Are there still roles for Alu, Call, Kieboom, Vargas and Young?

Pick any lineup the Nationals fielded in September out of a hat, and you’re guaranteed to find the names of several players who have received scant attention around here all winter.

Jake Alu. Alex Call. Carter Kieboom. Ildemaro Vargas. Jacob Young.

Every single lineup card Davey Martinez filled out in September included at least two of those players. Many of them included three, or even four of them.

They received some of the most regular playing time on the roster late last season, and they’re all still part of the 40-man roster. But who – if anyone – is actually in the Nats’ 2024 plan?

If the rest of the winter plays out as expected, none should be in line to start Opening Day. And only a couple or three of them should even wind up on the Opening Day bench.

The safest bet is Vargas, the popular utilityman who agreed to a one-year deal during the season’s final week and avoided arbitration long before he ever had to. The Nationals could still let him go at some point if they’ve got enough depth to make him expendable, but Vargas is almost certainly going to enter the season as the team’s main backup infielder.

That could spell trouble for both Alu and Kieboom, though.

Alu kind of profiles as a similar player to Vargas: a versatile infielder who can play multiple positions and even play the outfield if needed. He may have a better bat in the long run, but he probably won’t ever be as smooth as Vargas is in the field, which hurts his chances of making the team as a backup infielder.

Kieboom, meanwhile, got one final chance to make his case as the everyday third baseman down the stretch last season and (aside from a quick barrage of homers in his first week back) didn’t do much to make his case to stay long-term. And once the Nationals signed Nick Senzel in December to be the starting third baseman, Kieboom’s fate may well have been sealed. The selection of speedy, toolsy Nasim Nunez in the Rule 5 Draft also potentially took away a spot on the Opening Day bench for a backup infielder.

So, if three bench spots go to Vargas, Nunez and backup catcher Riley Adams, that leaves only one more job for a fourth outfielder. Which puts Call and Young in a tough spot.

There’s a bit more uncertainty in the Nats outfield at the moment. We know Lane Thomas is starting in right field. The team continues to suggest Victor Robles will remain the starting center field, provided he has fully returned from the back injury that ruined his 2023 season. We know top prospects Dylan Crews and James Wood are coming sometime in 2024, though probably not as soon as Opening Day.

We don’t know if Stone Garrett is going to be ready by March 28, or if he’ll need more time to make it all the way back from his gruesome lower leg injury. And we don’t know what the Nationals plan to do in free agency prior to that point, though all indications are that they plan to sign a veteran (preferably left-handed) left fielder for the short-term, just as they did last year with Corey Dickerson.

If the Opening Day outfield consists of Thomas, Robles and yet-to-be-signed “Lefty McVeteran,” that leaves only one remaining job for Garrett, Call or Young.

It’s easy to surmise a scenario in which the Nats have Garrett take things slowly in spring training, open the year on the injured list and then spend several weeks on a minor-league rehab assignment before finally making his official 2024 debut. So that whittles it down to Call and Young.

Call took 439 plate appearances last season, seventh-most on the team. His .614 OPS, though, bested only Alu’s .571 mark among everyone who stepped to the plate at least 100 times. Young showed some promise at the end of a year in which he burst through three levels of the minors and then took 121 plate appearances in the majors. But it certainly wouldn’t be inappropriate to suggest he could use more seasoning at Triple-A, where he played only four games before getting called up.

Then again, all of these guys may have a hard time cracking the major-league roster by midseason if Crews and Wood indeed leapfrog them and become everyday players in D.C.

The takeaway from all this: Every player spotlighted in this article probably needs to show something positive as soon as he gets an opportunity to play in 2024. Because that opportunity could very well be fleeting.

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