Jake Alu Gets The Call-Up - What To Know Before Alu Debuts
Every time a player goes down with an injury, a roster spot opens up for a minor leaguer. Today, the Nationals are calling up a rookie to replace Victor Robles, who is going on the injured list with back spasms. Here's what you need to know about Jake Alu as he awaits his first opportunity in the big leagues.
Jake Alu was a 24th round Nationals draft pick out of Boston College in 2019. After a professional debut in 2019 his 2020 season was cancelled entirely, and he has spent the past two seasons mashing in the minors. After a massive 2022 minor league season between AA and AAA, Alu became a sure shot to see some amount of major league time in 2023. His AAA performance was eye-popping, hitting 11 home runs with a .925 OPS over 59 games. After his great season, we wrote aPlayer Spotlight piece about the 25-year-old.
In our spotlight, we anticipated Alu to be battling for a starting position for this year, but Alu had already been surpassed on the depth chart before the winter was over. In 2023, Alu has seen limited playing time in Major League Spring Training and has started somewhat slowly in AAA. He seemed to be in position for at least some playing time at third base before the Nats signed Jeimer Candelario, though his theoretical starting job was really a result of a serious lack of infield depth in the high minors. Among players on the 40-man, Alu is one of a few primary third basemen with Candelario and Carter Kieboom with Ildemaro Vargas as a backup/utility option. With Robles injured, Alu figures to play a utility role on the bench alongside Vargas.
Alu has only played in the infield in his professional career, and has limited outfield experience from his Boston College days. That makes Alu somewhat redundant with both Ildemaro Vargas and Michael Chavis already on the roster to back up the everyday infield. Being a lefty batter, Alu doesn't fit into a platoon with Candelario or Luis Garcia, but could potentially slot in the lineup at DH to give Joey Meneses some rest.
Alex Call figures to take over center field full-time in the absence of Robles, with Lane Thomas and Stone Garrett in the corners. Ildemaro Vargas isn't really an outfielder but is probably the backup for that trio. It's a confusing defensive depth chart for the Nationals as currently assembled, but they figure to make some more changes soon. Robles will certainly hope to be back to continue his excellent start to the season, and Corey Dickerson should be returning from his own stint on the IL. If and when either of them return, Alu is likely the one to be sent right back down, barring any other injuries from the rest of the lineup.
It's unfortunate that Alu has no clear way into games except as a third or fourth-choice backup. The team handled Jeter Downs' callup in a confusing way by calling the youngster away from AAA only to spend his entire major league stint on the bench behind Michael Chavis, getting just two plate appearances, and getting sent back down. I wish there was a reason to believe Alu's first MLB call-up would go differently, but the Nationals currently seem committed to giving their regulars as much playing time as possible.
The Nationals put themselves into this strange position with their 40-man roster decisions. Alu, Kieboom, and Downs, all infielders, are the only healthy position players on the 40-man at AAA but are stuck behind both Vargas and Chavis to even be backup options at their respective positions. The team has essentially zero depth in the outfield, with only Jeremy De La Rosa, a 21-year-old at High-A Wilmington on the 40-man across the entire minor league system. If one of the current outfielders goes down before Robles or Dickerson return more moves will be necessary. At the end of the day, all of the options are between subpar veterans, waiver wire riders, and vaguely interesting prospects that are far off of any top rankings. In that respect, these kind of decisions don't make much of a difference, but it only takes one Joey Meneses to realize that these decisions could, in rare cases, be important. For a currently bad Nationals organization under unsupportive and preoccupied ownership, these roster choices are the only thing that the team can really do to keep up with the rest of the league.
There's good reason to give Alu a look other than the simple excitement of seeing a 24th-rounder finally make it, or to merely shake up the status quo for the sake of doing so. Alu hit 20 home runs in the minors last season, a huge power improvement over his college career and previous minor league seasons. Alu gives the Nationals a young, cheap third base option with at least a moderate amount of potential, while Jeimer Candelario is pretty much a known quantity. Candelario is on a one-year contract and has not performed nearly well enough to be a trade asset that would return the Nats anything valuable at all. Alu is unspectacular among average major-league upstarts, but may well be the shiniest object when placed next to the Candelario-Chavis-Vargas-Kieboom-Downs discard pile. Many utility infielders have come and gone over the years and Alu is probably in the Clint Robinson/Jake Noll category, if you are looking for some specific comparisons.
The downside for Alu is that he has a limited track record of power hitting and is likely limited to third base defensively where he is expected to be no better than average, if that. He's also already 26, he's even older than Victor Robles! There is no guarantee that Alu can even tread water at a major league level, but we will never know if he doesn't get a chance. As I would basically advocate at every position for the Nationals in their current tanking limbo, there's no convincing reason to stick with an underperforming veteran. Alu is one of many darts on the table for the Nationals, and they can't hit a bullseye if they won't throw them.