For evidence of the new era the Nationals have entered over the last year, look no further than the Opening Day lineup manager Davey Martinez will submit for Thursday’s season opener against the New York Mets.
Patrick Corbin will be listed as the starter pitcher, snapping a 10-year run during which the Nationals only gave the ball to either Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg for Opening Day. Ryan Zimmerman’s name will be absent as well; the retired infielder cracked the Game 1 lineup every year from 2006 to 2021 except for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Instead, the Nationals will trot out a batting order with a mix of young pieces looking to establish themselves and veteran players on short-term deals still hoping to be productive late into their careers. Here’s what their Opening Day lineup may look like.
1. 2B César Hernández (S)
Martinez has spoken at length this spring about wanting Hernández, whom the Nationals signed to a one-year deal this offseason, to bat leadoff ahead of their big hitters. The 31-year-old has hit at the top of the order for a majority of his career, but his on-base percentage dropped off last season from his career average of .345 down to .308 — not the kind of production a leadoff hitter must provide.
However, Martinez pointed to Hernández’s change in his approach where he focused more on hitting for power — he had a career-high 21 home runs — and expressed how he wants the second baseman to get back to what made him a successful hitter for years with the Philadelphia Phillies. Hernández’s ability to do so will be critical for maximizing the success of the star players behind him.
2. RF Juan Soto (L)
Soto has taken a majority of his at-bats in the No. 3 and 4 spots during his young career, but the Nationals are moving him up to second in order to get him up to the plate more often throughout the season. Although third is the traditional spot for a team’s best hitter, MLB teams have moved away from that line of thinking in recent years due to the rise of analytics.
The Nationals will look to Soto to put up MVP-caliber numbers in his age-23 season and he continues to establish himself as one of the best pure hitters in the sport. While he’s certainly capable of hitting for power, his eye for the strike zone is his strongest asset at the plate. Soto will draw plenty of walks, which is why the presence of their No. 3 hitter will be so important.
3. DH Nelson Cruz
The only active players with more home runs than Cruz are Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, two players that have combined for five MVP awards throughout their careers. Cruz has never won an MVP, but he’s been among the league’s most productive hitters of the last decade while still hitting for tremendous power even as he’s aged into his early 40s.
Washington signed Cruz to a one-year deal this offseason to serve as both Soto’s lineup protection and a veteran leader in the clubhouse. While opposing teams are still going to walk Soto at one of the highest clips in baseball, Cruz is a dangerous enough hitter to punish them for it often.
4. 1B Josh Bell (S)
Bell is quietly coming off one of the best seasons of his career. He shook off an early slump and belted 27 home runs with an .823 OPS in 144 games for the Nationals while playing a reliable first base in the field. The 29-year-old switch hitter is now heading into a contract year and could set himself up for a big payday next winter if he can put together another strong campaign.
The aforementioned slump was a rough one. Bell started the year off hitting .207 over the first six weeks of the season. His violent swing is heavily reliant on him getting his timing down, which makes him prone to prolong stretches like that. Washington will look to get him off to a strong start and avoid the early hole he dug himself into last year.
5. C Keibert Ruiz (S)
Perhaps the Nationals’ most important young player not named Soto, Ruiz will be thrown right into a kay lineup spot this season after impressing in a limited sample as a rookie in 2021. The catcher, who arrived in Washington’s trade deadline deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, has been among baseball’s top prospects for the last few years with a skill set that includes impressive plate discipline.
That patience was on display last year during his time in D.C., as was his power potential. Ruiz broke out in that department last year with 21 home runs and 24 doubles in 72 games at Triple-A. He also reached base at an impressive rate of .377, showing promise of developing into a well-rounded hitter that could be central to their offensive plans for the next half-decade.
6. SS Alcides Escobar
Escobar is back with the Nationals after resurrecting his career with them as an injury replacement last season. The 35-year-old fended off young infielder Luis García for the starting shortstop job in camp, though García — still only 21 — faced long odds of breaking camp with the team.
Batting often in the No. 2 spot, Escobar proved to be a pesky contact hitter in 2021 and this year the Nationals hope he can add some length to their lineup. He’s never been much of a power bat and his days of stealing 30 bases are likely over, but he showed last season he can still rack up singles and doubles to keep the line moving.
7. LF Lane Thomas
Thomas has been among the Nationals’ most productive hitters this spring, posting a .269/.367/.500 slash line in 30 plate appearances of Grapefruit League action. Washington acquired him in its trade of Jon Lester at the deadline last year and he came on strong in his D.C. debut, bumping Victor Robles from his center field while flashing impressive speed on the basepaths.
This year, Thomas will shift over to left field after showing a need for some improvements defensively. He’s still a bit of an unknown quantity — he hit just .172 in 84 career games for the St. Louis Cardinals before the trade — but could be a candidate to move up near the top of the lineup if he can carry over his success into this season.
8. 3B Maikel Franco
The Nationals entered camp with Franco competing against Carter Kieboom for their starting third base job. Kieboom then suffered a mass flexor strain and UCL strain in his throwing elbow, landed him on the 60-Day Injured List to begin the season. That left Franco as one of the only healthy third basemen left in camp despite reporting to West Palm Beach as a non-roster invitee.
Franco, another former Phillie, has three 20-homer seasons to his name. He’s coming off a down year, having posted a .609 OPS in 104 games before being released by the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles. The Nationals signed him a no-risk deal and any production he gives them above replacement level will be a strong return on investment.
9. CF Victor Robles
Despite a poor showing this spring, Robles is likely to open the season as the Nationals’ starting center fielder for the fourth straight year. His strong defense should take a load off the shoulders of Soto and Thomas while he has the speed to be an effective baserunner for the hitters at the top of the lineup to drive in. His ability to get on base in the first place, however, will determine his future in D.C.
Robles originally reached the majors as a consensus top-10 prospect with a five-tool skill set. While he’s flashed each of those tools over the year, he’s struggled to put it all together while undergoing various swing changes and adjustments to his approach. The Nationals hope he can at least get back to the hitter he was a rookie in 2019, when he had a .745 OPS with 17 homers and 28 stolen bases.
LHP – Patrick Corbin
The last pitcher not named Scherzer or Strasburg to start Opening Day for the Nationals was Liván Hernández in 2011. This year, Scherzer is slated to pitch against Washington on Opening Day, though a hamstring injury has put his status for the opener in jeopardy. Strasburg is still building himself back up after undergoing season-ending thoracic outlet syndrome surgery last summer.
Instead, it’s going to be Corbin, who’s coming off consecutive down years after playing hero with three scoreless innings for the Nationals in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. Corbin was among baseball’s best left-handed pitchers that year, and the club hopes he can regain his form with three expensive years left on his contract. He has had a strong spring, allowing no earned runs in nine innings.