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What the Nationals have done (and can’t do) to improve their offense

As ever, Carter Kieboom’s next steps with the Nationals are murky. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

SAN DIEGO — Here Dave Martinez and Mike Rizzo were again, doing everything to frame the third base job as an upcoming competition between Carter Kieboom and Jeimer Candelario, the latest measuring stick for Kieboom, the former top prospect. But the subtext of their comments Monday — delivered an hour apart at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego — is that Kieboom is recovering from major elbow surgery and Candelario was signed to play most days at third, where he has made 505 career starts. That’s the expectation, at least, among many people with the Washington Nationals, even if they admit expectations can always shift over the winter.

If Kieboom is fully healthy and raking in spring training, the Nationals could get Candelario plenty of at-bats at first base or designated hitter to start the season. Martinez, the Nationals’ soon-to-be sixth-year manager, acknowledged as much Monday, describing Candelario as a bounce-back candidate who can fit in many spots.

But there is a feeling among club officials — which, again, is the view from early December — that Kieboom could need a stretch in the minors come April, giving him a chance to regain his timing and rhythm on defense. There is also the looming question of how his arm will function after Tommy John surgery last May.

Kieboom, 25, has long been a popular offseason topic, mostly because he has yet to be who the Nationals imagined when they drafted him with the 28th pick in 2016. Instead, he has dealt with injuries, underperformed and had to continually prove himself against stopgap veterans. Before Candelario arrived on a one-year, $5 million deal this month, that list included Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Maikel Franco, who appeared in 103 games for Washington in 2022 and is now off to play for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan.

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Across 414 plate appearances in the majors, Kieboom has a .197 batting average, .304 on-base percentage and .285 slugging percentage. Candelario, a 29-year-old switch hitter, was highly productive in the two years before the last one, during which he stopped mashing four-seam fastballs. His popup rate doubled to 9 percent, sapping his gap-to-gap power. The Nationals’ best case is that he rebounds to steady a young lineup and then gets flipped at the trade deadline. The strategy behind adding Nelson Cruz, César Hernández, Steve Cishek and Sean Doolittle last offseason is back for more.

Discussing the Nationals’ needs Monday, Martinez described a left-handed hitter who can play left field and maybe first base. His vision, it seems, is to have Joey Meneses at first, Candelario at third and a timeshare in left, where Alex Call, Stone Garrett and Lane Thomas could receive chances alongside an external addition. When both Meneses and Candelario play the field, this unspecified left-handed batter could be Washington’s DH. When Meneses needs a day off, he could DH, Candelario or this left-handed hitter could slide behind him at first, then Ildemaro Vargas could slide behind Candelario at third. All the better if this left-handed hitter is versatile defensively.

“We definitely would like to have one [DH],” Martinez said Monday. “But I think we have enough moving parts, if we had to platoon two guys, we could do it. It would be nice to have a big bat in our lineup.”

The Nationals need rotation help. They’ll see what the market offers up.

One complication, though, is a budget that came into focus ahead of the winter meetings. A person familiar with the Nationals’ offseason plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called it “just incredibly tight.” So while a left-handed hitter such as Joey Gallo might fit Martinez’s description — and the pattern of hoping for positive regression from low-cost free agents — he could be too pricey, especially because Rizzo still wants to add a veteran starter. Same goes for Cody Bellinger, who signed a one-year, $17.5 million deal with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. And same goes, realistically, for any player who sparks even modest interest from a contender.

The Nationals aren’t primed to win bidding wars here. The parameters from ownership are more designed to limit financial commitments while the Lerner family continues to explore a sale of the team.

Should the front office answer Martinez’s call for a left-handed bat, two leading goals would be to keep the roster flexible and the payroll thinned. The team has not ruled out carrying Kieboom and Candelario on the Opening Day roster, nor has it ruled out fitting them in the same lineup. Washington is just being realistic about Kieboom’s track record and immediate future, acting as if his last major league at-bat came on Oct. 3, 2021.