WASHINGTON — Luis García’s 2022 season is off to a strong start. The 21-year-old Nationals shortstop entered play Thursday hitting .323 with two home runs and an .896 OPS. He’s already claimed a player of the week award and his ballclub has high hopes for his future.
The thing is, that start has come in Triple-A Rochester, not D.C. The Nationals optioned García to the minors to begin the year rather than having him break camp with the big-league club. He played 70 games for Washington last season and while his numbers weren’t stellar (.686 OPS in 2021), García has done nothing but hit down in Triple-A the last two years.
Meanwhile, the Nationals have gotten next-to-no production out of their shortstops early on this season. Coming off their 11-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, Nationals shortstops carried a .128/.196/149 combined slash line with no home runs and 18 strikeouts in 47 at-bats. Alcides Escobar has made a majority of those starts and his bat has produced an average exit velocity of 78.7 mph, lowest in the major leagues.
Though García has shown enough at the plate to warrant a spot in the Nationals’ lineup, manager Davey Martinez said in his pregame press conference Thursday that they’re looking for him to show progress in other areas of his game before calling him back up.
“He’s been hitting the ball really well,” Martinez said. “I talked to [Red Wings manager Matthew] LeCroy about him. He said he’s really hitting the ball; he’s working really good at-bats. The flip side is that he needs to get better on defense. We talked to him and he’s working, he’s working hard to get better. He’s working on his footwork, working on being a little bit quicker…setting his feet when he throws, things of that nature.”
García recorded errors in four of his first five games to begin the season but has since settled in to go seven straight contests without one. He’s played 10 of his 12 games at shortstop with the other two coming at second base, the position he’s played the most in the big leagues. The Nationals also want him to improve his baserunning, including making smarter decision with the ball in play.
“It’s not just about hitting with him,” Martinez said. “It’s about the overall game and when he comes here, he’s going to come in and play every day. Whether it’s shortstop, whether it’s second base, we don’t know that but we hope that he can play shortstop for us in the future. So we need his defense to be crisp and clean.”
Even though he’s already played over 100 games in the majors, García is still one of the Nationals’ youngest prospects. If he were to be called up tomorrow, he would be among the 15 youngest players in MLB. Escobar isn’t hitting well, but he’s provided consistent defense on the left side while third baseman Maikel Franco has struggled next to him. Adding García to the mix now would see the Nationals’ infield lose its defensive anchor.
The Nationals’ stated goal is to compete for a playoff spot this season, but they can still afford to be patient with García. Despite their intentions, Washington is projected to finish near the bottom of the NL East as the club continues to restock its farm system. Escobar’s ability to play multiple positions well could make him a trade chip at the deadline if he can muster solid numbers at the plate.
However, the Nationals would lose any chance of garnering a return for him if they bench him too early. García’s presence in the lineup might make their offense marginally better in the short term, but the chances of potentially sacrificing his development in other areas is a risk the Nationals aren’t prepared to take.