Vargas agrees to 2024 contract early, avoids arbitration

BALTIMORE – Ildemaro Vargas didn’t need to do anything yet. The Nationals utility man will have four years, seven days of big league service time at the end of the week, so he would’ve been eligible for arbitration this winter, able to negotiate his salary at a later date.

For Vargas, though, the appeal of wrapping up talks now and heading home for the offseason secure in knowing everything was already taken care of was strong.

“As a professional baseball (player), I know how the situation is,” he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And there is some calmness and relief to be able to go home into the offseason knowing I already have a contract made, just for peace of mind for myself and my family.”

So Vargas and the Nats made the unconventional move to come to terms on a 2024 contract today, with four games still to go in the season. Terms weren’t announced, but he’ll be back next season, earning a raise from the $975,000 salary he made this year.

Vargas joined the Nationals in August 2022, called up from Triple-A Rochester after Ehire Adrianza was traded to the Braves. He has remained part of the big league roster every day since, establishing himself as one of Davey Martinez’s most-trusted bench players and a popular veteran voice in a clubhouse loaded with younger players.

“I could talk all day about him,” Martinez said. “An unbelievable person. A good teammate. Plays the game with a lot of heart. And the guys love him. I love him. He can do so many different things for us. He’s a good baseball player. So to have him back for another year, I’m excited about that.”

In 83 games this season, Vargas is batting .248 with a .302 on-base percentage, 12 doubles, four homers, 31 RBIs and a .660 OPS. His real value has come in his versatility: He has played six different positions around the field, spending most of his time at third base, second base and shortstop but also seeing action in left and right fields and even making two pitching performances at the end of blowouts.

A baseball nomad for most of his life, Vargas debuted in 2017 with the Diamondbacks, then bounced around to the Twins, Pirates and Cubs before finally landing with the Nationals last year. He’s enjoyed more success in 136 games with Washington than at any previous stop, and now he knows he’ll be back for a third season with the organization.

“On a professional and a personal level, I’m very happy to be coming back,” he said. “I haven’t had an easy career, bouncing around. Even as far as six, seven years ago, I was in independent ball, didn’t know what my future (was). But I’m very happy and grateful for the Washington Nationals to keep giving me this opportunity to be part of the team. I’ll help out any way that I can, and I’m excited to come back next year.”

Vargas wound up starting 65 games this season, filling in at positions where other players failed to seize the job. With more prospects expected to arrive in the majors sometime in 2024, he could find himself getting less regular playing time. That doesn’t mean the organization views him as any less valuable.

“He’s a clubhouse guy, keeps everybody in tune,” Martinez said. “But I could put him anywhere in a pinch. He still can play the game well. He’s gotten some big hits for us. He loves to play the game, and he loves what’s going on in the clubhouse. I talked to him about us continuing to get younger, and he was all aboard helping the youngsters and doing everything he can to make them better.”

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