Think back, if you can, to the offseason and one of the most pressing questions facing the Nationals as they prepared to defend their title in 2020: Who was going to replace Anthony Rendon as the No. 3 hitter?
There never was a perfect answer to the question, but there were several potential answers, each earning a few weeks in the spotlight before getting replaced by another.
Remember when we thought it might be Trea Turner? Forget about his blazing speed, the Nationals shortstop really was more of a run-producer than a table-setter, the thinking went. Then spring training began, manager Davey Martinez tried it out once and didn’t like it, and that was that.
Thoughts then turned to seemingly the most obvious choice: Juan Soto, the best all-around hitter on the team. But Martinez didn’t love that option, either, because he didn’t love having Soto hit right behind another lefty (No. 2 batter Adam Eaton) and he didn’t love the idea of Howie Kendrick or Ryan Zimmerman batting cleanup.
What about Kendrick in the third spot? That made some sense as well, and it may happen at some point this season. But, again, Martinez thought back to last year and remembered how much Kendrick thrived batting behind Soto, not in front of him.
So the Nats manager started using a newcomer in the No. 3 position during spring training: Starlin Castro. And four months later, as the clock ticks down toward opening night, Castro remains the No. 3 hitter in exhibition games.
He batted third in Saturday’s exhibition opener against the Phillies. He was there again Monday night at Camden Yards. And he’ll most likely be there tonight for the exhibition finale against the Orioles.
So is it appropriate to go ahead and pencil Castro in for opening night, batting behind Turner and Eaton, ahead of Soto, Kendrick and Eric Thames?
“I kind of like that lineup,” Martinez said Monday night. “Then again, we face Gerrit Cole the first day. I like where we’re at. I like what they’re doing. But you never know. I might switch it up, just for the first day. We’ll have to look at all the numbers. I want to keep looking at different things with Gerrit pitching.”
OK, so maybe it’s not set in stone. But barring a specific matchup that alters his strategic thinking, Martinez does seem intent on batting Castro third most of the time this season.
It’s not where the 30-year-old infielder has typically hit - or hit well.
In 1,429 big league starts, Castro has batted everywhere in the lineup, but the vast majority of his starts have come somewhere in the top half of the order. He’s hit fifth more than anywhere else (304 times), followed by second (291), fourth (270) and then third (204). His numbers batting third (.271 average, .306 on-base percentage, .404 slugging percentage) are slightly worse than his career totals (.280/.319/.414).
But Castro became an entirely different hitter late last season with the Marlins. After opening up his stance and looking to pull the ball in the air more, he batted .293/.347/.594 with nine homers over his final 35 games, almost all of those while batting third or fourth.
That revamped swing, late-season success and the current makeup of the rest of the Nationals lineup leave Martinez confident Castro is his best choice to bat third in 2020.
“We’ll see what happens come Thursday, but I like that,” the manager said. “I like Starlin hitting in front of Soto. I know he’s going to get on base. Then you’ve got Howie hitting behind him, and then Thames behind him. For me, that’s a pretty good setup.”