On Sunday, Jeimer Candelario helped the Nationals beat the Tigers, his former team, with a 4-hit performance. That closed a week-long stretch of six multi-hit games in seven for Candelario, who is suddenly the Nationals hottest hitter. His mid-May ignition came after an 18-game stretch with just one multi-hit game. If you weren't paying attention last week, you might think that Candelario was having an unremarkable season. Get with the times: Candelario is now one of the top third basemen in baseball.
It's true that Candelario was going at a middling, unspectacular pace up until May 15th. A 16-for-28 run with 7 extra-base hits can really turn things around, especially this early in the season. It's safe to say it takes a bit of luck to hit over .500 for a week, but not every player can manage to hit that well in even the smallest samples. A big boost to Candy's overall offensive line plus his season-long stellar defense means that he's sneakily one of the better players in the league. Let's discuss the implications of a bright spot suddenly illuminating at the hot corner in DC.
Will Jeimer Candelario be moved at the trade deadline?
This is the first thing on the Nationals mind for anybody on an expiring contract like Candelario. Jeimer is joined by only Corey Dickerson, Chad Kuhl, and Erasmo Ramirez as free agents out of contract at the end of the season. None of those other players have been performing well enough to move to a contending roster, so Candelario may stand alone as the Nationals top trade asset, if they choose to hold onto their arbitration-eligible relievers.
Trade talk will no doubt continue this summer, but it will all be predicated on Candelario's performance. Here's the bottom line for Jeimer: He was great in 2020 and 2021, but he was awful in 2022. Right now, his offensive line is close to what it was in his good years, and his defense is better than it's ever been. Will he be able to earn himself a move to a better team, and even a multi-year free agent contract? It's up to him.
Right now, Candelario ranks 3rd in WAR among all MLB third basemen, at both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. He's 3rd! The Nationals didn't have a single position group projected to be better than 23rd in the league by FanGraphs' positional power rankings projections. Any player for the Nationals being in the top 10 in value is an excellent sign, even if it's someone on a 1-year deal. It's still early, but Candelario sits above Austin Riley, Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Rafael Devers, Max Muncy, Anthony Rendon, and Manny Machado, you know, that class of elite third basemen that have been dominating the league the past few years. Candelario is far, far above last-place Jean Segura, who signed a $17 million deal with the Marlins this offseason. Things are looking pretty great!
Of course, Jeimer Candelario is not actually a better player than those superstars, but he is officially back to being a productive starter after a really rough 2022 with the Tigers. There's not too much you need to know about his offensive performance, because he's done it before. In 2020 and 2021, he slashed .278/.356/.458 with 23 homers and 53 doubles in 201 games, good for an OPS+ of 125. That's better than solid on the offensive side, and it's a large and recent enough sample for it to make perfect sense that Candelario is looking great at the plate once again. It's weird that Jeimer has never managed to hit 20 homers in a season despite his above-average raw power; now, a contract year, is a perfect time for Jeimer to set a career-high in long balls.
The more intriguing part of Jeimer's leaderboard topping is the defensive metrics. Right now, FanGraphs has Jeimer as the 4th-most valuable defensive third baseman, and he ranks in the 90th percentile by Statcast Outs Above Average. This matches with the eye test for Nationals fans, as he's been sure-handed and consistent while making a number of impressive plays. He has made four errors but has helped turn 11 double plays, and has been constantly praised by Nationals commentators and media for his great defense.
This is all surprising for Candelario, who has never been in the elite tier of third base defenders. His FanGraphs metrics have him as already having a career-best year in total value, and his 90th-percentile OAA seems wild when you look at his 8th-percentile 2022 and 37th-percentile 2021. He doesn't look quite like the Arenados and Machados of the world, as good as he has been. Defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable in short samples, so I would guess that his two months of elite work will regress somewhat. Even if that happens, he has turned a new leaf and shown some undeniable gains on defense, and that will go a long way for front offices evaluating him as a player.
Before the season, I didn't expect Candelario to be the most noteworthy Nationals hitter. While we patiently wait for some of the younger hitters to break out, we have an undisputed best player. Candelario has more than double the FanGraphs WAR of the next-best player on the Nationals, which isn't really a good thing. Before we talk about trading our Candy, we'll have to consider him as the Nationals potential All-Star representative. He faces fierce competition among NL third basemen, but so far he's outpacing all of them.
What can we expect in return for Candelario if he does get traded? Not many contenders have an obvious need at third base, future injuries notwithstanding, but no team would say no to a switch hitter who is a plus on both offense and defense. If Candelario is top-10 at his position come July, Mike Rizzo will certainly be looking for a mid-level prospect or two, and he'll no doubt ask for more if he can manufacture a bidding war for the resurgent Candelario. The Twins or Giants could be knocking if they're in contention, and maybe the Yankees or Dodgers or Orioles could try to fit him into their infields.
It's a bit sad that the Nationals are almost certainly not going to hang onto Candelario, who is only 29 years old. There's no obvious successor to him at third base, well, I wouldn't call Carter Kieboom obvious, at least. Top prospect Brady House hasn't turned 20 yet, and it's a stretch to call Jake Alu a future MLB regular. If Candelario slumps or gets hurt, the Nationals could consider running it back with him on a 1-year deal next year, but it's more likely that they pick someone similar off the bottom of the free agent pile next winter to man third. At least Candelario is good right now, and he can even help the team win a few games in the next few months. Let's enjoy it while it's happening.