Smith looking forward to "fresh start" in Washington

Rebuilding teams and reeling veterans are perfect matches for each other. Bring experience and leadership to a young clubhouse while playing every day to rejuvenate your career while the team develops prospects.

It’s often a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Nationals are certainly banking on that being true as this is how they’ve filled holes on their roster with three of their major league signings so far this offseason.

Jeimer Candelario, signed to a one-year deal in November, was non-tendered by the Tigers after six seasons. Trevor Williams, signed to a two-year deal last month, entered free agency knowing his role with the Mets was limited, either in the rotation or bullpen.

And Dominic Smith, who signed a one-year deal this week, was looking for a fresh start after being non-tendered by the Mets.

The former first-round pick by New York in the 2013 draft had ups and downs throughout his six seasons in the Big Apple. After playing just 49 and 56 games, respectively, in his first two seasons, he had breakthrough performances in his first extended stints in the majors over the next two years.

Over 89 games in 2019, he hit .282 with an .881 OPS, 11 home runs and 25 RBIs. Then during the pandemic-shortened season the following year, he finished 13th in National League MVP voting by slashing .316/.377/.616 with a .993 OPS, 10 homers and 42 RBIs over 50 games.

But then came his full-time shift from first base to left field and things turned south for Smith. In 2021, he hit .244 with a .667 OPS and 11 home runs, 58 RBIs and 112 strikeouts over 145 games. And then last year, in which he went back and forth between the majors and Triple-A Syracuse while also dealing with an ankle injury, he hit a paltry .194 with a .560 OPS, no home runs and 17 RBIs over just 58 big league games.

Even with those frustrating seasons, Smith is looking back on his time in New York as something to learn from.

“I think every year, it's just a chance to grow, a chance to learn,” Smith said during an introductory Zoom meeting with reporters Wednesday. “And obviously, I didn't play up to (the level) everybody wanted me to play up to. But I think throughout the experience, I got to learn a lot about myself, a lot about how I can just be a better person, a better leader in life. So that's what I took from those last couple of years of being in New York.”

Despite being a six-year major league veteran, Smith is only 27 years old. Health and production, of course, will factor in, but he should have a long career still ahead of him. A long career in which he hopes to give back to the game, starting now with the Nationals.

“I still feel like, you know, I'm 27 years old,” he said, “so I feel like I have a lot to give to this game of baseball, just in general. I haven't even really had the chance to showcase what I can do on an everyday basis. So I'm excited to do that. And obviously, to do it with the Nationals with this young core group of guys, I think we can do some things this year. So I'm just excited for the opportunity.”

The Nationals’ young core isn’t that much younger than Smith himself, even though he will be one of the more experienced players on this year’s squad. And having played within the same division throughout his career, Smith remembers the Nats’ winning ways of not so long ago, and has seen the recent steps general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez have taken to get back to the upper echelon of the league.

“Playing against them pretty much my whole career, seeing them in spring training my whole career, I've seen what they did in 2019,” Smith said of what appealed to him about the Nats’ situation. “And talking about it with Davey, seeing just the moves they made over the last year, and having them and Mike talk to me and just really reach out and let me know my plan and what they kind of expect from me. And 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. 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.”

Smith now joins a group of veterans looking for a fresh start with the Nationals, something he says can benefit both him and the organization.

“Anytime a guy can get a fresh start, it can be an exciting time for him as a player, as a person. It can be an exciting thing for the organization,” he said. “And for me, I'm excited for it. Like I said, the chance to go out every day. That's all I've ever wanted in my career. And I haven't got it. So just to finally be in a position where I can go and compete, prove what I can do and just go earn everything.

"The Nationals are not going to give me anything. They want me to come and help this team develop a winning culture. And that's what I want to do. And I'm not asking them to give me anything but just the chance to go and prove that. So I'm very excited that they want me to go and compete and help this team get back to what they were in 2019.”

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