Who backs up Bell at first base?

Now that the celebration of Ryan Zimmerman's retirement has had its moment in the spotlight - and don't worry, I'm sure there will be plenty more celebrations this season and in the years to come - it's time for the Nationals to look ahead as to what their future looks like without their face of the franchise.

The long-term ramifications are still to be determined. But as it pertains to the 2022 season, Zimmerman's retirement leaves an immediate hole to be filled on the Nats roster: backup first baseman.

About a month ago, I presented the curious case at first base facing the Nationals. Josh Bell is the starter - and his future with the team is referenced in the aforementioned article - and who the backup would be depended on whether or not Zimmerman decided to play another season.

Nats-Park-Fans-Watch-Zimmerman-Hit-Sidebar.jpgWe now have that decision, so we can now ask: Who backs up Bell at first base (and possibly takes over as the starter if he is traded midseason)?

Some have suggested catcher Riley Adams can make the transition up the first base line. He did get some reps in at first during batting practice late last season, but never made an appearance there in a game. And over his four-year minor league career, he only played first base once.

Theoretically, Adams is an option. But the sense is the Nationals want to keep him at catcher in tandem with Keibert Ruiz.

The minor league candidates leave something to be desired or simply aren't ready for the majors. Jake Noll could come up from Triple-A Rochester, but he's only made six of his 15 big league appearances at first base. And over his last two minor league seasons, Noll has played mostly second and third.

Branden Boissiere is the only one of the Nats' top 30 prospects listed as a first baseman. But he played just 25 games with low Single-A Fredericksburg last year.

A name to keep an eye out for that has fallen off some top prospects lists is Drew Mendoza. The 24-year-old was drafted by the Nationals as a third baseman out of Florida State in the third round of the 2019 First-Year Player Draft and then shifted to first base shortly after his professional debut. He swung a big left-handed bat, but his glove wasn't up to snuff at the hot corner.

Over his two minor league seasons, Mendoza played 124 games at first base, with 44 coming at Single-A Hagerstown in 2019, and 61 at high Single-A Wilmington and 19 at Double-A Harrisburg in 2021. The only issue is he still seems far away from the majors, as he struggled a lot in his limited action at Double-A.

Mendoza still has potential, though. He was ranked as the Nats' ninth prospect as recently as 2020, so he could be an option at first with some more seasoning. Just not likely this season.

He's not technically an in-house option currently because he's a free agent, but you could also include Mike Ford in this list under the presumption he re-signs with the Nats after they non-tendered him in November. Ford played 29 games with Rochester, 21 at first base, after the Nats selected him off waivers in August. He also has 62 games of major league experience at first.

So that leaves the most likely option to be for general manager Mike Rizzo to fill the backup first baseman position via the free agent market.

Let's get this out of the way now: The Nats most likely will not be in the running to sign the likes of Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo or Brad Miller. Never say never with Rizzo, but it's still unlikely.

Other names mentioned in the previous article include Colin Moran, Daniel Vogelbach and Danny Santana. Also mentioned in that article is that all three posted lower WARs over the last two seasons combined than Zimmerman's 0.4 in 2021 alone.

That's the number the Nats are looking to replace this year. Zimmerman was considered to have a great year in 2021 as a backup first baseman who platooned well with Bell. So finding a WAR equal to or above 0.4 would do the trick.

Moran slashed .258/.334/.390 with a .724 OPS, 10 home runs and 50 RBIs over 99 games with the Pirates last season. The left-handed hitter had a -0.2 WAR in 2021, but has a 0.8 WAR for his six-year career. And he's only 29 years old, so there's the possibility of some longevity there.

Vogelbach hit just .219 with a .730 OPS, nine homers and 24 RBIs in 93 games with the Brewers. Also a lefty hitter, he posted a 0.1 WAR in 2021, but has a 1.2 WAR over his six-year career. He's also 29.

Santana is a switch-hitting 31-year-old, who was limited to just 38 games last season with nagging injuries and COVID issues. He only recorded 21 hits, two doubles, one triple, five homers and 14 RBIs with the Red Sox. In the limited action, he had a -0.2 WAR, but has a WAR of 3.2 for his eight-year career.

Another name worth mentioning here is Todd Frazier. Yes, he's older and has only played 58 major league games over the last two seasons (45 in the shortened 2020 season and 13 in 2021). But he kind of fits the Zimmerman mold.

A third baseman turned first baseman. Two-time All-Star. A National League Rookie of the Year runner-up. A former face of a franchise. And he's actually younger than Zimmerman.

The questions are how much does Frazier have left in the tank and does he want to give the majors another shot? After signing, opting out of and re-signing minor league deals with the Pirates last spring, he was designated for assignment on May 10 after slashing only .086/.200/.114 in 40 plate appearances. He was outrighted to Triple-A, but refused the assignment and became a free agent.

Frazier went on to sign with the Sussex County Miners of the independent Frontier League, where he went 6-for-21 with one homer and six RBIs in six games. He then won a silver medal with the United States national team at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (contested last summer because of the pandemic).

He would have to want to play big league ball again and work his way back. But his 218 home runs and 23.9 WAR over his career could be a good fit as a backup to Bell.

Frazier even has a family connection to the Nationals, as his older brother, Jeff, was invited to 2011 spring training and played 120 games for Triple-A Syracuse that season.

Of course, no major league roster moves can be made during the lockout. But once that's over, expect the Nationals to thoroughly scour the first base free agent market to find Zimmerman's replacement.

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