WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Luis Garcia was running errands with his mother one January afternoon, sitting in the passenger’s seat of her car, when he got a call from an unfamiliar number with a Washington, D.C., area code. Garcia let it ring until it stopped. He didn’t think much of it.
That is what normal 18-year-olds do: They tag along while their moms shop, and they push important things aside. But if Garcia were a normal 18-year-old — even by baseball’s twisted standards — that call would not have been from Mark Scialabba, and Scialabba would not have been trying to invite Garcia to major league spring training, and Scialabba, the Washington Nationals’ director of player development, wouldn’t have called back shortly after because he needed to get the kid on the phone.
That time Garcia answered, grinning so widely that all of his braces showed when he got the invite.
“Who knows?” Garcia said in February through team interpreter Octavio Martinez, and no one could blame him for already wondering what’s possible. “It’s motivation to hopefully, maybe end up here in the big leagues, helping the team out."
Garcia is the only 18-year-old in a major league camp this spring. He is a top prospect from the Dominican Republic, a smooth infielder who could be everything or not depending on how the next few years go. Baseball Prospectus has him as the Nationals’ third-best prospect and the 81st-best in baseball. Washington, rankings aside, has him as a part of its future.
The Nationals are willing to fast-track deserving young players, from Bryce Harper to Victor Robles to Juan Soto, who starred as a 19-year-old last season once injuries cleared a spot for him. That’s why Garcia is here — and still here after the first round of cuts Friday — learning from veterans, getting regular opportunities at shortstop and second base, testing his left-handed swing against big league pitchers, some more than a decade older than him, all trying not to get beat by a player born in 2000.
“[General Manager] Mike Rizzo asked me how I thought Luis would handle this,” said Johnny DiPuglia, Washington’s vice president of international operations. “I told him Luis would be just fine, and he has been. Luis has been really good with everything — even better than I expected.”
Rizzo has signed three players who debuted at 19 since 2007: Justin Upton (whom Rizzo signed while with the Arizona Diamondbacks), Harper and Soto. DiPuglia is closely connected to Soto, with all the work he does with the Nationals’ Dominican academy, and he wasn’t surprised when Soto was called up from Class AA Harrisburg in May.
But he would have been with most general managers.
“Mike may be the only GM who would have called up Juan last year,” DiPuglia said. “It does make you think that Luis could move fast if he continues to improve, but it’s also dangerous to use Juan as a comparison for what other guys can do. I want Juan to be Juan, Victor Robles to be Victor Robles and Luis to be Luis. Luis still has a ways to go.”
Rizzo’s logic is that top prospects need to play when ready. It’s why starter Stephen Strasburg debuted at 21. It’s why Harper came up at 19 and played every day until he departed this offseason. It’s why Soto was called up last year, after starting the season with low-Class A Hagerstown, and went on to have one of the best 19-year-old seasons in history.
And it will dictate the next steps for the 21-year-old Robles, 21-year-old infield prospect Carter Kieboom and, after them, Garcia, who turns 19 in May.
“He’s got plenty of time to keep getting better, but I think he has a head start on a lot of people and he’s going to be a good player,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said before breaking into a smile. “Hopefully he doesn’t take my job any time soon. We’ll see.”
Even though Turner was joking, Washington is already accounting for the hold he has on his position. Because Turner is 25 and has proved to be a franchise shortstop, the Nationals are teaching second base to Garcia and Kieboom. With veteran second baseman Brian Dozier on a one-year contract, it seems that Kieboom could get a shot there as soon as 2020. The two prospects don’t need to pass Turner because the Nationals are grooming them to potentially play alongside him.
That doesn’t leave much room for Garcia, at least in short-term plans, but the Nationals will find a spot for him if he demands one. He can look at Soto as an example of that, and the two have spent a lot of time together this spring.
“I watched him hit, and he’s really so close to the way Soto hits,” Manager Dave Martinez said in February, likening Garcia to the guy who hit .292 with 22 home runs as a rookie and wasn’t in big league camp last spring. “So I told him: ‘Just watch [Soto]; the biggest thing is just learn right now. You’re at a very pivotal point in your young career to just absolutely take it all in and learn and just have fun.’”
Soto has a lot of swagger on the field — kicking dirt around the batter’s box, staring down close pitches, celebrating at whatever base he pulls into — but is reserved off it until he is comfortable with his surroundings. Garcia, on the other hand, is both a flashy player and outgoing right away.
He grins and winks at reporters in passing. He shouts jokes in Spanish across the clubhouse. Last spring, when Garcia was called up from minor league camp for a day, Martinez barely knew who he was, wearing a jersey that swallowed his skinny shoulders, with no last name on his back. Martinez asked Garcia how he was. Garcia told the manager he wanted to play.
Martinez had him in the lineup Sunday, starting at shortstop and hitting eighth against the Houston Astros. In his first at-bat, against left-handed starter Wade Miley, he laid down a drag bunt and beat the throw to first. In his second, against reliever Ryan Pressly, he singled to left-center and drove in a run. And in his third and final at-bat of the day, he sprayed the ball to the same spot in left and picked up another RBI.
Hits had been hard to come by this spring, but not in this game. Garcia darted around the bases all afternoon, pointed a finger at the sky after a single — just like Soto — and zoomed past home until he was skipping down the dugout steps. Martinez was waiting there with a high-five and a pat on the back. It made you wonder how soon they will do the same in Washington.
“He’s still super young,” Martinez said, drawing out each vowel in super. “I told him, ‘You’re having a great senior year today.’ ”
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