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The Nationals want Juan Soto to bat second. Here’s why it just might work.

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez is trying to convince Juan Soto to embrace batting second this season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

JUPITER, Fla. — It’s common spring training practice to look at a lineup, squint a bit, then declare it maybe, possibly, potentially the batting order for Opening Day. The success rate of this exercise can’t be higher than the Washington Nationals’ winning percentage in 2021 (.401).

But the nine guys Dave Martinez rolled into the box at Roger Dean Stadium on Wednesday? Yeah, okay, it looked a lot like an Opening Day lineup.

1. César Hernández, 2B

2. Juan Soto, RF

3. Nelson Cruz, DH

4. Josh Bell, 1B

5. Keibert Ruiz, C

6. Lane Thomas, LF

7. Alcides Escobar, SS

8. Maikel Franco, 3B

9. Victor Robles, CF

Some quick questions include, though are not limited to: Should Hernández lead off after posting a .308 on-base percentage last season? Do the Nationals have better options there? (If your answer is Thomas, consider whether a 45-game sample is enough to forget why the St. Louis Cardinals discarded him for Jon Lester at the trade deadline last year.) And in what’s expected to be a rebuilding year, does it make sense to play the 35-year-old Escobar over 21-year-old Luis García at short as Martinez seems set to do?

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All fair. All worth answering at some point. But what stood out most Wednesday was Soto batting second in front of Cruz. Martinez seems to believe the 23-year-old star should hit there. A few hours before the exhibition, he told reporters that he’s in the process of convincing Soto that the No. 2 spot is the place for him. He even gave a window into his pitch.

“I got to sell him on it,” Martinez said. “He likes hitting third. I think he thinks by getting those two guys on, he has more chances [to drive runners in].”

According to the team’s research, there were 14 times last season when Soto would have had an extra at-bat if he were hitting second instead of third. And by Martinez’s count, seven of the past 10 winners of the MVP award had the majority of their plate appearances in that spot. That list includes Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman and Christian Yelich in his monster season for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.

Those players were not MVPs because they batted second. They batted second because they were MVP candidates, which is really the crux of Martinez’s argument. Modern baseball thinking says you put your best hitter after your leadoff man. One element of that is the simple fact that he will get more plate appearances across the season than most teammates. (It’s still beneficial to have a high on-base-percentage guy at the top; if he can run, even better.) Another element is that studies show No. 2 hitters have the most chances to affect the final score of a game.

Through six at-bats hitting second, including three in a 10-8 loss to the Houston Astros on Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla., Soto has a solo homer, an RBI single and a walk. Josiah Gray, making his second exhibition start Thursday, logged 3⅓ innings, five strikeouts and 55 pitches. The score flipped in the fifth inning when reliever Sean Doolittle yielded a walk, a single, a walk and a grand slam to Yuli Gurriel. Washington is slated to start top prospect Cade Cavalli against St. Louis on Friday in Jupiter.

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Batting orders are better at fueling debates than predicting outcomes. It will matter more, for example, if Hernández is around his career OBP of .345 than if Soto or someone else follows him. But one of Martinez’s biggest tasks is maximizing Soto’s production and getting him more pitches to hit. With the latter, Washington hopes signing Cruz, a feared power bat, will lower the nearly 35 percent walk rate Soto had in the final two months of 2021. And bumping Soto up has a domino effect, also giving more at-bats to Cruz and Bell than a “traditional” table-setter such as Thomas or Escobar.

As for selling Soto on it, he seemed amenable Wednesday, and any of his initial hesitancy feels justified. He has been an all-galaxy talent while batting third or fourth in 310 of his 455 starts to date. But the Nationals’ new roster construction adds more legitimacy to the idea. A year ago, then-hitting coach Kevin Long pushed for Soto to bat second and be protected by shortstop Trea Turner, who was unquestionably the club’s second-best hitter. But Martinez eventually wanted to bat Turner first — after Robles had his brief chance in the spot — and Turner’s speed sometimes deterred them from putting Soto second.

The Nationals were afraid of robbing Turner’s ability to steal because an open base may have given pitchers even more of a reason to walk Soto. It’s a basic lineup principle and maybe a case of overthinking. And Washington was flexible, trying a bunch of different looks with Soto behind Turner before Turner was shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Hernández, Martinez’s preferred leadoff man for a weakened order, has stolen just 10 bases since the start of 2019. With Soto, Cruz and Bell, the lineup’s only obvious strength is its middle-of-the-order pop, which Soto could both initiate and benefit from in the two-hole.

“I’ve been talking to [Cruz]; I’ve been talking to [hitting coach Darnell Coles] about that. We’ve been thinking on it. I think it’s a good way,” Soto said. “We’re going to start working on it here in spring training to see how it’s going to work for the future … to get used to it … start seeing more pitches, start getting ready earlier and all that stuff. And it gets me a couple more at-bats. So right now I feel good ,and we’ll see how it goes.”

In his first chance hitting second this spring, he worked a full count against Miami Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara on Wednesday and crushed a fastball over the 400-foot sign in center. That should help, too.

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