Nationals Baseball: Off-Season Position Discussion : First Base

Monday, November 06, 2023

Off-Season Position Discussion : First Base

The Nats 1B situation feels bad. Dom Smith, who manned the bag in 2023 couldn't hit and only fielded ok. The Nats were fine with that this past season because they wanted to provide their young infielders with a decent defensive target and they wanted someone young enough that they could maybe get a surprise improvement.  Dom checked both of those boxes.  But going into 2024 it's hard to say he checks the second box now four years removed from his brief moment of pandemic season stardom. 

It seems pretty obvious that the Nats should upgrade here, that first base is an easily place to upgrade with a big bat even if they can't field well. But the Nats don't seem inclined to put money into the team right now and even if they did pitching seems like more of a necessity.  Also, sneakily, maybe Dom isn't so bad after all? 

Here are 1/3 of the MLB's 1B situations in 2023

SEA :  Ty France - barely average hitter and a stiff in the field

SDP : Jake Croneneworth mostly - barely average hitter and mediocre in the field

DET : Spencer Torkleson - ok hitter should get better, fielding wise... let's generously say waiting for Miggy to clear out of DH 

MIL : Rowdy Tellez - bad hitter, bad fielder. Replaced mid-season with Carlos Santana - a good hitter and good fielder who also will be 38 next year

CHC : A lot of Bellinger who was pretty good but you'd rather have in the OF. Forced to play there bc Mancini and Mervis were terrible with the bat

MIA : Yuri Gurriel got old and Garret Cooper was never special, not particularly good in the field

HOU : Jose Abreu got old and is also not particularly good in the field

COL : Montero, Cron - a bunch of awful bats with no real redeeming fielding.

KC : Pasquatino can hit but is a butcher in the field.  A big improvement over Nick Pratto though who was awful in every way. Still might end up as Sal Perez's landing spot so maybe that works

LAA : After trying 3-4 guys that couldn't hit or field, would use Drury but he was kind of wasted at first, until they got to Schanuel a prospect that should hit ok and should field ok. 

 Anyway the point is this is the state of first base in baseball today. There is not a bunch of guys that can hit ok and field ok out there.  There aren't bunch of good bats needing a place to land even if it's not ideal. No, about half the league would love to upgrade their first base and they can't. This includes competitive teams.

Presumed Plan : Dom Smith returns, Joey backs up while they keep fiddling around with Riley Adams and maybe start fiddling around with Lane Thomas.

Reasoning behind Presumed Plan : See above. There aren't a lot of options and there will be a fair amount of competition to the options that do exist.  Bellinger will probably get the big money and Hoskins will likely get the follow-up with anyone else worth getting having to be a position shift. The Nats might be interested in spending money but it's doubtful they will reach for anything when what they have isn't broken. Instead expect a SP focus as the market there has some depth and the Nats need something decent and reliable, if not great. 

They like Dom. Dom seems to like it here. He serves his purpose and will likely take another 1 year contract so the Nats don't have to commit to him past this upcoming season. They like Joey and Joey is very cheap.  Value wise the Nats are actually doing pretty well here.

My Take :  We've come a long way from the roid days when you couldn't lift a first base without finding a guy hitting .270 with 30 homers. With the pharmaceutical propping up of bats no longer happening, there is no longer a surplus. The ones that can play a position are doing so, and with the expansion of the DH the ones that can't play a position aren't. That leaves 1B a no-man's land full of 2nd/3rd best non-fielding bats and slick fielding 1B prospects whose bats never developed. Dom sort of fits the latter.

Not that there isn't big potential issues here. Dom's mediocre 2023 was better than either of his previous two seasons and an upset Dom in the past has been flat out terrible. If his situation here gets murky and he gets unhappy history says he'll tank hard. 

There isn't much better behind him either. Joey showed his true nature last year which is a guy that can hit ok. That's also fine I guess. Riley Adams might get more of a shot but given his glove work I can't imagine it working out unless he puts everything together at the plate and we just forget about it. Although at that point you'd probably want him at DH.  

I do think Lane Thomas at 1B is an interesting possibility. He's worse in the OF than he looks and even if he bounces back he was never a plus guy out there. But he does seem athletic to a degree and if that translates to decent 1B defense it can solve that issue of where to put his bat which is decent but not really want you imagine a DH to be.

Look I don't know.  It's hard to shake off the memories of our youth but the facts are the 1B situation today resembles the 70s more than the 90s. In this environment Dom is... fine? He easily could drift back to an even worse place with his bat but if he's under the expected one year deal (or one year plus a team option - which is what I think is most likely) then you just cut bait in August/September and move on. There's no downside other than it hurting 2024 but there is no indication the Nats are in it for 2024.  Oh, I suppose it keeps the Nats from setting up the position for 2025 which they may actually care about but I just don't see them putting the money into getting one of the two guys who'd definitely be worth it. But if they do - great! I'd be all in for Hoskins, older but more reliable than the wild potential of Cody Bellinger. I just don't see it happening. 

The Nats need to make FA moves but only SP is a must especially in this environment. If they go for a bat, be it 1B, 3B, or OF then that should be a secondary move. It would be a strong one, showing real commitment to competing sooner rather than later but a gutsy one with the reliance on prospects to fill out holes.  I don't think the Nats are that gutsy.  So I expect Dom back. 


John C. said...

I don't really have a problem with the team bringing back Dom Smith for one more year. There actually is some chance of improvement, because although he had a wRC+ of only 90 he underperformed his quality of contact (wOBA of .306/xwOBA of .322). Not that is going to make him "good" as such. But he is capable of being a league average hitter with a good glove. He's a placeholder, so that's fine.

I'm not a believer in Riley Adams as much of an option, because I'm skeptical. Adams had a great season (.807 OPS/116 wRC+). Yay! But he was really, really lucky. His BABIP was .368. Unsustainable. His wOBA was .344, but his xwOBA was .281. Yes, significantly less than Dom Smith's. Even putting aside the recovery from a fractured hamate bone, Adams is due for some serious regression.

I'd take Rhys Hopkins as a DH, but he's a turrible defensive first baseman. Not the thing you need for a young infield. I don't think that my heart is ready for the roller coaster ride of Cody Bellinger, whose signing requires that you squint and pretend that 2020-2022 never happened.

Lane Thomas is not going to end up at 1b. He's never played the position in college or the pros. I see more chatter of trying to shoehorn him into 2b, which at least has the benefit that he's played the position (although his fielding% was pretty ghastly).

EdDC said...

It is not that easy to switch an outfielder to first base and expect him to get it right away at the major league level. It's a tough position. It is a hot corner against left-handed hitters. Digging balls out of the dirt is a skill most infielders have but not necessarily outfielders. The fancy foot work in fielding and placing the right foot on the bag does not necessarily come automatically. I like the idea of taking an infielder and switching him to first base. I don't know if Trey Lipscomb can handle the job at the major league level, but if he can hit, give him a try in spring. I know that's a long shot. And don't the Nats have enough medicore or young SPs? Maybe a summer trade candidate.

DezoPenguin said...

All of this is depressing and probably also true. I can see a one-year pillow contract for Hoskins coming back from injury as maybe the only potential upgrade from Smith that actually seems realistic.