The Nationals were bad in a lot of ways this season. You don’t lose 107 games because of a deficiency in one single department. You lose that many games because of multiple problem areas.
And one of the Nats’ most notable problems in 2022 was a lack of power. Like, a complete lack of power.
They hit only 136 home runs, fewest in the National League. That represented the team’s lowest total for any scheduled 162-game season since 2008, when they finished with a league-worst 117 homers.
The Nationals hadn’t resided anywhere close to the bottom of the league in all the years since. Only once did they rank 10th in the NL, and that came during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. From 2011-19, they always ranked in the top half of the league in homers, and five times ranked among the top four power-hitting teams in the NL.
Suffice it to say, they’re going to need to improve in this area next season if they’re going to make some real strides in their rebuilding efforts.
But there’s another problem complicating those efforts: They’ve lost a good amount of the power they did have this season.
Of the 136 home runs the Nationals hit this year, only 63 were by players still on the 40-man roster. A whopping 73 of them are gone, headlined by Juan Soto (21 homers before he was traded), Josh Bell (14 before he was traded), Nelson Cruz (10 before he became a free agent) and nine a piece by Luke Voit, Yadiel Hernandez and Maikel Franco (all gone, by the organization’s choice).
How are they supposed to make up for all that lost production?
The simple answer is to acquire power from the outside, and there’s good reason to believe they will among general manager Mike Rizzo’s priorities this winter. At minimum, he needs either to sign or trade for somebody who can reside in the middle of the batting order and provide at least 20 homers. Ideally, he would acquire two of those players to fill two lineup holes: corner outfield and designated hitter (or possibly first base).
But that’s not going to be enough. Truthfully, the Nationals are going to need to start getting more power production from returning players.
The club’s top two returning home run hitters are Lane Thomas (17) and Joey Meneses (13). It’s probably too much to ask Thomas to add much more to that total. The team can certainly hope Meneses can extrapolate the impressive power he showed in only two months over an entire six months and anchor the heart of the lineup, though they have to be careful not to just assume that’s going to happen.
Improvement, then, is going to have to come from younger building blocks who have shown potential so far but clearly have the ability to grow.
Keibert Ruiz and Luis Garcia each hit seven big league homers this season, Ruiz over 433 plate appearances, Garcia over 377 of them. Each has shown in the minors he can do more damage: Ruiz hit 21 homers in 316 Triple-A plate appearances in 2021, Garcia hit 21 homers in 364 Triple-A plate appearances over the last two seasons combined.
CJ Abrams doesn’t possess the same kind of power potential as his young teammates. The rookie shortstop didn’t leave the park once for the Nationals in his 163 plate appearances this year. But there is some pop in that bat, still: He had 12 homers (plus 33 doubles and nine triples) in 534 minor league plate appearances across parts of three seasons.
Then there’s Carter Kieboom. The organization’s 2016 first round pick has shown precious little power in the majors, with only eight homers and seven doubles across 414 plate appearances. But once upon a time, Kieboom really was a power hitter, finishing both the 2018 and 2019 minor league seasons with 16 home runs while taking about 500 plate appearances in each case.
Look, there’s no magic bullet to solve this significant problem. The Nationals aren’t about to morph into one of the top home-run-hitting teams in the league. They’re going to have to be able to score runs with mere singles and doubles, manufacturing offense at times.
But they’re also going to have to have the ability to hit the ball out of the park on a more regular basis than they did this year. Even if they don’t have a 40-homer beast batting in the heart of their lineup, if they can just get some modest improvement from four or five regulars they should be able to make some strides in this all-important area.