Candelario hoping Nats provide him "fresh start"

During the course of six seasons with the Tigers, Jeimer Candelario established himself as an everyday player, then established himself as a proven hitter, then fell back to earth with a disappointing 2022 campaign. That one down year prompted Detroit to cut ties with him last month, making him a free agent for the first time.

It was something of a humbling experience for the 29-year-old, but it also opened the door for him to come to Washington and attempt to re-establish his credentials as a proven big league hitter.

“It’s going to be a fresh start with the Nationals,” Candelario said Tuesday in a Zoom session with reporters. “I know who I am, and I know what I can do. Right now, this is a big opportunity for me playing every single day at third base. It’s a big opportunity for me. I know what I can do.”

What Candelario can do is lead the league in doubles, which he did in 2021 with 42. He can produce an impressive .297/.369/.503 slash line, which is what he did during the shortened 2020 season. He can play a solid third base, which is what he did in 2022 when he ranked ninth out of 16 qualifying players at his position in defensive runs saved. And he can play first base if needed, which is what he has done 64 times in a career that dates back to 2016 with the Cubs.

The Nats just need him to prove he can do some or all of that again in 2023. They were confident enough in that possibility to give him a guaranteed $5 million contract two weeks ago, one of only two non-minimal major league deals they’ve been willing to hand out so far this offseason.

More than anything else, the Nationals are counting on Candelario to rediscover his hitting form after a rough season in which he batted a paltry .217/.272/.361 with 19 doubles, 13 homers and 50 RBIs in 124 games.

Asked how he can return to his 2020-21 form, Candelario mentioned the need to be “consistent with the strike zone.” He swung at a career-high 52.6 percent of all pitches seen and chased pitches out of the zone 33.5 percent of the time, also a career high. The result was weaker contact, fewer hard-hit balls and fewer walks.

Candelario knows he needs to reverse those trends next season.

“I’ve got to be able to be a gap-to-gap guy, and the doubles and the home runs are going to come,” he said. “I’ve just got to be able to control the strike zone, control my movement, see the ball well and just put the barrel on the ball, and a lot of good things are going to happen.”

Nationals manager Davey Martinez, who got to know Candelario when he was Cubs bench coach before coming to D.C., surmised last week that the switch-hitter should also benefit from Major League Baseball’s banning of the infield shift. Candelario traditionally has been a better right-handed batter, but his .210 average batting left-handed this season was particularly low, perhaps in part because of the ground balls he pulled to the right side of the infield.

“It’s going to help, not (just) me. A lot of guys,” he said. “It’s going to help a lot of guys, because they’re not going to worry about: ‘Oh, I have to hit the ball the other way, or I have to hit a home run.’ It’s going to be true. It’s all mental. I think it’s going to take a lot of mental stuff from the guys, lefty hitters. It’s going to be more free. You’re not going to think too much. You just have to hit the ball, and it’s going to play somewhere.”

In the field, Candelario expects to start at third base. The Nationals haven’t officially declared him their everyday guy at the hot corner, insisting Carter Kieboom will have a chance to compete as he attempts to return from Tommy John surgery. But Candelario is going to be in the lineup, one way or another.

Given how inexperienced much of that lineup is expected to be next season, Candelario’s mere presence will be valued by the Nats.

“I saw the opportunity and the team that they’re building right now,” he said. “I know I can bring some energy and some work that I have to do. I just want to contribute.”

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