Jeimer Candelario, Nationals looking for an offensive catch-up season

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When Jeimer Candelario was not called out by the Detroit Tigers last month, a handful of teams inquired about the 29-year-old third baseman’s availability. During a video call with reporters Tuesday, Candelario explained that the opportunity to play at third base for the Nationals every day appealed to him and ultimately led to him signing a 1-year, $5 million contract.

The Nationals have publicly stated that Candelario and Carter Kieboom — a former top pick who came off last year’s Tommy John surgery — are competing in spring training for the third base job. But based on comments made at the winter meetings of manager Dave Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo, Candelario will handle the majority of hot-corner duties next year. Candelario sees the change of scenery as a “new beginning”.

“I saw the opportunity and the team they’re building,” Candelario said. “I knew I could bring some energy and some work to do. I just want to contribute.”

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The Nationals have signed Candelario, pitcher Trevor Williams and outfielder Stone Garrett for major league deals this offseason. Otherwise, it’s been a pretty slow couple of months for Washington. On Tuesday, the Nationals requested pitcher AJ Alexy von waivers and designated infielder Lucius Fox for the assignment, keeping their list at 40.

Candelario began his major league playing career with the Chicago Cubs in 2016 when Nationals manager Dave Martinez was the Cubs’ bench coach. Candelario said familiarity with Martinez — along with knowledge of Victor Robles — increased his desire to join Washington. He called Martinez a really good leader.

At the winter meetings, Martinez said Candelario will be leading for him in the clubhouse. The Nationals will take a low-risk chance on the field for an infielder who hits the corner and who they expect will come back a year after spending the last five full seasons with the Detroit Tigers. In the 2020 season shortened by the pandemic, Candelario reached 0.297. He batted .271 the following year, led the majors with 42 doubles and finished with an OPS+ of 121 (league average is 100).

But Candelario’s batting average dropped to .217 last year. He attributed the fighting to his inability to control the strike zone. He set career highs in swing percentage (52.2 percent) and off-pivot swing percentage (33.6 percent) a year ago.

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Candelario believes that being more selective will give him better balls to hit in the zone. He also believes next year’s shift ban will benefit him from the left side of the plate, allowing him to hit freely rather than grappling with the mental game of hitting against shift.

“I hit the ball from gap to gap and took the pitches that were given to me at the moment and that’s what I did [consistently]’ Candelario said of his approach in 2021. ‘That’s the right thing to do and that’s what I’m going to do: be consistent and bring that to the Nationals.’

Candelario has made 505 starts at third base but also stressed that he would be willing to play at first base if it helped the team win. He could either play in the corner of the infield or be a designated hitter depending on how Martinez builds his lineup based on matchups or if Kieboom has strong spring practice and earns the third base job. Candelario could be pushed back to the close if it produces like it did a few years ago. But in the meantime, he’s taking on a veteran role for a young, inexperienced team.

“Leadership starts with getting the little things right,” Candelario said. “It’s about leading by example and doing what I’m supposed to do. We have a lot of young people. If I go to the Nationals there, I have to put myself in a great position to help the young people.

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