What the Nats' Opening Day lineup might look like

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Though there’s still time for more additions before pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach – in a mere five weeks, by the way – the Nationals have now assembled what could be their Opening Day 2023 lineup.

They entered the offseason with three holes to fill: Third base, left field and either first base or designated hitter. In Jeimer Candelario, Corey Dickerson and Dominic Smith, they’re hoping they have adequately addressed those needs while constrained to a very tight budget. Those three free agents have a combined $9.25 million salary for the upcoming season, less than Josh Bell alone made last year.

Will that be enough? We’ll see. The success of the Nationals lineup may have less to do with those players’ performances than the performances of returning regulars Joey Meneses, Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams and Luis García.

But this is what Davey Martinez has to work with now. The question is how best to arrange this lineup.

Based on what Martinez did late last season, what he’s said this offseason and what’s now available to him, here’s one possible (probable?) batting order for Opening Day …

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Candelario hoping Nats provide him "fresh start"

Jeimer Candelario Tigers swing white

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.

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Why the ban on shifts could help Nats hitters

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We don’t really know yet what effect Major League Baseball’s ban on the infield shift will have on hitters next season, but teams are taking the change into consideration as they make roster decisions this winter.

That includes the Nationals, whose first offensive addition of the offseason could be among those who benefit from the lack of a shift.

Jeimer Candelario is coming off a down year in Detroit, one in which his batting average fell 54 points, his on-base percentage fell 79 points and his slugging percentage fell 82 points from the 2021 season, when he hit .271/.351/.443 and led the American League with 42 doubles.

So, why did the Nationals target the 29-year-old corner infielder after the Tigers didn’t tender him a contract last month? In part because they saw peripheral numbers this season that suggested he was especially hurt by the shift.

“We had a list of 9-10 guys that we thought could fit,” manager Davey Martinez said last week at the Winter Meetings. “And we looked at Jeimer and his numbers and the amount of ground balls he did hit to the pull side, and we thought: ‘Hey, it could definitely help him.’ ”

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How Tuesday's additions fit into Nats' winter plans

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The additions of Jeimer Candelario and Stone Garrett aren’t going to dramatically alter the Nationals’ 2023 lineup. The two players, signed as free agents Tuesday, aren’t big enough bats to turn one of the majors’ least-productive batting orders into one of the sport’s best.

What the signings do provide the Nats, though, are depth and options for manager Davey Martinez, especially in the case of Candelario.

The 29-year-old switch-hitter, non-tendered by the Tigers two weeks ago, is coming off a rough season in which he hit a weak .217 with 19 doubles, 13 homers, 50 RBIs and a .633 OPS. That’s roughly comparable to what the Nationals got from all of their third basemen in 2022: a .237 average, 26 doubles, 12 homers, 64 RBIs and a .613 OPS.

If the Nats get the 2022 version of Candelario, they will have wasted $5 million. If, however, they get anything resembling the 2020-21 versions of him, they’ll get a significant upgrade, not to mention a guy who doesn’t have to play exclusively at third base.

In those two previous seasons, Candelario hit .278 with a .356 on-base percentage, .458 slugging percentage and .814 OPS. On a 162-game basis – you have to do this to account for the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign – he averaged 43 doubles, 19 homers and 77 RBIs. Do you think the Nats would take that? Uh, yeah.

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Candelario adds more versatility to Nats roster

Jeimer Candelario Tigers swing white

This offseason is already a nice change of pace from the previous two winters. It’s not even December yet and the hot stove is already heating up.

The Nationals made their first major league signings yesterday, announcing a one-year deal with veteran third baseman Jeimer Candelario and a major league deal with outfielder Stone Garrett. Both will compete for starting spots come spring training.

The Tigers non-tendered the 29-year-old, switch-hitting Candelario at the deadline a few weeks ago after a disappointing 2022 season in which he hit only .217 with a .633 OPS and -0.1 WAR by FanGraphs' reckoning.

But Candelario has a longer track record of success, particularly in the 2018, 2020 and 2021 seasons. He tied for the major league lead with 42 doubles and produced 3.9 WAR two seasons ago and hit a career-high 19 home runs to go along with 2.2 WAR in 2018, his first full season in Detroit.

Assuming he reverts back to a former version of himself, Candelario should be a solid pickup for this rebuilding Nats team. He brings seven years of major league experience and will reportedly make a $5 million base salary in 2023, with another $1 million in incentives. He was projected to make $7 million in arbitration before being non-tendered, per MLB Trade Rumors, so he’s coming at a low cost.

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Nats sign third baseman Candelario, outfielder Garrett (updated)

Jeimer Candelario Tigers throw white

The Nationals made their first major league acquisitions of the offseason today, signing free agent Jeimer Candelario to a one-year deal to add an experienced third baseman coming off a rough season to a lineup that needs plenty of added production, then signing power-hitting outfielder Stone Garrett to a major league deal.

Candelario contract guarantees the 29-year-old a $5 million salary, with another $1 million available in incentives, according to the New York Post's Jon Heyman. Garrett, who appeared in 27 games for the Diamondbacks after making his major league debut this summer, gets a league minimum deal but is under the club's control for six years.

A switch-hitter originally signed by the Cubs in 2010 as an amateur free agent, Candelario went to the Tigers in a July 2017 trade deadline deal that sent veterans Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to Chicago. Over the ensuing six seasons, he hit .243 with 124 doubles, 65 homers, 245 RBIs and a .728 OPS.

Candelario peaked during the 2020-21 seasons, posting a combined slash line of .278/.356/.458 for a well-above-average OPS-plus of 125. He tied for the major league lead with 42 doubles to go along with 16 homers in 2021 and finished that season with 3.8 bWAR.

Candelario’s production dropped significantly this season, though. In 124 games, he batted just .217/.272/.361 with 19 doubles, 13 homers and 50 RBIs, his bWAR plummeting to 0.6. Entering his final year of arbitration and due to earn a raise from his $5.8 million salary, the Tigers chose not to tender him a contract at the Nov. 18 deadline, making him a free agent.

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