitter.

His defensive metrics weren’t great, but he was also playing his first big league season out of his natural position.

Senzel missed more than half the 2020 pandemic-shortened 60-game season due to injury and then only played 36 games in 2021 due to a knee ailment. But 2021 was when the Reds started moving him around the diamond, playing center field, second base and third base to mixed results.

He returned to play a career-high 110 games in 2022, but suffered his worst offensive season by hitting .231 with a .601 OPS, only 18 extra-base hits and 25 RBIs. Once again, he played mostly center field with similar results while actually producing in extremely small sample sizes in the field (eight plate appearances over three games at second and third).

This season, Senzel moved around the most and produced pretty poor numbers again. In 104 games, he only hit .236 with a .696 OPS, though he did hit a career-high 13 homers and matched his career high of 42 RBIs.

But while splitting time almost evenly between the outfield and infield, Senzel found more defensive success on the dirt.

Over 59 games while playing the outfield, he posted a -9 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), -7 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), -8 Outs Above Average (OAA) and -7 Runs Above Average (RAA).

While playing 57 games at third base, he had -2 DRS, -1.4 UZR, -1 OAA and -1 RAA. Add the zeros across the board he posted in six games at second and his defensive metrics are significantly better in the infield than the outfield.

Are they Gold Glove-caliber numbers? No, but Senzel does seem to perform better when playing his natural position.

The Nationals thought Smith would perform better at one position and granted his wish by playing him exclusively at first base. Though his offensive production left a lot to be desired, he was everything the team could have asked for defensively and as a clubhouse presence.

Now the Nats are hoping for a better return to form by Senzel at the hot corner. They’re not expecting him to suddenly become an All-Star. But if he can produce solid all-around play, he’ll at least be an upgrade from current in-house options Carter Kieboom, Ildermaro Vargas and Jake Alu.

While it’s easy to draw these comparisons between Senzel and Smith, there is one important distinction between the two situations: The Nationals have no prospect in waiting at first base whereas they do have No. 3 prospect and 2021 first-round pick Brady House rising through the ranks.

House went from Single-A Fredericksburg to Double-A Harrisburg this year and arguably had the best overall season among any of the Nats’ top prospects who played with the Senators. He might be big league ready late next season, when he can take over for Senzel, who is signed to a low-cost, short-term deal.

Even if House isn’t ready until 2025, ideally Senzel settles into third and plays well enough to bridge the gap until then and revitalize his career with a bounceback season.

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