At the Washington Nationals’ Ballpark Bash, general manager Mike Rizzo said that he expected Carter Kieboom to be back and healthy to compete during Spring Training for the third baseman’s position for the 2023 season. But Rizzo said he would face competition. He did not name names. Figure he was talking about Jake Alu who was just added to the 40-man roster, and the incumbent, Ildemaro Vargas who just signed a one-year deal to avoid the arbitration route. But manager Dave Martinez was also clear that he wants to add one big bat to one of the corner positions.
While unlikely that the Nats would get a third baseman through free agency, it is not entirely out of the question. It is just that the position is thin as you look at who is available on the open market. Most likely it will be Alu, Kieboom, and Vargas competing in Spring Training for the spot. Alu is known as an exceptional defender, and Vargas put up spectacular defensive numbers in his two month on the roster to finish the 2022 season. As we know, Kieboom struggled with the glove since he tried to replace Anthony Rendon as the team’s third baseman. Kieboom is returning from UCL (Tommy John) surgery that he had in May of this year.
At third base, Alu led all of Minor League Baseball (infielders and outfielders) with 17 defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions. In addition to his 114 games at third base, Alu also logged nine games at second base. If Alu’s bat is real, he will be a real threat to win the third baseman’s spot because of that glove. But again, Vargas was a +5 in OAA ranking in the Top-10 of all third baseman despite playing just 43 games at the position. If you extrapolate that for a full season to a +19, you might think he is Gold Glove worthy.
Again defense matters, and since 2018, no Nats third baseman, including Rendon, has put up better OAA in a full or partial season than Vargas. You will note in 2021 that Kieboom was a -13 OAA which was only seven more runs than he drove in during 2021. The smart money that said Luis Garcia should never play shortstop, would say the juice isn’t worth the squeeze with Kieboom, and they should try him at second base or the outfield — because third base clearly isn’t his spot from my eye unless something substantially changes.
Yes, Vargas only slashed .248/.261/.330 in September/October with a .592 OPS after a scalding hot August in which he hit .325 with an .863 OPS. Would the real Vargas please stand up? Here’s the thing, he might hit somewhere between where he was in August and September because he is a streaky hitter, or then again, he might not. This is why Alu and Kieboom will get their shot. While weighting offense and defense, it is clear that the 2020 and 2021 versions of Kieboom won’t work. Alu is untested, and Vargas has only shown that he can play defense and glimpses of having a bat.
One other fact is that Alu is a left-handed batter who crushed right-handed pitching in 2022 at .302/.377/.528 and a hot .905 OPS. You would think that Alu has a real shot here with Vargas being the bench infielder that gives Martinez more options in a lineup that needs some left-handed power.
Also keep in mind that the Nats pick first in Rule-5, and the right-handed Andres Chaparro is available to be picked. He is a corner infielder with big power. The Yankees left him unprotected, and there is that small chance that he could be picked by Rizzo and compete in Spring Training for the third base, first base, and DH job.
On the free agent market, you have seven intriguing players with Justin Turner (38 years old, 6.6 WAR for 2021-2022), Brandon Drury (30, 3.2), Jace Peterson (33, 3.2), Evan Longoria (37, 3.0), Donovan Solano (35, 1.8), Matt Duffy (32, 0.8), Charlie Culberson (34, 0.3). Others could be signed to minor league deals of course. It just does not seem to be the best time to spend big on a third baseman.
Defense was shown that it matters — and it has been abused for far too long. We will see ultimately what general manager Mike Rizzo thinks as he will make the final decision.
Weigh in with your choice of who you think wins the job; not who you want to win the job as starting 3B.