Smith expects to be Nationals' primary first baseman

Wearing a newly purchased, block W cherry blossom cap as he spoke to reporters via Zoom early Wednesday evening, Dominic Smith made it clear he doesn’t just expect to be a part of the 2023 Nationals. He expects to be a big part of the 2023 Nationals as their primary first baseman.

“Oh yeah, they want me to come in and play first base,” Smith said when asked if that was conveyed to him upon signing his one-year, $2 million deal this week. “And obviously just share my knowledge of the game and help some of the younger guys get over the kind of speed bumps I’ve had in my career. I think I can share my knowledge. I’m just excited for the opportunity. I know my ability and what I can do out there.”

Club officials have not spoken publicly since Smith’s contract became official, but manager Davey Martinez had indicated last month he wanted Joey Meneses to be his regular first baseman, with a focus instead on acquiring a left fielder.

Smith, though, profiles best at first base. Though he played a comparable number of games at both positions during parts of six seasons with the Mets, he rated much better at first base (minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved) than in left field (minus-11).

The 27-year-old made it sound like the promise of an everyday job at first base was a key reason for his decision to come to Washington. He believes some of his offensive struggles the last two seasons were exacerbated by his defensive struggles in the outfield. A chance to stay at his more comfortable position full-time would take a lot of weight off his shoulders, he believes.

“You don’t want to say it affects your play, but I think when I’m at first base, I’m able to really be comfortable and I can showcase my talents over there,” he said. “I think it will help me have a clear head at the plate. I’m just excited to have that again. I haven’t really had that since my last year of a full minor league season, which was 2016. It’s been something I’ve worked really hard for.”

No matter where he (or Meneses, for that matter) plays in the field, Smith has much to prove at the plate. After a breakthrough 2020 season in which he finished 13th in National League MVP balloting, he struggled as the Mets’ everyday left fielder in 2021, then batted a scant .194/.276/.284 in 58 big league games last season as a part-time first baseman and DH.

Smith did hit well at Triple-A Syracuse (.284/.367/.472 in 54 games), and he felt like he was making strides by season’s end. (He posted an .892 OPS with six homers and 18 RBIs in 24 minor league games last September.)

“Just getting back to what I do really well, and that’s consistently make hard contact,” he said of the work he’s trying to do this winter. “Just be in a better position in my legs, which I kind of got away from. Toward the end of the year, I felt like I was in a good spot. I just want to pick up on that, continue to control the strike zone and not chase. I think I’m at my best when I’m letting the pitchers come to me and not try to do too much. I think last year I was trying to do a bit too much.”

Though he’s hardly an established star, Smith will be one of the more experienced members of the Nationals lineup. Only newly acquired third baseman Jemier Candelario (2,460) and returning center fielder Victor Robles (1,675) enter 2023 with more major league plate appearances than Smith (1,373).

That means Smith may find himself tasked with something of a leadership role, which he seems ready to embrace.

“In my opinion, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to go out and help this young core of guys develop in the big leagues,” he said. “And just to have a fresh start in my career, go out and play every day and help the Nationals win as many games as we can.”

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