WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Growth can manifest itself in many forms, and sometimes it takes only a few inches to portend increased development of a young ballplayer.
A few days ago, Nationals manager Davey Martinez was eyeballing a live batting practice session when he noticed something in the way one of the club’s top prospects, infielder Luis García, was preparing to hit.
Batting against a changeup pitcher, García took a fastball for a strike before subtly adjusting his stance.
“Before the very next pitch, he moved up six inches,” Martinez said. “I looked and I went, ‘Huh? Interesting.’ Sure enough, the guy threw him a changeup and he hit the base hit. I thought that for a kid that young to pay attention and to be intuitive to what this guy is doing says a lot.”
So does the 19-year-old’s physical transformation over the past couple of years. Two springs ago, when he appeared in big league camp as an extra player from the minor league side, García appeared to be a boy playing among men, his older and stronger teammates often towering over the slim, shy kid whose advanced skills belied his tender years.
“Man, he’s growing,” Martinez said. “Saw this little skinny kid when I first got here that everybody talked about, and now he’s just filling out. Just big. ... He’s going to be a good one. He’s mature for his age. But he’s a kid, basically. Every time I look at him, I say, ‘You going to stop growing soon?’ “
Nationals fans have been hearing for so long about García, signed as a 15-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2016, that many are surprised to find out he’s still a teenager.
Though he’s still soft-spoken and prefers to bury his nose in his cell phone at his locker stall, García routinely puts his baseball gifts on display at bat and in the field. He’ll spray the ball around and show some pop, then deftly maneuver around shortstop and second base to put himself in the correct position to throw.
“I think he’s starting to understand what he can be,” Martinez said. “He’s still got a lot to learn, but you watch him, and he’s very fluid in everything he does.”
And very organized in the way he approached his offseason conditioning program over the past couple of winters. García is well aware of the changes in his physical makeup that are so readily apparent to observers.
“Yes, I do see it,” García said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I’ve been working real hard in the offseason to grow a little bit physically, get strength and mature as well. It’s something that I work a lot at in the offseason”
Last season, the Nationals kept García at Double-A Harrisburg for the entire campaign. While unable to replicate his .298/.336/.406 slash line split between Single-A Potomac and Single-A Hagerstown in 2018, he did turn in a .257/.280/.337 log in 129 games in the prospect-rich Eastern League, where he was one of the youngest players.
After the season, García reverted to form in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .276/.345/.382 in 20 games with Surprise. He said the somewhat disappointing performance at Harrisburg was equal parts teaching experience and motivator to improve.
“It was a little difficult, but it wasn’t as difficult as it might have seemed because I was able to learn a lot and take the things I was struggling with and had issues with, and took those and learned and worked,” he said. “Even on the things I was doing well. It’s a learning process.”
But as wise baseball players have been saying for decades, you learn more from your struggles than from your successes.
“It’s absolutely something you learn from,” he said. “It’s a better way to learn, from a season like that one. When things are going well, you might be doing a few little things wrong. The things you need to work on, you don’t see it because the season went well for you. When you’re challenged with a season like last season, even the little things are exposed and therefore you learn from them and try to improve on them.”
Now he’s on the precipice of challenging for a 26-man roster spot. Scouts say García’s arm strength makes him a lock to succeed as a shortstop, where Trea Turner appears to be a long-term solution if the Nationals extend him. But García has also played second and third bases in the minors.
García is batting .455 (5-for-11) with a home run and three RBIs after going deep for the first time this spring on Saturday. He boasts a 1.182 OPS.
Whatever opportunity is presented him, the youngster seems ready. After watching Robles and Soto succeed when their numbers were called, García is eager to get his chance.
“It definitely gives you hope, it gives me hope that I might be up there soon and able to help out the team,” García said. “I see them and I’m very happy for them. ... When I see them, I think to myself that maybe one day I’ll be like them and hopefully soon enough be able to help out the team.”
And that’s really García’s only goal at this point.
Asked what he wanted to accomplish this spring, he eschewed his translator and didn’t hesitate to speak clearly in English.
“I want to play (in the) big leagues this year,” he said.