Washington Nationals: Jeimer Candelario is having a resurgent season

After five innings, the Atlanta Braves were well on their way to sweeping the Washington Nationals. Although both teams have won World Series within the last four years, 14.5 games separated the Braves at the top of the NL East from the Nationals at the bottom of the division entering the series rubber match.

A double from Luis Garcia leading off the top of the sixth inning and an RBI single from Joey Menses tied the game at two, bringing up Jeimer Candelario with no outs. On the first pitch of the at-bat, Bryce Elder hung an 83-mile-per-hour slider down the middle of the plate. Candelario didn’t miss it, sending it over the right field for a go-ahead two-run homer that led to a 6-2 Nationals win.

Although the Washington Nationals are in the midst of another rebuilding season with the majority of their most talented players in the Minor Leagues, Candelario has been one of the only bright spots on the big league team. After signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Nationals after being non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers, Candelario’s 1.9 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) is 29th among 162 qualified position players. Lane Thomas, the Nationals’ position player with the second-highest fWAR, only has 0.6 fWAR, 116th among qualified position players.

Candelario was traded to the Tigers at the trade deadline in 2017 and joined the MLB team, but his breakout season came in 2020. In the shortened season, Candelario hit .297/.369/.503 (140 wRC+), leading to 1.9 fWAR in 52 games. In 2022, Candelario built off of his 2021, hitting .271/.351/.443 (120 wRC+) and posting 3.9 fWAR in149 games.

From 2020-2021, Candelario’s 5.8 fWAR was the third most among third basemen (minimum 500 PAs), and his performance led to him being named the “Tiger of the Year” by the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in both seasons.

However, even after two superb seasons, Candelario heavily regressed in 2022. In 124 games, Candelario’s 80 wRC+, -2.7 BsR, -6 OAA and -0.1 fWAR were the lowest of his career (minimum 100 games played), leading to Detroit cutting bait after the season.

Looking to rejuvenate his career, Jeimer Candelario signed with the Washington Nationals for one year, and so far, the deal is proving to be great for both sides.

Hitting .251/.330/.446 (109 wRC+) in a change of scenery, Candelario’s bat is much closer to what it was from 2020-2021 than in 2022. Although his average exit velocity and barrel% are still below average, Candelario’s plate discipline (19.5 K%, 8.4 BB%) and power (.195 ISO) have helped him have a resurgent offensive season.
Beyond the batter’s box, Candelario is much improved defensively and on the bases. In 2021 and 2022, Candelario’s OAA was in the 36th percentile and eighth percentile, respectively. However, in 2023, Candelario’s OAA is in the 97th percentile and tied for the fourth-most among third basemen. Additionally, Candelario has 2 DRS, already tied for a career-high at third base.

Although he’s not the fastest (56th percentile sprint speed) and only has one stolen base, Candelario has a 2.4 BsR, the best among all qualified third basemen and the best of his career.

Combining that he’s hitting well while being elite defensively and on the bases, Candelario is having a resurgent 2023. As a unit, the Nationals’ position players have combined for 4.4 fWAR, the seventh lowest in MLB — Candelario has accounted for over 43% of Washington’s fWAR. Additionally, just as he was from 2020-2021, Candelario is third in fWAR among qualified third basemen in 2023, trailing only Matt Chapman and Jose Ramirez.

With some of the game’s best third basemen like Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Alex Bregman, Austin Riley and Rafael Devers struggling, third basemen as a collective are having a down season. For Candelario, and presumably the Nationals, this is great news.

Because Candelario will be a free agent after the season and Washington is in line to finish last place in the NL East for the third season in a row, it’s possible the Nationals could get a good trade return for Candelario at the trade deadline if they opt to move him.

On the flip side, when Candelario hits free agency, he’s put himself in a great position to earn a long-term contract paying him to be the player he’s been this season and from 2020-2021 instead of 2022.

While Candelario has been one of the best third basemen in the major leagues for three of the last four seasons, the Tigers let his one down season define him. Now, Candelario is proving to be one of the most valuable assets for Washington in a season where they’ve desperately needed someone in their lineup to step up.