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Washington Nationals’ 2023 Roster: Ildemaro Vargas back for more in D.C. in ‘23

Ildemaro Vargas impressed down the stretch and earned a deal for 2023…

Washington Nationals v New York Mets - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Signed by Washington several days after the Chicago Cubs designated him for assignment and released him in late May this past season, 31-year-old, six-year veteran infielder Ildemaro Vargas played 53 games down the stretch with the Nationals, putting up a .280/.308/.398 line, 13 doubles, and three home runs in 196 plate appearances, playing predominantly third base in D.C. for the final two months-plus of the 2022 campaign.

Earlier this month, the Nats re-signed Vargas to a one-year deal.

“He’s a switch-hitter, man, he can pick it, I mean, he can play all three infield positions and play them well,” skipper Davey Martinez said when the club called Vargas up in early August.

“He was doing well in Triple-A with just being able to catch the ball, so he’d be a nice guy to have here as well, just if we need him to play anywhere in the infield, he can do it, and like I said, he’ll play some everywhere and we’ll hopefully get him in there as soon as we can.”

It didn’t take long for Vargas, who went 6 for 13 at the plate in his first four games, to endear himself to his new manager.

“He’s been great since he’s been here,” Martinez said in an August 7th pregame presser with reporters, “... and the guy works hard. As you can see, he plays both positions well, and he’s done well ... I like the fact that he’s versatile and I can use him different places.”

“He’s got tons of energy,” Martinez added, “and ... he’s one of those guys that he loves to be here, loves putting the uniform on, and he always makes comments about he’ll do whatever, whatever I ask him to do he’ll do. So he’s a good guy to have around, like I said, I love these guys that can do multiple things.”

Vargas put up a .325/.369/.494 line in 23 games and 83 PAs in August, with four doubles and three home runs over that stretch, earning more praise from his manager.

“He’s making the most of his opportunity, he really is,” Martinez said in late August, “and he’s a veteran guy, he’s been up here before, he understands the game. He’s played well on both sides of the baseball, and once again, he has a lot of energy, he brings a lot of energy to our team, he’s a really good teammate, and today, once again he steps up in a big moment for us and knocks in some runs for us.”

“I’m trying to show them that I can help the team win any way possible,” Vargas said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman on August 24th.

“Do the little things. Play all over the place. I’m going to prepare as much as I can, especially for next year, and show them I’m ready to play. Hopefully I get the opportunity.”

“I’ve always worked hard to get an opportunity like this one, to where I get an opportunity to play every day. I’m very thankful to the team, the organization, for the opportunity I’ve gotten. I’m just trying to take advantage and keep working hard and contribute any way I can.”

Considering Vargas hit just two home runs in 68 games and 163 PAs between 2020-2022 before joining the Nationals, his three home runs in 84 PAs in 23 games in his first month stood out, especially considering, “all 3 of his HR w/WSH were go-ahead homers,” as the Nats noted in their Season in Review.

“You know what’s funny about that,” Martinez said in late August, “I looked back, and looked at some of his homers, and in winter ball he’s hit like 14 or 15 homers*, so it’s in there, now it’s just a matter of — the biggest thing for me with him, is chasing. He’s chasing less. He’s able to get the ball in the strike zone, and it’s helping him make good contact, and like I said, that’s something that [Hitting Coach] Darnell [Coles] and Six [Assistant Hitting Coach Pat Roessler] have been working [on] with him. He’s got a good glove. As we all know. He can pick it. If he starts hitting like that he’s valuable to us.”

[ed. note - “ * = As noted at the time he said that bit about Vargas hitting 14-15 homers in winter ball, the most he’s hit are the 11 he connected on in 2021-22, though he has hit 10 at Triple-A twice (2017/2021), but the 14-15 HR talk is a bit of an exaggeration.”]

As the 2022 campaign played out, Martinez also talked about the impact Vargas had on the Nationals’ younger players, with the veteran infielder taking on a leadership role in D.C. with the rebooting ballclub.

“He’s been amazing with them,” Martinez said of Vargas’s impact on his younger teammates with the Nationals, “... and he’s keeping them upbeat, but he’s a very smart player as well. I watch him, and you don’t have to tell him to move. He moves [instinctively] and he’s trying to do that, trying to help out CJ Abrams over there, as well as Luis [Garcia].”

Vargas was 14 for 50 (.280/.308/.380) with five doubles over 14 game and 53 PAs in the month September when Martinez talked in the middle of the month about the role their veteran infielder was playing for the club.

“One, he’s having a lot of fun, he really is,” Martinez explained, “... and two, he’s actually, he’s looking — he’s aggressive, one, but he’s aggressive in the strike zone, so he’s putting himself in good situations to hit, and that’s been the key for him. We talked a lot with him about, ‘You got to stop chasing, you got to get a good ball, you’re a good fastball hitter, but you’ve got to get the ball in the zone,’ and he’s done a way better job of that since we’ve had him here, than I’ve seen him in the past, because we’ve seen him play, we know he can field the ball, we know he can play multiple positions, but he’s done a way better job, and that’s working with Darnell and Six in the cage every day, and them talking about situations and staying on the ball, trying to stay in the middle of the field.

“This guy, I looked up his numbers in winter ball, this guy has hit 14-15 homers*, so it’s in there, but like I said, all of a sudden when he starts chasing and thinks he can hit everything, that’s when he gets himself in trouble, so for now he’s giving himself a chance because he’s trying to get the ball in the zone.”

Martinez was asked at the time, if a versatile veteran like Vargas had a role on a young club a year and a half into their organizational reboot, and he said he did see one.

“I mean, he’s doing it right now. I know it’s been a short period of time, but I like what I see. With that being said, he understands that we’re getting younger, but he’s got the potential to help us in many, many ways moving forward. We are young, and there’s going to be days where I need to give these kids a break, they’re not going to play every day, and if he’s here, he can fill an unbelievable void, playing shortstop, second base, third base, everywhere, even the outfield, he’s played the outfield before.

“I’ve always said it’s nice to have a guy that’s very versatile, and he’s a switch hitter, and has shown me that he could put the ball in play, and do the little things, and he’s done it so far.”

“If you just watch him he is very animated,” the manager added. “I mean, even when he takes a pitch he’s all over — sometimes I tell him, I say, ‘It looks like you’ve got skates on your feet.’ He’s all over the map, and he’s fun to watch. Right now, our infielders, he’s the one that’s bringing all the energy to the young guys, and he’s helped CJ out a lot on that left side, and he’s helped Luis out a lot over there, and he keeps him engaged every pitch. It’s been a lot of fun to watch those three play together.”

Vargas hit, “... safely in 26 of his final 36 games: 35-for-130 (.269), 11 2B, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 3 BB, 2 SB, 11 R,” and “[p]osted a career-high 10-G hit streak from 8/24-9/4,” the Nats noted in their Season in Review. Given the opportunity to play over the final months of the season, Vargas showed Martinez what the manager wanted to see, and made the most of his opportunity.

He was rewarded with a one-year deal this offseason, so he’ll be back in D.C. again in 2023, whatever role he’s in, whether it’s playing third base again, or as a utility man.