Despite a lockout imposed by MLB owners that prevents teams from making additions to their major-league rosters, the Nationals managed to have a busy weekend anyway.
Washington reportedly signed both Dee Strange-Gordon and Maikel Franco, a pair of moves allowed during the work stoppage only because neither player finished the 2021 season in the big leagues. The veteran infielders received minor-league deals with invitations to spring training, giving them the chance to make the club with strong preseasons.
The Nationals only made two major-league deals prior to the lockout and they both involved infielders as well. César Hernández and Alcides Escobar each received one-year contracts that offer paths to playing time, though exactly where and how often they’ll play is not yet certain.
Josh Bell is entrenched at first base, but he’s the only Nationals infielder with a clear-cut role heading into 2022. Before they can determine how Hernández and Escobar fit in, the Nationals must decide how far along Luis García and Carter Kieboom are in their development. While they both played almost every day down the stretch last season, neither produced strong enough results at the plate to guarantee a roster spot.
As a team in the midst of a rebuild, the Nationals’ most important task next year will be determining which of their young and controllable assets have the potential to be part of their next playoff core. Fans might have hoped for splashier moves this winter, but the infield additions Washington has made suggest the team is willing to make 2022 an evaluation year.
That means García (.686 OPS in 247 PA last year) and Kieboom (.619 OPS in 249 PA) will enter spring training with opportunities to earn spots on the Opening Day roster. If all goes well, they should retain their spots on the infield. Escobar would then be the everyday shortstop with Hernández, capable of playing multiple positions, on the bench. If there are any injuries during spring, Strange-Gordon and Franco would be the most logical choices to replace them.
However, poor showings from the Nationals’ young infielders may force them to option one or both to Triple-A to begin the season. According to FanGraphs, Kieboom has one option remaining and García two, giving Washington plenty of flexibility. If either Strange-Gordon or Franco put together strong exhibition performances, it may be prudent for the Nationals to give them extended chances in the majors in case they can generate some trade value.
Yet there’s a reason Strange-Gordon, who didn’t appear in the majors last season, and Franco (.609 OPS in 403 PA) were available. The upside of either player is nothing to get excited about until they show improvement offensively. As such, putting García and Kieboom in positions to succeed should take precedent over providing opportunities for veteran players.
Once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached, the lockout will be lifted and teams permitted to make transactions again. With holes in their outfield, rotation and bullpen, it’s unlikely Washington targets another infielder on a big-league deal.
The future of their infield is tied to that of García and Kieboom. In 2022, the Nationals will attempt to figure out what they have in them.