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Why the rebuilding Nationals added outfielder Alex Call

The Nationals recently claimed 27-year-old Alex Call off waivers. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Sometimes one team’s expendable outfielder, designated for assignment Aug. 5, is another’s leadoff hitter, at least at Nationals Park on Sunday. Or if nothing else, this is the case for Alex Call and the Washington Nationals, who recently claimed the 27-year-old off waivers and fast-tracked him to the big leagues.

Who is Call? Drafted in the third round by the Chicago White Sox in 2016, he hits right-handed and was having a career year with the Columbus Clippers, the Class AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians. In 327 plate appearances in Class AAA — 22 of them with the Rochester Red Wings, the Nationals’ top affiliate — Call had a .292 average, a .423 on-base percentage, a .521 slugging percentage, 55 strikeouts and 51 walks. With three options remaining and with close to six years of team control, Washington could see Call as a dependable extra outfielder with a slightly higher ceiling. With experience in left, center and right, he is expected to rotate with Lane Thomas, Victor Robles, Yadiel Hernandez and Joey Meneses, who has played first and the corner outfield spots.

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In a tiny sample size in the majors, Call has just two hits in 20 chances, including an 0 for 4 debut in D.C. on Sunday. But he is the sort of hitter — high contact, low chase rate, patient, perhaps some untapped power — the Nationals are likely to target on waivers and in minor league free agency moving forward.

When the first-place Guardians needed to promote a pitcher, they DFA’d Call despite his strong season and teed Washington up. With the worst record in the majors, the Nationals have the top waiver spot, meaning they have the first crack at any player available there. Even if teams may have jumped the waiver line to acquire Call in a trade, the Guardians couldn’t take that route because it was after the deadline. Between the start of the 2020 season and mid-August 2022, the Nationals made only one claim, nabbing right-handed starter Rogelio Armenteros from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Since, though, as the rebuild has shifted their roster-building strategies, they have claimed nine players in a calendar year: reliever Patrick Murphy, first baseman Mike Ford, reliever Francisco Pérez, infielder Lucius Fox, reliever Hunter Harvey, outfielder Josh Palacios, starter Cory Abbott, Call and reliever Jake McGee.

This list is a reminder that waiver claims are the definition of throwing something against the wall, hoping it sticks. There is typically one logical reason, if not more, for why a guy was DFA’d by his previous club. Murphy was shaky for the Nationals in 2021, then again in 2022, and was DFA’d in late April before sticking with the team in Class AAA. Ford never appeared for Washington and is bouncing around other systems. Pérez, also in Rochester, has struggled in limited innings with the Nationals. Fox cracked the Opening Day roster because of an injury to Ehire Adrianza but has spent much of the season with the Red Wings. Palacios was optioned Sunday morning to make room for Call. Abbott, 26, is getting his shot as a stopgap in the rotation.

That leaves Harvey, Call and McGee. Harvey, 27, could prove to be a very solid claim if he stays healthy. A former first-round pick by the Baltimore Orioles, Harvey missed close to two months with a pronator strain, returned with improved mechanics and has been mostly sharp in a conservative workload. McGee, 36, arrived as a total reclamation project, making a bit of sense because the Nationals didn’t have a left-handed reliever. He has a 6.52 ERA in 2022 and has already been DFA’d by the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers.

And then maybe more than any player above, Call landed with the Nationals because they were intrigued by his numbers and skill set — and because trading Juan Soto and Josh Bell made a stripped-down roster even more flexible for the foreseeable future.

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Before adding Call, the Nationals had outfielders Donovan Casey, Yasel Antuna and Palacios on the 40-man roster but not active. After adding Call, they DFA’d Casey, one of the four players acquired for Trea Turner and Max Scherzer, and eventually sent Palacios down. Casey cleared waivers and remained with the organization, staying in Rochester. His arc — called up in April, optioned before debuting, slumping until he was cycled out to clear space for Call — is less a slight indictment of the Turner-Scherzer return and more another part of the rebuilding process.

Not every fringe player acquired in a deadline trade or waiver claim will click. Most don’t. But the Nationals would be smart to keep using part of their system to churn through projectable minor leaguers or players who once produced in the majors. They went for the latter in a handful of moves this summer, signing outfielder David Dahl and right-handed pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon, then claiming McGee (Dahl exercised the Aug. 15 opt-out in his contract Monday and is a free agent again, according to a person with knowledge of the situation). But their interest in Call showed an effort to find contributors who could prove to be above-average with an opportunity, not just were in the past.

In recent weeks, outfielder Franmil Reyes and right-handed pitcher Dinelson Lamet were DFA’d and placed on waivers. Again, the Nationals had the top spot and a clear path to either player. Reyes, a 27-year-old DH, was plodding along for Cleveland after smacking 37 homers in 2019 and 30 last year. Lamet, once a promising starter for the San Diego Padres, then sent to the Milwaukee Brewers in the Josh Hader trade Aug. 1, was getting knocked around most outings. So Washington let both pass, choosing to use an open 40-man roster spot on Call and his impressive on-base percentage.

Lamet went from the Brewers to the pitcher-starved Colorado Rockies. Reyes went from the Guardians to the Chicago Cubs, who visit Nationals Park for a three-game series this week. Call was the higher-upside claim with far less of a track record. Unknowns are intriguing until results take shape.