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Washington Nationals’ 2023 Roster ?s: Who’s playing third base in D.C.?

Jeimer Candelario? Carter Kieboom? Ildemaro Vargas? All of the above?

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Before the Winter Meetings began, the Washington Nationals announced they signed recently-turned 29-year-old infielder Jeimer Candelario (JAY-mer can-duh-LAR-ee-oh) to a 1-year/$5M free agent deal, adding the former Chicago Cubs’ prospect and Detroit Tigers’ third baseman (1B/DH) to the mix in D.C.

Once they arrived in San Diego, CA for the Winter Meetings last week, GM Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez were asked what the signing meant for some of the other hot-corner infielders on the roster.

Candelario is coming off a .217/.272/.361, 19 double, 13 home run, -0.1 fWAR 2022 campaign with the Tigers in which he played in 124 games and made 467 plate appearances.

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners - Game One Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In 2021, Candelario, who was born in New York, but signed with the Cubs in 2010 out of the Dominican Republic, and was traded to the Tigers in 2017, put up a .271/.351/.443 line with a total of 42 doubles and 16 home runs in 149 games and 626 PAs in a (team-high) 3.9 fWAR season.

In 2020’s 60-game campaign, the corner infielder hit 11 doubles and seven home runs in 52 games and 206 PAs in a 1.2 fWAR run.

“He’s a young player that we think is going to have a bounce-back season,” Rizzo told reporters. “He showed for a couple seasons in a row before last year he was a player that the needle was pointing north. We’ve taken fliers on players with some past success in a down year, and we think that this guy is a good bounce-back player. Switch-hitter, young player that hit 42 doubles two years ago, and I think that he’s the type of guy that gives Davey some flexibility. He can play both corners of the infield. He can DH, he hits from both sides of the plate. So I think that he’s young, we think he can bounce back, and he gives us flexibility.”

Carter Kieboom, the Nats’ 2016 1st Round pick, is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery which kept him off the field in 2022, but is expected to be in the mix for the third base job this spring, and Ildemaro Vargas, who played 43 games at third after joining the club in August of last season, re-signed this winter and is in the mix as well.

“[Candelario] gives us a little versatility,” Martinez said of the signing. “For the most part, he’s going to compete for the third base job. I know Carter missed a year, but we’ve still got a lot of value in Carter. I talked to Carter the other day. He’s been working out and he’s been hitting. He says he feels really good. He’s been coming along. We expect him to be ready to go for Spring Training, and he’s going to fight for a third base job.

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

“If that works, Jeimer can do a lot of different things for us. I’m excited about that. I had him in Chicago when he was young. I know him. He’s an unbelievable kid. He’s got great character. He’s a leader in the clubhouse.

“For me, when we talked about getting him, it kind of was a no-brainer.”

“He’s going to compete at third base,” Rizzo said of Candelario, “… but he also has the ability to play first base so...”

So… what does it mean for Kieboom?

“Carter is going to compete for third base, and the best player will play third, and we’ll make other arrangements for the other players,” the GM explained.

Martinez echoed Rizzo’s thoughts when he too was asked what it would mean for the team if Kieboom won the job.

“Yeah, we’ll figure out what else we can do with [Candelario],” he said. “But he can play first base. He can DH. We can do a couple different things with him.”

Candelario, for his part, is looking to play third every day in 2023.

“I know who I am and I know what I can do,” he told reporters in an introductory press conference earlier this week, “and right now this is a big opportunity for me playing every single day at third base. This is a big opportunity for me, knowing what I can do, and with Davey Martinez there, he’s a really good leader, and I’ve known him since my first year in the big leagues, and going from there, I think that’s it.”

Kieboom has struggled at the big league level since making his debut in 2019, and the surgery which cost him all of 2022 is just the latest setback for the now-25-year-old infielder.

Vargas, 31, acquitted himself well with the club last season, and earned a new deal with the Nats for the upcoming campaign.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

So Martinez and Co. on the Nationals’ bench have options for 2023.

They’ll all get the opportunity to compete for the third base job, but they have depth at the hot corner going into Spring Training.

“It helps us at that position, but gives us flexibility,” Rizzo said. “If Carter comes back to the player that we all envisioned him being when he was one of the top prospects in the game, then Candy can play a whole bunch of different positions, but they’re going to compete, and Carter is healthy, he’s preparing for Spring Training. He’s in baseball mode now, so we’ll see when he arrives where we’re at.”

“He’s been throwing, yeah,” Martinez said when asked if he had any updates on Kieboom’s progress this winter. “He’s still on a throwing program, and he should be ready to go in Spring Training.”

“He’s going to bounce back,” Martinez said optimistically when a reporter asked what concerns he had with Kieboom going into the new season. “What I want to see him do, because third base you’ve got different angles on throwing, we want to make sure he gets his reps. If he comes back and he’s ready to do all those things and he can compete for that third base job, then he will.”