Yepez takes over at first base after Meneses demotion (2024)

The Nationals could have ridden things out with Joey Meneses a bit longer, giving him a chance to snap out of his hitting funk until Joey Gallo is ready to return from the injured list. But with Gallo still weeks away, and with Juan Yepez on a hot streak at Triple-A Rochester, they decided now was the time to make a switch at first base.

Meneses was informed he was being optioned to Triple-A following Thursday’s win over the Mets, and this afternoon the Nats officially purchased Yepez’s contract from Rochester, giving the 26-year-old a chance to play at the big league level.

“It was all really about Joey, trying to get Joey locked in,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s got options. He’ll go down and try to work on his swing and just get him back. It’s not like we’ve seen the end of Joey.

“The other guy’s doing really well. Yepez has been hitting the ball really well, playing a good first base. So we wanted to give him the opportunity to come up here and see what he can do.”

Nearly two years removed from his breakthrough two-month debut at 30, Meneses had seen his numbers steadily decline, from a .930 OPS in 2022 to a .722 OPS last season to a .597 mark this season. He was slugging a mere .299 since June 1.

With his swing mechanics out of whack, Meneses was rarely making loud contact. And despite repeated opportunities to bat in the middle of the lineup, he wasn’t delivering enough in big moments to justify continued patience.

This demotion, Martinez stressed, is not expected to be permanent.

“You’re going to come back here. It’s almost like just a way to get you to relax a little bit and find the consistency in your swing,” the manager said he told Meneses. “We’ve done this before … just to give a guy a little break. I just want him to take his mind off it. I could see he was getting really frustrated. That, to me, was the key. When I see that frustration and him doing things that he’s not typically doing often, I just want him to slow down a little bit, slow his mind down.”

Gallo, out since June 11 with a strained hamstring, has begun hitting in the cage and doing some light running. But the veteran slugger is not expected to return from the IL until sometime after the All-Star break, so he’s not an option for the Nationals at first base in the immediate future.

Enter Yepez, who spent parts of the last two seasons with the Cardinals but was non-tendered last winter. The Nats signed him to a minor league deal and invited him to spring training, where he torched his former team (8-for-11, two homers) in exhibition play but struggled (5-for-23) against everyone else.

Yepez has spent the last three months playing first base for Rochester, where he produced a .795 OPS but got especially hot over the last month. He was slashing .303/.380/.483 since June 5, earning this promotion.

“I think I was trying to do too much, in a new organization, trying to prove a lot of things,” he said. “And then I just kind of stuck to my game and everything started flowing and I was able to have that month.”

That Yepez joins the Nationals just in time to face the Cardinals was pure coincidence, but the Nats can only hope he does to the Cards what he did in March.

“Definitely, it’s good to see these guys,” he said. “But I’m just blessed to be here in the big leagues.”

Martinez said Yepez is likely to get the bulk of the playing time at first base, especially against right-handers. But given his struggles against lefties, the Nationals could try backup catcher Riley Adams there at times. Jesse Winker and Harold Ramírez are also options.

Needing to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Yepez, the Nats transferred Josiah Gray from the 15-day to the 60-day IL. The right-hander, out since early April with a flexor strain in his elbow, recently had a setback during a rehab start with Rochester and has been shut down. He’s scheduled to be examined by Dallas orthopedist Keith Meister during the All-Star break and doesn’t figure to be pitching for the Nationals again anytime soon.

Yepez takes over at first base after Meneses demotion (2024)
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