Talk Nats 2023 Seasonal Positional Preview – Second Base

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

Welcome to the 2023 Talk Nats season positional preview! Between now and Opening Day, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about a particular position, eventually covering every spot on the diamond. Below is a deep dive into the second base position. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section, and as always, Go Nats!

The Starter – Luis Garcia 

Garcia’s story is special and unique; he entered the Nationals organization when he was 16 years old and signed as an international free agent. For the past three seasons, he has been working with the Nationals but had a breakthrough campaign in 2022, as he hit .275 in 93 games and slashed .295/.408/704.

The son of a former Major Leaguer, Garcia, is about to begin his third season in a Washington Nationals uniform. Although Garcia started last season at shortstop, he struggled defensively, and manager Dave Martinez decided to shift Garcia to second, where he excelled. The move was also made to make room for CJ Abrams, who was part of the return package for Juan Soto. Garcia spoke on the move saying,

“It felt very good to get back to second base,” he said. “When I was first called up to the big leagues in 2020, I played second base. Then, in ’21, I played second base. I felt like every time I was getting called up. I played second base. It’s like being back home.”

Some around the league are saying Garcia could be the leadoff hitter as more and more teams are going with power bats to lead off. The 22-year-old was among the Nationals’ hardest hitters last year, averaging 94.2 mph exit velocity. Notably, Garcia is aggressive at the plate, as he swings at the first pitch 38.3% of the time, ten percent higher than the Major League average. Additionally, Luis swings at 70% of all pitches in the strike zone, which is sometimes beneficial. However, Garcia’s walk rate last season was 2.9% which was especially low. The new MLB shift rule will help turn more groundballs into signals for the second basemen, as he had trouble avoiding the shift last season.

Will Garcia finish 2023 as a top-ten second baseman and qualify for the Gold Glove award? Probably not. However, Garcia can continue to play well, hopefully leading to a contract extension.

Bench players – Ildemaro Vargas

32-year-old Ildermao Vargas is gearing up to begin his second season with the Washington Nationals. The Venezuelan product has made his way around the MLB, starting his career with the Cardinals, then playing for the Diamondbacks, Twins, Cubs, Pirates, and eventually the Nationals. Last May, Vargas was DFA’d by the Cubs and claimed by the Nationals, where he spent the remainder of the 2022 season. Vargas is a primary infielder; his skills can be portrayed across the diamond. Last season, Vargas hit .263/.299/.392/.691 in 209 at-bats and 63 games. Vargas is projected to get 295 at-bats with 70 hits and 32 RBIs in 2023.

After Vargas’s spectacular Nationals debut in early August, the Nats’ manager had all nice things to say about Vargas.

“We knew he could field his position anywhere we put him…he’s always fired up and ready to go,” Martinez said. “I love that. Especially with some of the young kids, he gets them going.”

Minor Leaguers – Jake Noll, Jeter DownsJake Alu

Jake Noll is poised for a significant year, whether in Triple-A Rochester or Washington, D.C. Noll joined the Nationals in 2016 when Mike Rizzo drafted the third basemen. He had his most productive year during 2020 when he hit .353 in 17 at-bats for the Nationals. For the last two seasons, Noll has been one of the best hitters in Triple-A Rochester. The 29-year-old won Nationals Minor League player of the year last season. Noll played in 103 games earning 390 at-bats while tallying 100 hits, six home runs, and hitting.256/.307/.4415/.724. Can Noll continue to make the case that he belongs in Washington? Maybe. The team did not even have him as an NRI in big league camp.

Now it’s time to discuss an intriguing prospect, 24-year-old Jeter Downs. The former top-100 prospect was designated for assignment by the Red Sox early in the offseason. The Nationals claimed Downs as a 40-man player giving him a coveted roster spot. Downs arrived in Boston in return for the Mookie Betts trade but struggled with the Sox. However, Nationals fans should be excited as Downs has shown he can smash the baseball. Down’s only Major League experience came last year, compiling six hits and four RBIs with a .427 OPS. Downs will get his chance this season with the Nationals and shouldn’t have the same pressure to succeed he would’ve in Boston. The Nationals are the fourth team the slugger has been on, but Nationals fans should hope it’s the last.

Lastly, Jake Alu has been playing a lot of second base and he is on the 40-man roster. That makes him a depth move if needed. While Alu’s natural position is at third base, he showed up in Spring Training games at second base.

Top Prospects – Darren Baker and Armando Cruz 

Darren Baker is an exciting prospect. Baker, the son of former Nationals manager Dusty Baker, was drafted by the Nationals in 2021. Washington liked what they saw and drafted Baker with the 293rd selection in the 10th round of the 2021 MLB draft. After spending his rookie season in Low-A, Baker surpassed expectations and ended the season with Double-A Harrisburg last season. In college, the prospect was named to All-Pac-12’s first team and was named to the conference’s All-Defensive team twice. Baker isn’t expected in the Majors for a few more years, but his progress is noteworthy.

While Armando Cruz is a shortstop, the top signing in the 2021 international free agent class by the Nats has also played some second base. The issue is that Cruz is playing Single-A ball and far from being ready with his bat. His defense is at an elite level.

Divisional Rankings

  1. Jeff McNeil, New York Mets
  2. Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
  3. Luis Arraez, Miami Marlins
  4. Bryson Stott, Philadelphia Phillies
  5. Luis Garcia, Washington Nationals

Jeff McNeil had a fantastic 2022 season, hitting 326/.382/.454 with a 143 wRC+ and 5.9 fWAR. McNeil tallied nine home runs, 39 doubles, a triple, and four stolen bases in 589 plate appearances, earning an All-Star spot for the second time in his career. McNeil is an elite second baseman and superstar hitter, so it’s not surprising that the Mets chose to re-sign McNeil to a four-year contract. Furthermore, McNeil has a feel for the strike zone as he rarely strikeouts out and walked 6.8% of the time last season. The 31-year-old is poised to continue his success; after winning Silver Slugger honors last year, McNeil set his goals high for 2023. As explained above, McNeil had an exceptional 2022 defensive campaign. The Met also is versatile, logging 278 innings in the outfield.

Ozzie Albies looks to bounce back after a disappointing 2022 season with injuries. Albies could only play 64 games last year after fracturing his foot in June and his pinky in September. Albies was mildly productive in 64 games, hitting .247/.294/.409 with a 93 wRC+. In the past, Albies was an even stronger fielder and baserunner. Before his 2022 campaign, Albies had three straight seasons with 10+ stolen bases. Albies is an elite baserunner and is top-ten in many speed and agility metrics. Along with his speed, Albies provides significant value in the field. Albies has been nominated for multiple Gold Glove awards, and some say he has the best range in the game.

Marlin’s second baseman Luis Arráez is ready to take the diamond in Miami as the Twins signed him during the offseason. Arráez had a great year at the plate in Minnesota, earning an All-Star nomination while slashing 316/.375/.420 with a 3.2 fWAR. The former Twin will be the everyday second baseman, forcing franchise star Jazz Chisholm move to center field. Although Arráez is a primary contact hitter, only seven percent of his hits are categorized as Hard Hits. There are also significant issues in the field for the 25-year-old.

The Phillies are rolling with Bryson Stott as their second basemen for 2022. Stott is a speedster who was impactful on the basepaths and defensively. However, the Phillies acquired Trea Turner over the offseason shifting Stott to second. The 2022 rookie played in 127 games, hitting 234/.295/.358 with an 84 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR. Stott comes in last in my division rankings, but the skill difference between Stott and Garcia is minimal.

The best-case scenario for 2023: Luis Garcia has a breakout 2023 campaign, as he is nominated for a Gold Glove award and hits 20+ home runs.

The worst-case scenario for 2023: Uh, Oh! Garcia can’t perform well at the and takes a major step back. If that happens, the Nationals must turn to Ildemaro Vargas as the everyday second baseman. Not good

Overall position grade: C+

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