The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals and Dominic Smith agree to one-year deal

The Nationals agreed to terms with Dominic Smith on Tuesday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
5 min

At the winter meetings in early December, Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez laid out a specific checklist for an offensive acquisition. Martinez wanted the player to bat left-handed, to play the corner outfield spots and to be capable of spelling Joey Meneses at first or serving as the designated hitter. Then the Nationals agreed to terms with Dominic Smith on Tuesday, giving them a bounce-back candidate who fits each of those requirements and their general offseason vision.

That vision, as reinforced by signing Smith, is to add on the margins and not spend much money. Smith’s deal is for one year and a base salary of $2 million (plus a possible $2 million more in performance incentives), according to a person familiar with the terms. The 27-year-old was available after he was non-tendered by the Mets in November, which came after he spent parts of the past six years with New York.

The Mets drafted Smith with the 11th overall pick in 2013. So far this offseason, Washington has brought in four former first-rounders — Smith, Jeter Downs, Michael Chavis and Derek Hill — making low-cost bets on significant turnarounds. In the abbreviated 2020 season, Smith crushed the ball, posting an adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage that was 68 points above average. But for the past two years, he has a .233 batting average, a .298 on-base percentage and a .345 slugging percentage in 645 plate appearances.

Nats sign former first-rounder Michael Chavis in latest risk-reward move

And while Smith struck out a tick more in those down seasons, what’s more notable is the stark difference in his pull percentages:

2019 (197 plate appearances) — 40.6 pull percentage, .881 OPS.

2020 (199 plate appearances) — 44.4 pull percentage (a career high), .993 OPS.

2021 (493 plate appearances) — 36.8 pull percentage, .667 OPS.

2022 (152 plate appearances) — 34.3 pull percentage, .560 OPS.

If he can restore his pull numbers, Smith could benefit from Major League Baseball’s new ban on shifts. According to Statcast, Smith had a .208 weighted on-base average against the shift in 2022, the second-lowest mark among hitters who faced at least 100 shifts. When he wasn’t shifted against, his wOBA shot up to .364, though that includes a far smaller handful of instances. Curiously, Smith’s pull percentage dropped as teams began to shift him more, perhaps a case of him unsuccessfully trying to counter aggressive defensive alignments.

The Nationals, then, were a good match for Smith, who drifted into the open market at a low point of his young career. He needs the everyday opportunity to right himself. Washington has plenty of at-bats to go around. The questions now are how Smith fits into the lineup and the defense — and who will be taken off the 40-man roster to clear space once the signing is official. USA Today first reported that Smith and the Nationals agreed to a deal.

While slumping since the beginning of 2021, Smith also has dealt with injuries and mental health struggles that he detailed publicly. With a fresh slate, and with another shot to stick in the majors, expect him to have regular at-bats with the opportunity to rediscover his rhythm amid failure.

Nationals claim Jeter Downs, a former top prospect with an uncertain future

Aside from Jeimer Candelario, Victor Robles and Lane Thomas, to a degree, the Nationals are thin on players with experience in a major league batter’s box. Smith has that and is likely to be treated as such, especially after Martinez expressed the desire for a lefty-hitting first baseman who can slide to left field.

That would leave Alex Call and Stone Garrett as potential extra outfielders behind a mix of Robles, Thomas, Smith and maybe Meneses if Smith’s shaky defense makes him a better fit at first. Last season, during which Smith hit zero homers in 152 plate appearances, the Mets stopped using him in left altogether, putting him at 182 career appearances at the position compared with 187 at first. Advanced defensive metrics consider him a well-below-average outfielder, meaning it could make more sense to slot him at first and shift Meneses back to the outfield, where he was solid in a limited sample last summer.

Yet during his winter meetings news conference, Martinez told reporters he wants Meneses to mostly handle first and to DH when he needs a break from the field. So if Martinez has Meneses at first, Robles in center and Thomas in right, Smith could get a bulk of his at-bats as a left fielder or designated hitter. Also part of the equation is how often Candelario starts at third, which will at least partly hinge on Carter Kieboom’s spring training and the strength of his surgically repaired right elbow.

Whatever the case, January is a better time for speculating than knowing how lineup cards will look come April. But one certainty with Smith is familiar: Should he perform well in the first four months of the season, he would be a candidate to land the Nationals a prospect or two at the trade deadline.

Andrew Golden contributed to this report.