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Nationals sign third baseman Maikel Franco to a minor league deal

Maikel Franco played for Kansas City in 2020 and struggled with the Baltimore Orioles in 2021. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
3 min

While front offices are working with a relative transaction freeze amid Major League Baseball’s lockout, they can still sign certain players to minor league contracts. So that’s what the Washington Nationals spent the weekend doing, inking infielder Dee Strange-Gordon and then third baseman Maikel Franco, according to two people with knowledge of Franco’s situation.

Like Strange-Gordon, a two-time all-star in his prime, the 29-year-old Franco is expected to compete for a spot during spring training. He struggled mightily with the Baltimore Orioles in 2021. There is a chance he spends February and March with the Nationals before floating to another organization. Every year, teams fill camp rosters with a variety of players in need of a chance. The process is low-cost and low-risk. And sometimes, as in the case of Jordy Mercer in 2021, they sneak onto the Opening Day roster and spend an entire season with the club.

But Franco will arrive with at least some past flashes of his skill and potential. A half-decade ago, the Philadelphia Phillies hoped he would be a cornerstone third baseman. In 2020, in 60 games of a 60-game schedule with the Kansas City Royals, he finished with a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .278/.321/.457. OPS+, a metric used to compare hitters across the sport, considers 100 to be average. Franco ended that abbreviated year with an OPS+ of 108.

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While in Philadelphia, though, he essentially alternated between above- and below-average seasons. The swings were drastic and dashed his shot of being a long-term fit there. With the Orioles last year, his numbers plummeted to a .210/.253/.355 slash line in 403 plate appearances. His defense, a recurring issue, was also subpar. He may be a bit more intriguing than the typical nonroster invite to spring training — especially with 12 career homers against the Nationals, more than any other opponent. But there are reasons his spot is not guaranteed. The Nationals were able to sign him to a minor league deal during the lockout because he did not finish 2021 on a major league roster.

Six of the Nationals’ offseason moves have addressed their infield. In October, they re-signed shortstop Alcides Escobar to a one-year, $1 million contract. Before the work stoppage began, they claimed Lucius Fox, 24, off waivers from the Orioles; and signed second baseman César Hernández to a one-year, $4 million deal. In the first round of the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, they nabbed second baseman Andrew Young from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then they brought Strange-Gordon and Franco into the mix.

In theory, Washington has an infield and backups without more additions. Josh Bell will man first base, Hernández or Luis García could play second, García or Escobar could play short, and Carter Kieboom could play third. From there, a combination of Fox, Strange-Gordon, Franco or Young — or some other nonroster invitee — could fill out the bench. Perhaps Ryan Zimmerman returns, too, pairing a right-handed bat with the switch-hitting Bell. It is not an alignment that sets up the Nationals to compete in the National League East. But it would fit their not-so-subtly stated plan of wading into a multiyear rebuild.

Franco in particular may provide insurance behind Kieboom, who has repeatedly lapsed in opportunities to be the club’s everyday third baseman. If Kieboom has another rough spring training, Franco is a nearby, low-cost option to replace him. Or, as a matter of course, Franco could use the reps with Washington to prove himself and land elsewhere.