When Nick Senzel was designated for assignment last month by the Cincinnati Reds, the organization that drafted him second overall in 2016 and the only one he’d ever played for, he quickly turned his attention to where he could go next. And the Washington Nationals were on his radar.
The Nationals had a need for an everyday third baseman, Senzel’s natural position, and he was familiar with some of the coaching staff from his time in Cincinnati. Less than a month later, Senzel and the Nationals agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal, giving the 28-year-old a chance to salvage his career.
“This opportunity that was brought to me, an opportunity to be able to play every day and get a new start in a historic franchise … It was just kind of a no-brainer for me,” Senzel said Wednesday from Knoxville, Tenn.
It didn’t hurt that outfielder Lane Thomas is one of his best friends. He played travel ball with him as a kid. Thomas pitched him on the organization, and Senzel thought he had a good feel for what the team was about.
“It’s really insane, to be honest,” Senzel said. “We work out here at the University of Tennessee together and still can’t believe that we’re going to be teammates next year.”
Last offseason, the Nationals signed third baseman Jeimer Candelario to a one-year deal in hopes of a bounce-back year after a down season in 2022. Candelario flourished, and the Nationals were able to deal him at the trade deadline for a pair of prospects. The two sides had mutual interest in a reunion, according to multiple people familiar, and Candelario enjoyed playing for Manager Dave Martinez.
But Candelario ultimately signed a three-year deal with the Reds for $45 million. Senzel will have the chance to fill the void he left in Washington and prove he, too, might be worth a larger payday.
Senzel is coming off his best offensive season, hitting a career-high 13 home runs and matching his career high with 42 RBI in 330 plate appearances. But he hit just .236 with a .399 slugging percentage and owns a career average of .239 over five seasons. He’s also struggled to stay healthy and hasn’t played more than 110 games in a season.
The Nationals also have Carter Kieboom and Jake Alu as options at third base. Kieboom, the 28th pick of the same draft as Senzel, hit .207 in 94 plate appearances a year ago. Alu profiles more as a utility infielder.
Senzel said he expects to play third base every day, though he can play second base or outfield as well. Advanced metrics are not kind to his defense, however — he had -11 defensive runs saved last season (zero is the baseline for an average defender; anything negative means he cost his team runs in the field). But at third base, that figure was only -2 and he says it has always been his natural position.
“I was able last year to play a little bit over a month there,” Senzel said. “Picked it back up really well and third base is home for me. I’ve played it and just staying one spot will be a little bit easier on my body.”
For the Nationals, in the midst of a rebuild, the move was something of a low-risk gamble. If he performs well enough, the Nationals could flip him at the trade deadline, similar to what they did with Candelario. Or they could hang on to him (he is not eligible for arbitration until 2025).
That decision would depend on a few factors, perhaps most importantly how 20-year-old prospect Brady House performs and develops this season after jumping two levels in 2023. And it depends on whether Senzel improves upon what he did a year ago.
Senzel made some swing adjustments in hopes of doing more damage to the pull side. He increased his pull percentage to 45 in 2023 from 38 percent the year prior. He also elevated the ball more, decreasing his groundball and line-drive percentage while increasing his flyball and pop-up percentage.
Still, his advanced metrics aren’t favorable. His average exit velocity last season was 87.4 mph, below MLB’s league average of 88.4. His hard-hit percentage, which measures the percentage of balls hit 95 mph, was also below league average. But Senzel will be given the chance to prove last season wasn’t an aberration.
The Nationals open the season in Cincinnati, so Senzel said he looks forward to getting to compete against his former teammates. The Reds, like the Nationals, have lots of young talent and energy. Senzel sees a lot of parallels between the two franchises.
“I could definitely see playing the Nationals from the other side that they brought that [energy],” Senzel said. “They played with that energy and excitement and I could just see the similarities. It’ll be exciting, should be an easy transition going to a group of a lot of younger guys. Just try to help mentor them and match the energy level with them.”