The Washington Nationals have a gaping hole at first base that needs to be filled this offseason, but the clearest option is now out of the equation.
The switch-hitting Carlos Santana signed a two-year deal with the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday. The 34-year-old could’ve been the Nationals’ everyday option at first base, even coming off a season in which he struggled.
Santana hit just .199 with eight home runs in the 60-game 2020 campaign — marks that may have made general manager Mike Rizzo hesitant to splash the reported $17.5 million the Royals paid. But in 2019, Santana compiled one of his best seasons as a professional. He clubbed 34 longballs to accompany a .281 average, and his 93 RBIs were the most in his career.
Without Santana available, Washington will look elsewhere. There’s still the possibility one or both of Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick return, creating a platoon at first base. Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season, and the 36-year-old played just 52 games during the Nationals’ 2019 World Series run. Kendrick, meanwhile, hit .344 in 2019 — and he came through clutch in the postseason — before hitting .275 last season.
But if Washington moves on from Zimmerman or Kendrick — and Rizzo doesn’t re-sign Eric Thames or Asdrubal Cabrera — there are other free agent options the Nationals could move for, filling one of their biggest needs this offseason.
The former Detroit Tigers first baseman hardly got going last season before a knee injury required surgery and ended his 2020 campaign after 13 games. In those 52 plate appearances, Cron struck out 16 times and hit four homers — the beginning of a classic Cron season.
Over his previous two seasons, spent with the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins, Cron hit for power but racked up strikeouts. He launched 30 longballs in 2018 and drove in 74 runners while striking out 145 times. The next season, he sent 25 balls into the stands, added 78 RBIs and whiffed 107 times.
Still, Cron makes for an interesting platoon option. The right-handed batter tends to hit in the mid-.200s with an on-base percentage not much higher. His power potential, though, could be useful for a team that missed a slugger during the 60-game season; Juan Soto and Trea Turner were the only batters to reach double-digit home run totals.
If Washington eyes a platoon situation at first base, Mitch Moreland could be an ideal option. The left-hander can start against right-handed pitching, boasting a .794 career on-base plus slugging percentage off righties — as well as a .938 OPS in 2020 alone.
The former Boston Red Sox first baseman was packaged in a mid-season trade to the San Diego Padres. He finished the season with a .265 average in 42 games, knocking nine doubles and 10 homers. In his last full season, Moreland slugged at a .507 clip with 37 extra-base hits. Moreland’s also a fine fielding first baseman, with a .995 fielding percentage in 2019.
If the Nationals pursue Moreland, he could pair well with the return of Zimmerman or Kendrick, two right-handed hitters who don’t have the durability to start every night. The 35-year-old Moreland’s ability to hit right-handers opens plenty of options for Washington.
In his 561 major league games, Jake Lamb has only played first base in 44 of them. But Lamb — another left-handed bat — has played it more frequently of late. He featured for 83 innings at first compared to 110 at third base in the shortened 2020 season, which he spent between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics.
Lamb struggled at the plate to begin last season, and the Diamondbacks cut ties with the 30-year-old midway through the campaign. But once Lamb joined the Athletics in September, he finished on an upswing. He hit .267 in his 13 games, along with three homers and nine RBIs.
He has performed significantly better against right-handed pitching in his career, too, with an .805 OPS compared to a .599 mark against southpaws. That makes him another solid platoon option if Washington feels Lamb can make the full switch to first base.