A right wrist injury, which required surgery, ended Starlin Castro’s 2020 campaign in mid-August, and opened up an opportunity for 20-year-old infielder Luis García, who reached Double-A Harrisburg in the Washington Nationals’ system in 2019, after he signed a $1.5M contract with the club in 2016.
García went 2 for 5 with a double in his MLB debut, and his manager, Davey Martinez, said afterwards that the infielder would get the chance to play every day over the final month-plus in the 60-game campaign.
“He’s going to play second base for us,” Martinez explained. “I liked his at bats. He went up there against some left-handed pitching today, and he stood his ground. He was good. We knew that about him. As far as playing second base, he can play second, short, he’s got a good glove. He’s just a kid with a lot of energy, loves to play, but he looked really good out there, so he’s going to get a chance to play second base almost ever day, so we’ll see what happens.”
Predominantly a shortstop in his three minor league seasons (200 games), García also had time at second (111) and third (36), but with a need at second, the Nationals decided to put the rookie out there on an everyday basis to see how he’d fare.
In a normal season, García, who was part of the 60-Man Player pool for the Nats, working out at the Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, VA, might not have gotten called up, but the circumstances in 2020 allowed for him to join the big league club.
“I’m very grateful and thank god for the opportunity,” García said after his debut, when he was asked about Martinez showing faith in him by giving him the shot and playing him.
“And I hope to little by little by making the plays out on the field, and just doing my job that I gain more of his confidence and his trust in me. I’m just looking forward to playing out there and doing my job to help the team win.”
A week-plus into his time in the majors, GM Mike Rizzo offered the following assessment of how García was doing.
“I think he’s holding his own for a player at 20 years old who’s never played above Double-A,” Rizzo said. “I think he’s got an unusually mature approach at the plate.
“I think that defensively we always knew he was going to be stellar at second base, he’s a terrific shortstop. Learning a position at a big league level at age 20 is never easy, but we have done it before with our left fielder [Juan Soto], so we feel that [García] has the maturity and baseball aptitude to adapt to it. And I think that the early returns right now are that he’s going to have a positive impact on this team not only this year, but moving forward.”
García ended up going 37 for 134 (.276/.302/.366) with six doubles, two home runs, 16 BBs, and 29 Ks in 40 games and 139 plate appearances in the majors, with a small sample size defensively which saw him put up a .954 fielder percentage, -2.7 Ultimate Zone Rating, and -4 Defensive Runs Saved at second.
“I’ve learned a lot throughout the season,” García said in a mid-September Zoom call with reporters, “... from our manager, the coaches, and my teammates. I think the main thing I want to take from this season, is basically [what I] learned about the game itself.
“How to slow it down for me, not let it get too quick on me, and just remain with a good focus throughout the game as well.”
“He has no fear,” his manager said of the second baseman in a September 16th post game interview, after García hit an extra-inning home run against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“He’s going to give you everything he’s got, he goes out there and he plays the game and has fun playing the game.”
Looking towards 2021 and beyond at that point, Martinez said García was one of the players who gave him hope about the future in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve always said I’m really excited about the future here with some of these guys, and Luis is one of them,” Martinez said.
“This kid, he’s getting better, he’s going to get better. He’s going to understand a lot about this game and what they’re trying to do — as a hitter, how they’re trying to get him out.
“It’s a learning process for him. He’s very aggressive as a hitter. We talk a lot about staying in the strike zone. He likes to go up there and just start swinging, but he’s getting better at understanding what his strike zone is, and what ball he hits hard, but he’s going to learn that, he’s got to learn that. Once he starts learning how to really get into his legs and use his legs, he’s got the potential to hit 15-20 home runs regularly. He’s a strong kid, but that’s something that he’s going to learn, I know he’s going to learn. He’s got unbelievably quick hands. When he starts using his legs more consistently, you’ll see more power.
“Right now, I tell him right now, I want you to just focus on hitting the ball in the middle of the field.
“That’s who you are, you’re a doubles guy, and if you happen to get a hold of one, you’re going to hit it far.”
García said part of what allows him to stay in the moment, and not let them get too big for him, even playing in the majors as a 20-year-old, is advice his father gave him.
“It’s the same game growing up since I was five years old that I played,” he said.
“One thing my dad and I would talk about is that it always seemed that the players seemed very afraid a little bit, like the game got too big for them when they first got to the big leagues, and we would talk about the fact that it was weird, I guess, to say it that way. That’s where you want to be and yet at the same time you’re a little bit afraid of that moment, and it shouldn’t be that way, and he’s given me so much confidence and just comfort talking to him about it before I even got here that it’s helped me be a lot more relaxed.”
García also had a role model on the Nationals’ roster in the grizzled, 22-year-old veteran left fielder.
“I think he’s a really good hitter,” Soto said of García on the final day of the 2020 campaign.
“He’s been making a lot of adjustments and all that kind of stuff, to offspeed and everything.”
“I think he’s going to be good,” Soto added, “... because he can hit the fastball. If you can hit the fastball, you’re going to be okay. So just got to make the adjustment to the offspeed and I think he’s going to be good for the next year.”
If Castro is healthy, will he be back at second base in 2021? Will the Nationals keep García at second and move Castro (who has played 45 career games at third base) over to the corner spot, where Carter Kieboom played (and struggled at times) in 2020?
Would the Nationals try García at third if Kieboom’s 2020 campaign changed their ideas on the former 1st Round pick and they want to keep Castro at second?
Does García, who has not played a game at Triple-A, return to the minor leagues for more seasoning before he gets back to the big leagues? Or is he here to stay at second base?