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Nationals dip into free agency to sign third baseman Jeimer Candelario

The Nationals signed third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who played with Detroit Tigers for the past six seasons. (Stephen Brashear/AP)
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The Washington Nationals made a small splash in the free agent market Tuesday with a pair of signings: Infielder Jeimer Candelario agreed to a one-year major league deal along with outfielder Stone Garrett, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.

Candelario’s deal is for $5 million with $1 million in potential incentives, according to two people with knowledge of the contract. The signing was first reported by the Detroit Free Press. The terms of Garrett’s deal are unknown. With the two moves, the team’s 40-man roster sits at 40.

Candelario primarily has played third base in his seven-year career with the Chicago Cubs and Tigers, but also has started at first base and as a designated hitter. He put together a strong pandemic-shortened 2020 season, posting a .297 batting average, .369 on-base percentage and .503 slugging percentage. The following year, he tied for the major league lead in doubles (42) with three players, including that year’s MVP, Bryce Harper.

But his numbers significantly declined last season. He hit .217, and though he hit 13 homers, he didn’t show nearly the same power and hit just 19 doubles. Now, he’ll have a chance to compete for the third base job with Carter Kieboom and Ildemaro Vargas.

Last offseason, the Nationals signed Maikel Franco to a one-year minor league deal as insurance behind Kieboom. But when Kieboom went down with a strained flexor mass that required Tommy John surgery, Franco filled his spot. Then Franco was released after being outplayed by Vargas.

Nationals’ rotation is under construction as offseason heats up

Kieboom is expected to be ready for spring training, but how he performs remains to be seen. And his competition is stiffer than it was a year ago. Candelario has a career 98 OPS+, a metric used to compare hitters across the sport with 100 as the average. And though Vargas will probably be a utility player, he hit .280 in 53 games with Washington at the end of last season with a 103 OPS+.

General Manager Mike Rizzo said at the GM meetings earlier this month that the team would look to add the most impactful bat that it could to fill positions of need. He also mentioned that he wanted his infield defense to play like it did toward the end of the season when it improved as a group.

Candelario has minus-19 defensive runs saved in his career, so defensive expectations are not high. But his bat can provide some power for a Nationals lineup that hit the third-fewest homers in the majors a year ago; he has hit 29 over the past two seasons. And he’s a switch hitter who has hit significantly better against lefties (. 270) than righties (. 230).

For a rebuilding team, the move is a low-risk deal to slightly upgrade its roster. If Kieboom ultimately wins the job, Candelario could be insurance or could also find a spot in the lineup at first base or DH. But if Candelario starts the season at third base and performs well, the Nationals could flip him at the deadline and add some more depth to their farm system.

Garrett, 27, was designated for assignment by the Arizona Diamondbacks in mid-November after making his debut last season. He

was drafted by the Miami Marlins in 2014, but excelled in his last two seasons in the Diamondbacks’ minor league system with 53 home runs across two levels before getting a brief look in the majors for 27 games last season.

Garrett will join the team with six years of control and will be an additional option to make the team as an outfielder this spring training. The Nationals already signed outfielder and former first-round pick Derek Hill to a minor league deal earlier this offseason.