Soto, Shmoto: Joey Meneses Is Washington’s Pleasant Surprise

Joey Meneses
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

At the trade deadline, the Nationals shipped out their franchise player, Juan Soto, to the Padres in return for an admittedly impressive array of prospects. Losing him, along with first baseman Josh Bell, removed the last two dynamic hitters from one of the worst offenses in baseball this side of the Tigers. Replacing your best offensive player, especially one as talented as Soto, isn’t an easy tax, though it’s one the Nats managed to do last time when the Bryce Harper era smoothly gave way to the Childish Bambino one. And for the very short term, at least, Washington has pulled this trick for a second time.

No, the Nats haven’t found another phenom to succeed Soto, but instead, they went with journeyman minor league outfielder Joey Meneses. He isn’t a prospect of any type, or even a young player; he’s older than not only Soto but also Harper. But what Meneses has done in defying expectations is impressive, with his 158 wRC+ in more than 200 plate appearances actually besting Soto’s pre-trade wRC+ of 152. I’m not going to suggest that Meneses is actually able to replace Soto, but it is extremely cool to see a minor leaguer be able to capitalize on such a rare opportunity.

For the background on Meneses, I urge you to check out the piece written by our friend Ben Lindbergh over at the Ringer earlier this month, for which I supplied a ZiPS minor league translation for Meneses’ 2022 season, which came out as a useful but un-enthralling .260/.303/.430 line and a 110 OPS+. Yet the supposedly imminent Cinderella-esque pumpkinification has yet to happen, and Meneses has continued to hit in September, with a .324/.364/.560 line and six homers. After a couple hundred visits to the plate, it becomes harder to dismiss performances like this, so I thought I’d jump in and take a more detailed look at the future of Meneses.

About 35 years ago, Bill James coined the term “Ken Phelps All-Star” to denote players who play very well in the high minors but get little or no playing time in the majors because the team doesn’t believe in them for one reason or another. The original Ken Phelps All-Star, Ken Phelps (naturally!), got very little meaningful playing time in the majors until his age-28 season, when he put up a 143 wRC+ for the Mariners. He continued to hit, and the Mariners eventually sent him to the Yankees for Jay Buhner, a player who contributed until the dawn of the 21st century and who Frank Costanza would not have traded.

This was back in the days when it was tough to get a chance in the majors once you lost any whiff of prospectdom. There are fewer Ken Phelps All-Stars these days, as teams are far more willing to change their minds about a veteran minor league slugger, and with Japan and Korea becoming viable alternative options to Triple-A purgatory. A player like Nelson Cruz might not have gotten another chance after age 26 if he had been born 20 years earlier. Even Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez was a near-miss; the Mariners did not think highly of him as a prospect, and to get an extended shot, he had to destroy the Pacific Coast League, and Jim Presley had to sink to near-mythical levels of awfulness.

Is Joey Meneses a rarer modern Ken Phelps All-Star? Well, not really. Looking at his year-by-year translations, it’s understandable why teams had not given him playing time in the majors:

ZiPS Minor League Translations – Joey Meneses
Year Org Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB BA OBP SLG
2012 ATL 20 41 159 150 10 36 4 4 0 14 6 43 1 .239 .275 .315
2013 ATL 21 108 414 391 28 85 16 3 1 30 19 133 0 .216 .252 .284
2014 ATL 22 62 252 233 24 52 12 2 5 27 15 72 1 .222 .272 .358
2015 ATL 23 113 433 404 25 79 14 3 2 32 24 112 1 .195 .243 .261
2016 ATL 24 129 509 476 40 120 23 3 6 51 28 104 1 .251 .297 .352
2017 ATL 25 108 401 370 41 98 12 0 9 43 28 99 0 .265 .318 .372
2018 PHI 26 130 536 499 65 137 23 1 21 72 34 137 0 .274 .319 .452
2021 BOS 29 88 376 341 36 89 29 3 10 51 19 82 0 .261 .300 .456
2022 WSN 30 96 414 387 45 101 13 1 17 54 26 99 1 .260 .305 .429

Note that the 2022 translation has moved slightly as I provided the most recent update of the 2022 park factors. Still, Meneses didn’t really become an interesting hitter in the minors until 2018. He didn’t hit well in Japan, and then the COVID year temporarily eliminated the high minors, a devastating thing for a veteran minor leaguer hoping to showcase his talents.

So what do the Nats have in Meneses? At the very least, they probably have a decent stopgap starter, as his recent translations suggest. And you can’t wholly discard two months of play, either. So let’s fire up the ZiPS-o-Matic 5000 and crunch out a projection:

ZiPS Projection – Joey Meneses
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .276 .329 .472 576 68 159 27 1 28 80 45 144 2 110 0 2.6
2024 .272 .325 .457 514 59 140 24 1 23 69 40 123 2 106 -1 2.0
2025 .268 .318 .437 474 52 127 21 1 19 60 35 108 1 99 -1 1.3
2026 .265 .313 .416 404 41 107 17 1 14 48 28 86 1 92 -1 0.7

ZiPS does project Meneses to stay a viable starter, but with a significant catch. The reality is that as a 30-year-old rookie, he is already entering the decline phase of his career and doesn’t have a lot of spare defensive value to cushion the decline. He’s unfortunately unlikely to last long enough to get a significant free-agent deal or a big arbitration boost, but a $700,000 minimum salary crushes Triple-A paychecks, and he’ll earn service time for a pension. In any case, it’s a significant improvement from his best-ever ZiPS projection entering a season: an 83 OPS+, 0.2 WAR projection before 2022. The Nats are in for a long rebuild, and a player like Meneses will keep getting chances to show he’s for real.

Whatever becomes of him in the future, Washington, D.C. has arguably already won the Battle of First Meneses (Bull Run in the north). The success he has tasted in 2022 ought to serve as a reminder that organizations are wise to give their minor leaguers every opportunity to edit their tale.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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downbaddav
2 months ago

battle of first meneses is hilarious. well done

NATS Fanmember
2 months ago
Reply to  downbaddav

absolutely outstanding joke!

Petey Bienelmember
2 months ago
Reply to  downbaddav

Nats fans can hope that the mound becomes [Cole] Henry’s Hill, too,