WASHINGTON — Jeimer Candelario munched on popcorn in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Monday afternoon, the making of it the particular province this season, for some reason, of teammate Michael Chavis. (It was quite good, but…it’s hard to make bad popcorn, right? Chavis did not.) Candelario sat at his locker, talking with Victor Robles, his next-door-mate, looking for all the world like he had no particular place to be and was in no particular hurry to get where he would be going. Later, he took BP, even though he’d been taken out of the starting lineup.
For good reason, as it turned out.
The worst-kept secret in MLB came to fruition Monday, when the Nationals dealt Candelario to the Cubs for two minor leaguers: shortstop Kevin Made and left-hander DJ Herz. Made is now the Nationals’ No. 16 prospect, according to MLB.com; Herz is No. 17.
Before the deal was finalized Monday evening, Candelario acknowledged how weird it was that he was the most certain guy in baseball to be in a different uniform Wednesday morning. But he said he hadn’t spent the past six months thinking about being a rental for a contending team, even though the Nationals only signed him for 2023, coming off a subpar couple of seasons in Detroit.
“Actually, it was not on my mind,” Candelario said Monday afternoon. “But it’s baseball. It’s part of the game. I’ve been playing baseball in the big leagues six, seven years. A lot of teammates getting traded and stuff like that. And it’s sad. But it’s part of baseball. Just my mindset, just try to live the moment, live where I am, where my feet are. I’m going to have my mind there. It’s my brothers here. We are a family.”
I asked Dave Martinez before Washington’s 5-3 win over the Brewers on Monday if there had been someone during his playing days that handled the uncertainty of the trade deadline with unusual aplomb, the way Candelario did.
“Yeah. Me,” said Martinez, who was traded five times in his career, including three times in 2000.
The Nationals couldn’t have scripted this bounce-back season for Candelario any better. Only five third basemen in the league had a higher OPS than Candelario’s .823 entering play Monday. He’s playing to a 3.1 fWAR this season. That was third among all third basemen, only behind Cleveland’s José Ramírez and Toronto’s Matt Chapman. FanGraphs translates that 3.1 WAR to a worth of $24.5 million this year; as the Nationals signed Candelario for $5 million, with another $1 million in incentives, it’s easy to see why so many teams were interested in his .258/.342/.481 slash line with 16 homers — just three shy of his career-best 19 in Detroit in 2018 — and 53 RBIs.
Defensively, he’s been steady; per Statcast’s Fielding Run Value, among the 19 third basemen in MLB with more than 500 innings logged so far this season, Candelario’s FRV of plus-4 ties for fifth-best in the majors, with Ramirez, Chapman and the Giants’ J.D. Davis, behind Manny Machado (plus-8), the Pirates’ Ke’Bryan Hayes (plus-7), Seattle’s Eugenio Suárez (plus-6) and Colorado’s Ryan McMahon (plus-5). (His plus number defensively stems all from his range, not from his arm, per Statcast.)
Every trade deadline in every sport produces anxiety, uncertainty. It’s been especially acute around here the past couple of Julys, of course.
Two years ago, Washington started its rebuild in earnest with multiple deadline deals, most notably sending Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers in a deal that brought Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz to D.C. That was wrenching. So, what word would best describe last year, when the Nationals swallowed hard and sent Juan Soto to San Diego, getting, basically, the top third of the meat of the Padres’ farm system? Lots of people contributed to the Nats’ 2019 World Series run, to be sure. But Scherzer, Turner and Soto were front and center.
“You do something special with guys, and all of a sudden, they’re gone. It’s tough,” Martinez said before the trade was finalized. “This is just as tough. I’ve known Jeimer since he was 16 years old. But to watch him grow has been amazing, and to watch him become the player he is, it’s been fun. And off he goes to play with somebody else. We’ll see. And then, we’ll see what happens this winter, right?”
(Yes, I had the same reaction as you did to that last sentence. Stay tuned?)
Some tend to think any baseball is better than no baseball. Well, there are limits, even during a rebuild. The product Washington put on the field during the first half of last season was borderline unwatchable. It’s improved significantly since then. That doesn’t mean, though, there shouldn’t be accountability for not holding runners on base, or not reading a ball to see if a single can be stretched into a double, or not driving in runners in scoring position. Yes, the Mets look like they’re closing up shop for 2023, but barring a significant win streak the last two months, the Nats are going to be last in the National League East for a fourth straight season, while still charging their paying customers major-league prices.
Acquiring Made and Herz continues Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo’s rapid restocking of the farm system. If Lane Thomas and/or Kyle Finnegan and others join the exodus, well, this is where the Nats are these days. But, the band-aid has been ripped off. Healing has begun. There seems to be legit talent on its way.
Take Candelario’s now-former spot.
Brady House, the Nats’ first-round pick in 2021, is barely into his Double-A stint at Harrisburg, after 52 games in Low-A and High-A ball. He’s off to a strong start there, slashing .344/.400/.469 before Monday, continuing his conversion from shortstop, where he played in high school and his first two minor-league seasons. But House has been raking so much he’s shot up our Keith Law’s top-100 chart, moving from 85th among Law’s top prospects leaguewide in January to 30th this month, displaying what Law calls “stupid power” so far while at High-A Wilmington. Maybe House isn’t up here for good for another year. But by 2025? Seems eminently plausible.
Seemingly liberated since being moved to the leadoff spot a month ago, Abrams has stolen 22 straight bases, the longest current streak in MLB, and is third in the NL with 25 steals after ripping another bag against Milwaukee. And, he’s committed just 11 errors in his last 96 games this season at short after committing three in the season opener.
Gore has struggled with control at times, but his K/9 of 10.53 is 12th-best among qualified starters, per Fangraphs. And his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) allowed of .335 hints at some bad luck.
His 1.44 HR/9 allowed? Not so good. But Gray was the worst in MLB in that category among pitchers with at least 75 innings last season, and he’s 30th now. Small moves.
Luis García has gotten better with more reps at second, after clanking his way at short for the first half of last season, and has formed a solid double-play duo with Abrams. Candelario pointed to García specifically as someone he thinks could be an unsung part of the Nationals’ long-term future.
James Wood is swinging and missing too much at Harrisburg, where he and fellow outfield prospect Robert Hassell III, both acquired in the Soto deal, play alongside House. But Wood still has significant, high upside, with potential future 30/30 seasons. Until this month, he projected as the Nats’ center fielder of the future, but that was before Washington took LSU’s Dylan Crews with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. You never say never in this business, but with his tool set both at the plate and in the field, if Crews isn’t the next long-term CF in Washington, starting in ’25 at the latest, and maybe midway through next season, something’s gone very wrong.
Crews is ranked third by Baseball America on its list of in-season top-100 prospects. Wood is fourth. They’re both ahead of Pittsburgh’s Paul Skenes, Crews’ LSU teammate and monster-armed pitcher, who’s ranked fifth.
Cade Cavalli, recovering from Tommy John, is still a big piece of Washington’s future. Elijah Green, the Nats’ first-rounder in ’22, has scuffled so far in the minors, but his athletic pedigree is still too enticing to dismiss. Pitchers Jackson Rutledge and Jarlin Susana, and outfielder Daylen Lile, are all pointing north. A farm system that looked moribund a couple of years ago is ranked in the top 10 in the majors by a lot of reviewers — fourth by Fangraphs, sixth by Bleacher Report.
“We look at it this way,” Rizzo said after Crews’ introductory press conference last weekend. “Since the reboot, we’ve had four, what we feel, are impactful drafts. And we’ve had two impactful trade deadlines. And it’s turned the fortunes of our franchise around. After a decade of winning baseball and winning championships … we decided we had to rebuild. As painful as that is, we (can) see the rewards that are starting to show themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not on the big-league diamond right now, but it’s everywhere else in the organization. There’s a lot of excitement, there’s a lot of energy, and there’s a good vibe in the big-league clubhouse and in our minor-league system.”
We’re still a long way from ’19. Or, 2017. Or, 2012, for that matter. All the Nationals have to bank on is hope. But, there’s a lot more of it learning the craft throughout Washington’s system than there was around this time a year ago, perhaps the darkest day for this franchise since it got here from Montreal. The future’s not assured, but it’s hard not to believe that real help is on the way, as the chessboard fills in.
And if Candelario only spent half a season here, he leaves an awful lot of professionalism for his now-former teammates to try and emulate in the years to come, joining the likes of Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber as short-termers who made their mark in D.C.
“I can’t say what time when it’s going to turn around,” Candelario said before leaving town. “But I know the guys are growing. I know the guys are taking it step by step. And I know the guys, they want to win. They know when we win, we have fun. And they want that.”
(Top photo of Jeimer Candelario: Brad Mills / USA Today)