First base first: Nats' top priority at Winter Meetings

November 29th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jessica Camerato’s Nationals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In recent years, a big question facing the Nationals' roster was the starting third-base role. Leading up to Winter Meetings next week in Nashville, Tenn., the Nats’ most glaring hole is across the infield at first base.  

Washington parted ways with Dominic Smith on Nov. 14, designating him for assignment to make room on the roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft protection deadline. Smith made 140 starts at first base last season after signing with the Nats in January. Designated hitter Joey Meneses (19) and utility infielder Michael Chavis (three) covered the rest.  

So what are some of the criteria the Nationals could look for at first base for next season?

Defense: Smith brought defensive reliability to a young infield that, at points throughout the season, included a second base/shortstop duo of Luis García and CJ Abrams, who both opened the year at age 22, and rookie Jake Alu at third base. Smith received kudos for his work at first base, where he posted a .994 fielding percentage. He also led all first basemen in assists (143) and ranked fifth in defensive runs saved (five).  

Offense: The Nationals are looking to add more power to their lineup, and it could come from the first-base vacancy. Last season, Smith batted .254 with 12 home runs (six of which he hit during a September surge). The team ranked last in the National League in homers (151) and recorded the fourth-lowest slugging percentage (.396) in the NL.  

Leadership: The young infield learned from the leadership of Smith, 28, during games and in the clubhouse. On a team that still is developing and could potentially see key Major League debuts next season, leadership is a value at every position.

The Nationals have an internal option in Meneses. He made 32 starts at first base in 2022 before shifting to the everyday DH role last season. Meneses enjoys the in-game rhythm that comes with playing in the field. His plate production dipped in '23 following a breakout rookie performance (.722 OPS and 13 home runs in 154 games, compared to .930 OPS and 13 home runs in 56 games), but there is a possibility those numbers could be boosted by the consistency of the first-base role. In that case, the Nats’ need would become finding a new designated hitter.  

There also are nearly 20 first basemen currently in the free-agent market: Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Santana, Brandon Belt, Donovan Solano, Garrett Cooper, Ji Man Choi, C.J. Cron, Mike Ford, Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer, Rowdy Tellez, Jake Lamb, Luke Voit, Juan Yepez, Jesús Aguilar, Joey Votto and Yuli Gurriel.