WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joey Meneses has never been in this position. His spot on the Washington Nationals’ roster was all but secure when spring training began. He’s getting at-bats early in games before being subbed out, or he’s sticking around as the designated hitter. He’s a guy who, in his first major league camp, is being handled like a seasoned veteran.
“Kind of weird,” Meneses said with a laugh. “It is a little different to get treated so well.”
Meneses made his major league debut on the day Juan Soto was traded to the San Diego Padres — and hit his first big league home run that night. When his rookie season was complete, he had hit .324 with 13 homers and 34 RBI in 56 games.
By now, his story is well known. Meneses, 30, spent the first eight seasons of his professional career in the Atlanta Braves’ and Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league systems. He then played in his native Mexico and Japan before giving the majors another shot. He came to the Nationals last season after spending 2021 bouncing between Class AA and AAA in the Boston Red Sox system. He had never gotten an opportunity to participate in major league spring training, but there was no question about where he would be heading into 2023.
But as happens any time a rookie gets out of the gates hot, other teams are working hard to find holes in his swing. He may be the age of a major league veteran, but he has just 240 plate appearances under his belt. And he does have a weakness with pitches up and in.
Still, there are reasons to believe Meneses’s success wasn’t a fluke. He fared well against all pitches last season: He hit .319 against fastballs, .338 against breaking balls and .313 against off-speed pitches. He had a barrel rate of 9.9 percent; the major league average is 6.7. Across the majors, the hard-hit ball rate is 35.8 percent. Meneses was at 47.1.
So he will get an opportunity to hit in the middle of the order every day. He is likely to slot in at designated hitter but also could play first base or left field, depending on how Manager Dave Martinez constructs his lineup.
He is hitting 4 for 20 (.200) at spring training after going 1 for 3 in a 6-2 loss at the Houston Astros on Sunday. He is still trying to find a rhythm after he didn’t play as many winter ball games as usual; he had a minor knee ache that sidelined him.
“Mainly, I feel different in general just because I stopped playing for a while in the offseason,” he said. “I never have stopped playing for that extended period of time, so that’s what kind of feels a little weird.”
The exposure Meneses received last year was an adjustment, too — he’s not used to being a player who gets attention, and he certainly doesn’t seek it out. But before the season ended, Nationals fans who didn’t know his name last spring were chanting it during his plate appearances. He visited the Mexican embassy in September. This offseason, he had a corrido — a folk song that tells the narrative of someone’s life — written about him by a friend.
That strong play earned him a chance to play for Mexico at this month’s World Baseball Classic. He is set to leave Nationals camp Monday, joining a few teammates who will compete for their countries.
“I told him we’ll miss you here, but I understand it,” Martinez said. “I get it. Go help them try to win. … He’s looking forward to it.”
Meneses said he has watched the tournament since he was a teenager; his favorite memory was in the inaugural edition in 2006, when Mexico eliminated the United States. He always told himself that, if he got the chance to play, he would. This year presented the perfect opportunity.
Here’s what else to know about the Nationals at spring training:
Kieboom ailing again
Martinez said Sunday infielder Carter Kieboom is experiencing right shoulder discomfort and will be slowed down as he works to return to the field. Kieboom missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery; he served as the designated hitter Thursday against Miami in his first action of spring.
Kieboom has yet to play in the field and was following a routine in which he didn’t throw every day. He also was working on throwing from different angles as the team managed his arm.
“The last thing I want to do ... is have something like this bother me, and then you start kind of tweaking your own mechanics and start compensating for things,” Kieboom said. “That’s what gets you in trouble again. ... It’s important to take care of now; that way, it’s a one-to-three-day thing versus a two-to-three-week thing.”
Kieboom, 25, has a .197 batting average in 414 plate appearances in the majors. This setback seemingly pushes back his return, increasing the likelihood Jeimer Candelario will be the third baseman on Opening Day.
Candelario will represent the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, Martinez said Sunday. He will replace Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and will play first base.
Hill out with hamstring strain
Martinez said Saturday outfielder Derek Hill will be sidelined with what he called “between a Grade 1 and Grade 2” right hamstring strain. Hill suffered the injury running down the first base line Wednesday against the New York Yankees, and there is no timeline for his return. Martinez said Hill was riding a stationary bike Friday, but he wants the 27-year-old to take his time in his recovery.
The 2014 first-round pick by the Detroit Tigers was in the mix to compete for the fourth outfielder spot with Alex Call and Stone Garrett. Call and Garrett have shown more promise at the plate, but Hill excels defensively in center field and flashes more speed on the base paths. He hit .229 in 92 plate appearances with the Tigers last season.