Senzel signing seems to fit within Nats' stated plan for 2024

The Nationals’ first major league free agent signing feels a lot like one of their major league free agent signings from a year ago.

Nick Senzel might as well be Dominic Smith. Not necessarily in his playing profile, but certainly in his career situation.

Smith was a 27-year-old first baseman who was once a Mets first-round pick but was non-tendered after failing to live up to his full potential, ultimately signing with the Nats for $2 million plus another year of club control.

Senzel is a 28-year-old third baseman who was once a Reds first-round pick but was non-tendered after failing to live up to his full potential, ultimately signing with the Nats for $2 million plus another year of club control.

We all know how the Smith acquisition worked out. Though he played a smooth first base and was well-liked in the clubhouse, he didn’t hit nearly enough for his position and thus was cut loose after one season.

The Nationals now have to hope Senzel doesn’t follow that same pattern on the other side of the diamond, though there is one important difference in this case: The organization has a top prospect at his position who ideally will be ready to take over before season’s end.

There was no “First Baseman of the Future” lurking behind Smith. There is a “Third Baseman of the Future” lurking behind Senzel. Brady House, the 2021 first-round pick, enjoyed a bounceback season after dealing with injuries in 2022, finished at Double-A Harrisburg and could be big-league-ready sometime late in 2024. Or if not, early in 2025.

House’s presence surely played a role in Mike Rizzo’s decision this week to sign Senzel to a low-cost, short-term deal, as opposed to a more substantial contract for a more proven player like, say, Jeimer Candelario.

“We’re not going to block guys,” Rizzo said on multiple occasions at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, and there’s every reason to take him at his word on this one.

The 2024 season isn’t going to be about getting the most out of experienced players in an attempt to contend in the National League. It’s going to be about the continued development of young big leaguers CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore, and it’s going to be about the arrival of the next wave of top prospects like Cade Cavalli, James Wood, Dylan Crews and House.

“We’re in a tough situation, because we want … to get our young guys up here, and we don’t want to take too many spots away from those guys when they’re ready,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But yet we’ve got to compete at the big league level.

As much as Martinez would like to believe the second point matters as much as the first point, deep down he knows the truth. The Nationals have made it this far in their rebuild. They aren’t about to try to find shortcuts now that could disrupt the longstanding plan.

Which means an Opening Day lineup that figures to include Senzel starting at third base in the town where he played all of his previous home games.

The No. 2 overall pick in a 2016 Draft that surprisingly hasn’t produced many big names – Dodgers catcher Will Smith is the only first rounder from that year who has amassed more than 7 WAR to date, though the second round produced All-Stars Bryan Reynolds, Pete Alonso and Bo Bichette – Senzel has had a disappointing career to date. There’s no disputing that.

Owner of a .354/.456/.598 slash line his junior year at Tennessee, he has never hit more than 14 homers in eight professional seasons. He’s topped .700 in OPS only once in the majors, as a rookie in 2019. He’s also been a below-average defensive player, based on the metrics.

The Nationals have no illusions of a massive career resurrection from Senzel. But they do believe he’s better at third base than in the outfield, and they believe he’ll be better off sticking at one position instead of bouncing around, according to a source familiar with the club’s thinking.

If nothing else, the Nats appear to believe Senzel is a better option at this point than Carter Kieboom, who may have seen his clock reach 11:59 p.m. after eight frustrating professional seasons of his own. (Kieboom also was a first-round pick in 2016, selected 26 slots behind Senzel.)

Maybe that won’t lead to dramatically improved production at third base next season. And it almost certainly won’t come close to what Candelario produced last season before he was traded to the Cubs. But as much as they liked him, the Nationals apparently didn’t like Candelario enough to match or top the Reds’ three-year, $45 million (plus a fourth-year, $15 million option) offer.

Not with the presumed “Third Baseman of the Future” waiting in the wings.

They just have to hope House really does live up to that billing, unlike the guy they drafted for the same purposes in 2016.

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