“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Theodore Roosevelt may have had first base in mind.
Since coming to Washington, the Nationals have usually had a big bat at that position, even in the days before contention when Adam Dunn and Michael Morse slugged 30+ homers.
Division title-winning teams in 2012 and 2017 were punctuated by 100-RBI men at first base in Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman.
On the way to the 2019 World Series, Zimmerman jump-started the game-winning rally in the Wildcard Game with a broken-bat single while Howie Kendrick smacked the go-ahead grand slam in Game Five of the NLDS and was the NLCS MVP.
- FOLLOW LIVE: Washington Nationals Spring Training
- Spring Training 2021: The ‘Cubbing’ of Washington?
- Spring Training 2021: Sunshine, Nationals and Rainbows
- Spring Training 2021: Nats look to lead off with lightning
- PHOTOS: Washington Nationals Spring Training 2021
First base has been fruitful for this team — but not last year.
In 2019 the Nats first basemen hit .270 (fifth best in the majors) while producing 37 home runs (tied for fifth in MLB) and 128 RBI (second most in the bigs) during the regular season as guys like Zimmerman, Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and even Gerardo Parra started 10 or more games on that side of the infield.
2020? Not so much.
Adams departed via free agency and free agent pickup Erich Thames hit .203 with three homers. Howie Kendrick was hurt for much of the year and Asdrubal Cabrera shifted over from second and hit .242.
Zimmerman opted out due to health and family concerns while Parra was playing in Japan. Instead the position ranked 13th in hitting, 16th in runs scored, 18th in home runs and 15th in RBI.
This past winter they went out and traded for Josh Bell. “Obviously with Josh Bell we’re going to get a lot of production,” manager Davey Martinez said.
The 28-year-old set career highs with 37 home runs and 116 RBI in 2019 but slumped last season, batting .226 with 8 homers and 22 RBI (the equivalent of 22 HR & 59 RBI in a 162-game season).
Bell thinks he can turn things around and is already off to a good start with a home run in Wednesday’s exhibition against the Marlins.
Former teammate Josh Harrison is happy to be reunited with Bell.
“The day that he was traded he texted me, you know, excited. And I told him it was going to be a place he was going to love,” Harrison said. “He’s going to be a guy that’ll be able to help us throughout the whole season.”
In 2019 Juan Soto may have led the National League with a .351 batting average, but he also had the most intentional walks with 12.
He’s looking forward to the potential protection in the lineup Bell will provide.
“I think he’ll be a really good piece on the team. I’ve been talking with him around and everything,” Soto said.
“He likes to work. He likes to work hard.”
And that goes both ways as Bell anticipates batting behind the All Star.
“He makes pitchers work and work deep into counts. When pitchers getting tired up there they start making mistakes,” Bell said. “Me being an RBI guy I love hitting with guys on. I know he’s going to be over there 40-50 percent of the time.”
Bell comes to the team expecting to take over the position while his predecessor is still on the ballclub. Ryan Zimmerman returns after a season away from the game. He’s happy to be back with the team and in the clubhouse.
“That’s what I missed the most, not being around the guys. The game is always fun but I think the winning together … the competition of you against the pitcher, that sort of stuff. Not having it for four months really made me realize how much I do love it,” Zimmerman said.
Injuries forced the move from third- to first base in 2015 and the 36-year-old has been limited to under 100 games played in four of his last six seasons.
The “Ryan in winter” knows his days of playing every day are no more, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute this year.
“He understands his role,” Martinez said. “He’s going to come off the bench a lot, play against left-handed pitchers, pinch-hit and play defense.”
With the combination of Zimmerman and Bell, first base is set to become a power position again in D.C.