Weekend additions suggest a developing pattern

While the rest of the baseball world pretty much locked itself indoors and watched football all weekend, the Nationals made two somewhat surprising moves, signing veteran infielders Dee Strange-Gordon and Maikel Franco to minor league contracts with invitations to spring training.

And as the sun comes up to begin this new work week, it's probably safe to admit we're seeing a pattern developing from the office on South Capitol Street.

At a time when clubs are prohibited from signing players who ended the 2021 season on 40-man rosters, the Nationals are aggressively going after players with extensive major league experience who weren't in the major leagues at season's end.

That's how they were able to sign both Strange-Gordon and Franco in the middle of a lockout. And if they want to sign any more players like them, they are free to do so even as the sport as a whole is in operation shutdown.

The-Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-curly-W-sidebar.jpgThis isn't to suggest the Nationals are gaining some kind of significant advantage over other clubs. These aren't the kind of moves most teams are interested in making right now, and they aren't the kind of moves that will suddenly catapult the rebuilding Nats back into contention in the National League East.

But given the position they're in, there is some logic to completing these acquisitions, plus any more that may be forthcoming, at this stage of the winter.

If the lockout ends around, say, Feb. 1, there's going to be a mad rush by all 30 clubs to sign the hundreds of free agents still looking for jobs before pitchers and catchers report a couple of weeks later. Competition will be stiff, and a rebuilding franchise like the Nationals might well find themselves struggling to convince players to sign with them over other organizations.

So why not start adding players now, at least the handful of players who are eligible to be signed during a lockout? Especially when they're players who very much appear to have been selected both to compete for roster spots and push young players to prove their worth in spring training.

Luis García already may have seen his supposed stranglehold on the starting second baseman's job slip away when the Nationals signed César Hernández for $4 million the day before the lockout began. Now add Strange-Gordon, who has mostly played second base during his career but has also seen time at shortstop and in the outfield, to the competition, putting more pressure on García to live up to his potential.

Carter Kieboom, meanwhile, needs to face a legitimate challenge for playing time at third base after another disappointing season. Franco, who really struggled for the Orioles before he was released in August, may not be the answer. But the fact the Nats were willing to sign the 29-year-old career third baseman suggests they have no intention of just handing the job to Kieboom again.

In a lot of way, this weekend's additions are similar to the summer's acquisition of Alcides Escobar. Like Strange-Gordon and Franco, Escobar had extensive big league experience but was stuck at Triple-A trying to work his way back. Escobar wound up as the Nationals' starting shortstop after Trea Turner was traded, and he played well enough to earn a $1 million deal to return in 2022.

The Nats would love for Strange-Gordon or Franco to follow that exact same path. Or, better yet, both. It may be wishful thinking on their part, but they aren't going into the season counting on either to do it. If it happens, it's a huge bonus for a club that is going to need at least some veterans on the roster in 2022 to help mentor the kids and bridge the gap until even younger prospects are ready to arrive.

And if any of them can be flipped for more prospects next July? All the better.

Look, there's zero risk to these moves. You sign a couple of guys with extensive experience, who admittedly are past their prime, to nonguaranteed contracts and then invite them to come to spring training and try to prove they've still got something left in the tank.

Whether you like the strategy or not, it's clear this is going to be the Nationals' strategy this winter. One signing may not mean much. But two signings equals a pattern.

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