After four glorious spring training games so far, the battle for the Opening Day LF and CF spots has begun to take shape. As incredible as it has been to finally get to see Juan Soto back in the batter’s box, or Paolo Espino (god bless) on the mound again, the fight for the outfield is my current favorite spring training storyline, especially since there is no clear frontrunner yet. The end of last season saw Yadiel Hernández in LF and Lane Thomas in CF, with Victor Robles down at AAA. However, at age 34 and with less than two full years in the majors, Hernández is not predicted to be the leading LF for the duration of the rebuild. Meanwhile, Robles is working hard to reclaim his CF spot, and he ended his season at Rochester with an average of .306, an OBP of .385, and a OPS of .961 across 85 ABs. Lane Thomas’s solid time in CF, however, has made the comeback more competitive.
Below, I take a dive into each of the contenders’ spring training offensive performances thus far, with my prediction for the Opening Day lineup at the end. Four spring training games are, of course, an incredibly imprecise and finicky metric by which to judge players. That said, with cuts already being made and the pool being winnowed down, the players’ performances so far can give us at least a little bit of insight into where they might rank on Davey’s Opening Day list. As a note, I’ve left Gerardo Parra and Donovan Casey off of this list for now, even though they’ve both made outfield appearances over the past few days: Parra is a non-roster invitee and is not at all guaranteed to make the 28-man roster, and Casey, while up-and-coming, does not seem to be seriously in contention against the below four.
Robles, who started in CF in both the March 18 game against Miami and the March 20 game against Houston, has so far failed to impress at the plate. In two ABs on March 18, he grounded out to short (leaving one man on base to end the inning) and then flew out to center field. On March 20, he struck out in the third inning and flew out to center field before being replaced by Donovan Casey. Four ABs is obviously not much to go by, but his defense so far has also been unspectacular by his standards. Given that the pitchers he’s facing at spring training are not the big league pitchers he struggled so mightily against last year, his lack of production is a cause for concern, even though I think he will still make the Opening Day roster (as long as he and the Nationals can go through the arbitration process without too much acrimony…).
Hernández has only started in one game so far, in LF on March 21 against St. Louis, but he’s made appearances in all four, leading me to believe he may be Davey’s current preferred LF candidate. Nothing he’s done has been particularly noteworthy, however. On March 18, he was unspectacular, grounding out into a double play in the sixth before grounding out against in the ninth. On March 19, he struck out twice. On March 20, he walked, and on March 21, he struck out once and flew out once. Given the number of appearances he’s made, however, and his solid performance last year (with a slash line of .273/.329/.413), I would not be surprised if he makes the Opening Day cut without becoming the everyday LF player.
Unlike Robles and Hernández, Lane Thomas has so far been comparatively productive at the plate in his three starts (out of four games!) in the outfield. He was unremarkable starting in LF on March 18, grounding out in the second and then grounding into a double play in the fourth. On March 19 in CF, he walked in his sole AB, and on March 21 starting in CF, he scored one run, had one hit, and struck out once in three ABs. He also managed to steal second base in the fourth, showing off the impressive speed we got a taste of last year. I personally would love to see more of Thomas at the major league level and would love it if he made the Opening Day roster, regardless of who he’d need to bump down to do so.
Stevenson has not been as much in contention as the above three for the Opening Day spot, and there may be less of a need for his pinch-hitting abilities given the addition of the DH in the NL. Nevertheless, he has appeared in all four games so far (starting two) and been somewhat productive. On March 18, Stevenson pinch hit for Juan Soto in the DH slot and was eventually substituted in, drawing two walks. Starting in RF in the March 19 game against the Mets, Stevenson lined out before reaching on a fielding error, and starting in the March 20 game against Houston in LF, he struck out and grounded out (leaving Soto and Cruz stranded). While he may not make an Opening Day outfield slot, his performance has the potential to keep Robles, Hernández, and Thomas on their toes.
Opening Day Prediction
Based on the above, as well as how each of these guys performed in the 2021 season, I predict that Davey will try to get Hernández in LF and Robles in CF for Opening Day. Despite Robles’ difficult season last year and his so far unimpressive spring training performance, I think Davey wants to give Robles another shot on the big stage as soon as possible, and figure out if his triple A success can be replicated or if he’s a quadruple A type of player. I truly hope it’s the former, but would not be surprised if it were the latter.
I wish, however, that we could see the season start with Lane Thomas in LF and Victor Robles in CF. While I have a soft spot for Yadi, I believe it’s better to transition sooner rather than later to the younger players, and give Robles and Thomas more consistent ABs. Of course, if Robles underperforms, we go back to the late-2021 status quo of Hernández and Thomas. For now, however, let the young guys play.