Why the Nationals are signing Gallo

If you missed the news Tuesday, the Nationals actually acquired a major leaguer.

Yes, for the first time in 42 days, they made a move involving the 40-man roster. (OK, actually the move isn’t official yet and may not be for another few days, so the streak technically continues.)

Joey Gallo is going to be a National, the 30-year-old slugger having agreed to terms on a one-year deal that guarantees $5 million, plus the potential for another $1 million earned in incentives, sources familiar with the negotiation confirmed. He’ll need to pass a physical, and the team will need to clear a 40-man spot for him, but then it’ll all be official, and our long winter nightmare will be over.

The Nats hadn’t made a major-league transaction since Dec. 12, when they officially announced the signings of Nick Senzel and Dylan Floro. Suffice it to say, it has been a while.

If you were hoping for a deal to get excited about, this probably wasn’t it. There were bigger names available on the free agent market, many of them coming with a much higher price tag. But don’t blow off the Gallo signing altogether. There is some logic behind it.

What were the 2023 Nationals lacking more than anything else? Power, especially from the left side of the plate. Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez made no secret about their desire to improve that all-important area after watching their team rank last in the National League with 151 home runs.

Gallo, for what it’s worth, has hit 150 homers over his last six seasons. That’s only six fewer than Bryce Harper in that timeframe, only 10 fewer than Juan Soto. His 21 homers last year would’ve ranked second on the Nats, trailing only Lane Thomas’ 28. And his .741 OPS would’ve ranked third among Nats regulars, trailing only Jeimer Candelario’s .823 and Thomas’ .783.

Gallo also brings something else to the table the Nationals sorely need to be better at: Drawing walks. As a team, they ranked last in the NL with 423 bases on balls. Only one regular owned a walk rate better than the league average of 8.8 percent: Alex Call, who drew walks at a rate of 12.1 percent. Gallo’s rate last season was 14.5 percent, just a tick below his career mark of 14.8 percent.

Now, this doesn’t make him an elite offensive player. He owns a comically low .197 career batting average, having hit an even worse .177 last season for the Twins. And he struck out an unfathomable 42.8 percent of the time, way more than the Nats’ worst strikeout guy last season: Thomas, who had a 25.8 percent K rate.

So, Gallo is probably going to drive you crazy at times when you watch him hit this year. You just have to hope the times he does connect with the ball make a difference, like with runners on base or late in a tight ballgame.

The thing is, for $5 million, he’s worth the gamble. How many other established 30-homer guys come that cheap?

And in the situation the Nationals currently find themselves, it makes even more sense. They don’t need a long-term solution in left field (where Gallo is likely to spend a majority of his time). They’ve got James Wood and Dylan Crews coming soon, probably sometime this summer.

In a best-case scenario, Gallo puts up big first-half numbers, then the Nats flip him at the trade deadline and give his job to either Wood or Crews. It’s the same formula that worked splendidly last summer with Candelario, who was signed for $5 million and then traded to the Cubs for two prospects, including intriguing left-hander DJ Herz.

The question now: Are the Nats done? They had to sign at least one player of Gallo’s likeness, but is there room for another?

A theoretical Opening Day lineup right now would feature Gallo in left field and Joey Meneses at first base. But who would be the designated hitter? Maybe there’s a chance Stone Garrett is ready to return from his broken leg by then, but the Nationals seem more likely to take the cautious route and give Garrett more time than that to fully recover.

So, there’s probably another lineup hole still to be filled, if not with an everyday player, then a part-timer. (By the way, if you were among those hoping to see Rhys Hoskins in a curly W cap, sorry. He reportedly signed a two-year, $34 million deal with the Brewers late Tuesday night.)

None of this has made for an exciting offseason, but it was naïve to expect much more than this. The Nationals, for better or worse, are sticking with their plan and will continue to prioritize homegrown prospects over veteran free agents.

If it works out, that plan should change next winter. Until then, Joey Gallo is the kind of player you should expect them to sign.

Where can the Nationals find more power in 2024?
Sources: Nats signing slugger Gallo for $5 million

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