Despite being deep into a rebuild, the Nats do not have a lot of jobs available this spring. The rotation is pretty much set. The bullpen, which was a surprising strength last year, will return mostly intact. Most positions have been decided as well. There is one spot on the diamond that will feature a competition this spring: third base. Four candidates will be competing this spring for that job. They are Jeimer Candelario, Carter Kieboom, Ildemaro Vargas, Jake Alu. Any one of these men could win that job, but all indications are that Candelario has the inside track. There are cases to be made for each candidate, but they will have to perform in Spring Training to earn the starting job. This article will outline each candidate and see who is the best choice for the team.
Candelario, the newest of the four candidates to the organization, is likely to win the 3B job. He is primarily known as a member of the Detriot Tigers, where he was from 2017-2022. His best seasons in Detroit were 2020 and 2021, where he hit .278/.356/.458 with a 125 wRC+ and 5.8 fWAR. These numbers took a significant downturn in 2022, plummeting to .217/.272/.361 with an 80 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR. This season-long slump led the Tigers to non-tender Jeimer on November 18th. On November 29th, he agreed to a one-year deal with the Nationals worth $5 million. The Nats are betting that he will be able to make a comeback to the player he was from 2020-2021. If he can return to form, he can be traded for prospects at the deadline, and if not, it’s a cheap one-year contract with no real downside. There is practically no chance that Candelario wouldn’t make the opening-day roster. However, should he make it as a starter or as a bench bat?
One aspect of his game that hurts Candelario’s case as a starter is his defense. Last year, he recorded -6 outs above average (OAA) at third, which is not good, especially for this team this season. The Nats have a core of three young starters, and it is critical to the rebuild that they make substantial developments this season. Great infield defense could help the young starters develop and have great seasons; unfortunately, Candelario doesn’t provide that great infield defense. This is why Jeimer Candalerio should not be the starting third baseman this season.
The struggles of Carter Kieboom have been well documented. He was drafted in the 1st round of the 2016 draft and was ranked as high as the #11 prospect in all of baseball (Baseball Prospectus). In early 2019, Kieboom put up some insane numbers at AAA. After hitting .377/.494/.667 in his first 19 games of the 2019 season, Kieboom was called up to the Nats and floundered both offensively and defensively. After just 11 games, he went sent back to AAA, and he didn’t come close to replicating the numbers he put up in April. 2019 was only his age-21 season, so there was no real reason to panic. In 2020, he was given the third base job but failed to capitalize on the opportunity. In 33 games, he whimpered to a .202/.344/.212 line. However, he underwent LASIK eye surgery the following offseason, so that batting line can be attributed to bad vision. Therefore, little reason to panic. As for 2021, he competed for the third base job in Spring Training but lost it to Starlin Castro. He was called up to the majors in late July and held the third base job after Castro was suspended for domestic violence allegations and all other options were traded away. He improved upon his 2020 line, but it wasn’t enough, as he hit only .207/.301/.318. He showed some glimpses of being a decent starter, but some panic is starting to build in. He entered the 2022 Spring Training with yet another opportunity to win the third-base job, but he suffered an elbow injury and required Tommy John surgery.
Now we enter 2023, and it is time to panic with Kieboom. The Nats would love nothing more than for Kieboom to have a fantastic spring, prove he still knows how to hit, and establish himself as an MLB regular this year, but it is hard to have that kind of confidence in him. Similarly to Candelario, Kieboom has struggled defensively at third. He recorded -13 OAA in 60 games at third base in 2021, which is atrocious. It never feels good to give up on a former top prospect, but if Kieboom can’t give the spring performance of a lifetime, it might be time to.
Ildemaro Vargas burst onto the scene with the Nationals, playing in his first game with the team on August 4th. In that game, he went 4-4, setting the stage for what could be considered a career year for him over the season’s final two months. In 196 plate appearances with the Nats, he hit .280/.308/.398. Seeing this kind of offensive production was a surprise as he was known only for his defensive versatility as a utility infielder, but nevertheless, he’ll be competing for a third base job this spring. Unlike Candelario and Kieboom, the upside with Vargas is his defense. But should a 31-year-old defense-first utility infielder be the starting third baseman for a rebuilding team? Probably not. He could be valuable to the team as a bench bat, but likely nothing more. If we could combine the defense of Vargas with some more offense, we might have our third baseman.
This is where the conversation leads to Jake Alu. He won’t be found on any top prospect lists, but don’t let that lead you astray. The kid can play baseball. Despite being in his age-25 season last year, the Nats were thrilled to see what he accomplished. Starting the year in AA Harrisburg, he slashed .281/.360/.470, which earned him a promotion to AAA. He turned on the jets even more, raking to a .323/.372/.553 line. He ended his season on a strong note, to say the least, hitting .430/.452/.823 over his last 20 games. This was an incredible season for a 25-year-old 24th-round draft pick. Despite the short stay in AAA, I believe that Alu proved himself ready for the majors offensively. He needs to have a good spring, although, to confirm this.
What about on defense? According to Baseball Info Solutions, Alu led all minor leaguers in Defensive Runs Saved with +17 DRS. He also holds defensive versatility, as he played second base, left field, and third last year. With a good spring training performance, Alu could very much make the roster. But he should do more than make the roster. He is coming off a great season in the minors, getting better later in the season and providing elite defense for a pitching staff that could very much use some. There is no reason not to give him a chance to prove himself. If he can translate his success last season into the majors, then he might be one of the best ‘diamonds in the rough’ in team history for a team that hasn’t come close to one for so long. You don’t lose that much if he can’t translate the success. When considering his offensive potential and his defensive abilities, Jake Alu should have his name penciled into that first lineup of the season on March 30th.