Was Smith's September surge enough to return in 2024?


Age on Opening Day 2024: 28

How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2023

MLB service time: 5 years, 81 days

2023 salary: $2 million

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible, free agent in 2025

2023 stats: 153 G, 586 PA, 527 AB, 57 R, 134 H, 21 2B, 1 3B, 12 HR, 46 RBI, 1 SB, 1 CS, 47 BB, 91 SO, .254 AVG, .326 OBP, .366 SLG, .692 OPS, 92 OPS+, 5 DRS, 0.9 bWAR, 0.1 fWAR

Quotable: “This is something that I’ve been searching for all year. It’s something I know I can do. It’s later in the year. I wish it happened earlier in the year. I wish it happened in April. But the fact that I figured some things out, I feel good up there. I feel like I’m myself. ... I’m happy that I got back to that, and I just look forward to building on that and not forgetting that during the offseason.” – Dominic Smith

2023 analysis: The Nationals signed Smith over the winter to a modest contract, hoping the move out of New York and the move to first base on a full-time basis might help him rediscover the form that helped him finish 13th in the National League MVP race in 2020. And because he would still be under club control for another season beyond that, they felt he could be not just a short-term stop-gap but possibly a long-term solution as well.

The move to first base did pay dividends. Smith was a smooth defensive player who proved quite beneficial to young infielders CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia. FanGraphs rated him fifth among all major league first basemen in overall defense. But there’s a reason first base is considered an offense-first position, and in that department, he didn’t deliver enough.

Two issues plagued Smith at the plate more than any other: A lack of power, and a lack of clutch hitting. His .366 slugging percentage tied with the Mariners’ Ty France for worst among 18 qualified first basemen. And his .175/.294/.217 slash line with runners in scoring position – he had only three extra-base hits in 143 such plate appearances – was galling.

If there was a sliver of reason to be optimistic, Smith did show progress in the power department down the stretch. After slugging a mere .337 from April through August, he slugged a robust .532 in September, with 50 percent of his total home runs coming in his final 22 games. But even that comes with a caveat: Six of his final seven homers came with the Nats either leading or trailing by at least three runs, three of them when they were trailing by at least six runs. His final blast of the year (Sept. 29 off Brad Hand in Atlanta) was his first of the year that either tied the game or gave his team the lead after the fifth inning.

2024 outlook: The Nationals face a real quandary this winter with Smith. Is he part of the 2024 plan or not? If they tender him a contract, he’ll still be relatively affordable, due for a raise via arbitration to around $4.3 million. But would a comparable season from him be worth that amount? If not, what are the alternatives?

Smith absolutely provides defensive value, and that’s something this team could sure use. If his presence at first base helps make Abrams (and perhaps Brady House and Trey Lipscomb at some point in 2024) better defenders, that’s important. But as stated above, most teams can’t get away with a good-glove, bad-bat first baseman these days. The Nationals have to get more offensive production from that spot next season. The question: Can Smith provide it?

In some ways, this was a perplexing year for Smith. His strikeout rate plummeted from 24.3 percent to 15.5 percent, and his line drive percentage actually went up from 20.2 percent to 26.3 percent. So why didn’t he hit for more power? Because his hard-hit percentage took a nosedive from 46.5 percenter to 30.8 percent. It’s not that he didn’t hit the ball in the air enough; it’s that he didn’t hit it well enough when he did.

Smith wants to believe the progress he made in September was a good sign of things to come. Maybe it was. But the Nationals have to decide if one month of improved power (most of it coming in low-leverage situations) is enough to warrant a return next season.

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