“He can play both corners of the infield,” GM Mike Rizzo said of the plans for how the Nationals will use switch-hitting corner infielder Jeimer Candelario, who signed a 1-year/$5M free agent deal with Washington this winter after a down-year in Detroit in 2022. “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.”
Candelario, 29, was signed to compete for the third base job in D.C. with Carter Kieboom, Ildemaro Vargas, and anyone else in the organization who can play at the hot corner (Happy, Jake Alu fans?).
“He’s going to compete at third base, but he also has the ability to play first base so...” Rizzo explained. As for what that means for Kieboom, the club’s 2016 1st Round pick, who has struggled in limited exposure at the major league level, and is working his way back from Tommy John surgery which cost him the entire 2022 season?
“Carter is going to compete for third base,” Rizzo said, “… and the best player will play third, and we’ll make other arrangements for the other players.”
“I know Carter missed a year, but we’ve still got a lot of value in Carter,” skipper Davey Martinez said at the 2022 Winter Meetings. “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.”
And if Keiboom earns the third base job?
What would that mean for Candelario?
“Yeah, we’ll figure out what else we can do with him,” Martinez said. “But he can play first base. He can DH. We can do a couple different things with him.”
Defensively, Candelario (described by Detroit Free Press writer Evan Petzold as a “below average defender at the hot corner,”) finished at -1 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2022, after finishing at -3 DRS in ‘21 and +2 DRS in 2020.
His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) went from 3.4 in ‘19 to 0.5 in ‘20, -6.1 in ‘21, and then up to 0.2 last season, with his fielding% at .976 and .961 in the last two years.
Candelario told reporters he was most comfortable at third base, having played there since he was young.
“I’ve been playing third base since I was a little kid and I’m [comfortable] at third base,” Candelario explained when asked if he prefers playing third and why, “… but like I always said, my best work, my routine, getting in the right way, and you know helping the team offensively but defensively too. I want to be able to be in a great position to be ready and help the team win.”
He also said he’s looking forward to the start of Spring Training so he can get to know the Nationals’ other infielders.
“We have a young infield, you have a really good shortstop in [CJ Abrams] and from there on you’ve got to know what you have,” he said. “If you have a really good shortstop like we have now, a young shortstop, he can really have some range, he knows what he’s doing at shortstop, so that gives me more chance in Spring Training, knowing my infield, and knowing what they can do, and knowing what they feel like they struggle [with] a little bit. So from there on you have a good shortstop and me at third base, just cover my ground, and help my team and always try to make the plays. We want to make the plays. We have to make the plays.”
His next comments, while conventional baseball wisdom, echoed what his new manager (who was a coach in Chicago as Candelario worked his way up with the Cubs) is always saying.
“In the big leagues you have to make the plays, you have to make 27 outs, not 29 or 30 outs, we have to make the plays, you have to be consistent at that, and we go from there,” Candelario said.
“And I think what’s going to help you make the plays is your routine. You have to have a routine, you have to have a mindset, and you have to know that I want all ground balls. And that’s the mentality. You have to prepare yourself, and working really hard with the coaching staff and all that, and it’s going to be fun.”
And if the Nats end up needing him at first base (much less likely now that the club signed Dominic Smith), what would he need to do to get comfortable across the diamond?
“It’s just repetitions,” he said.
“It’s all about repetition and it’s all about repetition and it’s always good to have versatility.
“If I’m at third and they ask me to play first — I’m a third baseman, whatever they want to do.
“I’m a third [baseman], but whatever they want to do. And I just want to help the team win and I’m always going to be there just to win.
“If I have to play first or third, I’m going to be in my best position to help the team win and contribute.”