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Jeimer Candelario looks to bring energy, consistency to the Nationals

Jeimer Candelario expects a bounce-back season at the plate after a down year in 2022. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
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When Jeimer Candelario was non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers last month, a handful of teams inquired about the 29-year-old third baseman. During a video call with reporters Tuesday, Candelario explained that the chance to play third base every day for the Washington Nationals appealed to him and ultimately led to him signing a one-year, $5 million deal.

The Nationals will head to spring training with Candelario and Carter Kieboom — a former top prospect coming off Tommy John surgery — competing for the third base job. But with Kieboom still recovering, Candelario has a chance to handle the majority of the duties at the hot corner. He sees the change of scenery as “a fresh start.”

“I saw the opportunity and the team that they were building right now,” Candelario said. “I knew that I could bring some energy and some work that I have to do. I just want to contribute.”

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The Nationals signed Candelario, pitcher Trevor Williams and outfielder Stone Garrett to major league deals this offseason. Otherwise, it has been a slow couple of months. On Tuesday, they claimed right-hander A.J. Alexy off waivers and designated infielder Lucius Fox for assignment. Alexy, 24, appeared in nine games, making four starts, for the Texas Rangers over the past two seasons and posted a 6.30 ERA.

Candelario began his major league career with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, when Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was the Cubs’ bench coach. Candelario said his familiarity with Martinez — along with knowing center fielder Victor Robles — boosted his desire to join Washington.

At the winter meetings, Martinez said Candelario will be a leader for him in the clubhouse. The Nationals are taking a low-risk chance on a switch-hitting corner infielder whom they expect to have a bounce-back year after he spent the past five-plus seasons with the Detroit Tigers. In the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, Candelario hit .297 in 52 games. In 149 games the next year, he batted .271, led the majors with 42 doubles and finished with an on-base-plus-slugging-percentage-plus of 121. (The MLB average is 100, meaning he was 21 percent better than an average player.)

But Candelario’s batting average dipped to .217 last year, and his OPS+ fell to 83. He attributed his struggles to an inability to control the strike zone. He set career highs in swing percentage (52.2 percent) and swing percentage at balls outside the strike zone (33.6 percent).

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Candelario believes being more selective will give him better pitches to hit. He also thinks the ban on shifts next year will benefit him from the left side of the plate, allowing him to hit freely instead of dealing with the mental game of hitting against the shift.

“I was hitting the ball gap to gap, taking the pitches that were given to me in the moment, and I was doing that [consistently],” Candelario said of his approach in 2021. “That’s the right thing to do, and that’s what I’m going to do: Be consistent and bring that to the Nationals.”

Candelario has 505 starts at third base but stressed that he would be willing to play first base if that would help the team win. He also could fill in at designated hitter, depending on how Martinez constructs his lineup or whether Kieboom has a strong spring training and wins the third base job.

Candelario could be moved at the trade deadline if he produces as he did a few years ago. But in the meantime, he will fill a veteran’s role for a young team.

“Leadership starts by doing the little things the right way,” he said. “It’s leading by example and doing the stuff that I’m supposed to do. We have a lot of young guys. Me going there to the Nationals, I have to put myself in a great position to help the young guys.”