Did surprising Vargas play himself into a role for 2023?


Age on opening day 2023: 31

How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, May 2022

MLB service time: 3 years, 7 days

2022 salary: $700,000

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible, free agent in 2026

2022 stats (CHC/WSH): 63 G, 222 PA, 209 AB, 19 R, 55 H, 13 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 23 RBI, 3 SB, 1 CS, 8 BB, 23 SO, .263 AVG, .299 OBP, .392 SLG, .691 OPS, 98 OPS+, 8 DRS (3B), -2 DRS (SS), -1 DRS (2B), 1.4 fWAR, 1.5 bWAR

Quotable: “I know it’s been a short period of time, but I like what I see. That being said, he understands that we’re getting younger. But he’s got potential to help us in many, many ways moving forward. There are days when I’m going to need to give these kids a break, and if he’s here he can fill an unbelievable void playing shortstop, second base, third. I’ve always said it’s nice to a have a guy who’s versatile, and he’s a switch-hitter, and he’s shown me he can put the ball in play and do the little things, and he’s done it so far.” – Davey Martinez

2022 analysis: A journeyman infielder who spent the previous five years playing for the Diamondbacks, Twins, Pirates and Cubs, Vargas spent 12 days on Chicago’s big league roster in May before he was designated for assignment and opted to become a free agent. The Nationals quickly signed him and sent him to Triple-A Rochester when he didn’t show much offensively (.623 OPS in 48 games) but turned heads with his smooth defensive play.

When the Nats dealt utility man Ehire Adrianza to the Braves on Aug. 1, they summoned Vargas to take his spot. Little did they know he would end up playing far more and producing much more than his predecessor.

Vargas made a splash in his Aug. 3 debut, going 4-for-4, though making a costly mistake in the field. He kept hitting, though, and ultimately bumped Maikel Franco from the regular lineup and became the team’s everyday third baseman the rest of the way. He had a real knack for delivering in clutch situations: He hit .304 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and three of his four homers were go-ahead shots.

2023 outlook: Vargas was undoubtedly the second-most unexpected surprise on the roster this season (behind Joey Meneses), a midseason pickup with little track record of success who quickly made a positive impact on the team and ascended to a role nobody could’ve imagined at the time. But what does that mean for his future here?

Like Meneses, Vargas had some track record for offensive success at the minor league level, but he primarily was known for his glove, not his bat. It’s also notable how much he cooled off down the stretch this season, batting .203/.214/.275 over his final 19 games after hitting .325/.360/.470 in his first 34 games.

The Nationals probably won’t enter 2023 counting on Vargas to be part of their daily lineup. Third base is very much up for grabs, but the sense is that Carter Kieboom will get one more shot to earn the job after missing all of this year following Tommy John surgery.

Vargas, though, would make a more than capable backup infielder and pinch-hitter. And should Kieboom once again fail to make the most of his opportunity – and should nobody else seize the job, either – the Nats will know they have a reliable fallback option who exceeded expectations when he arrived this summer.

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