Thoughts on the latest Nationals roster moves

The Nationals made a couple of roster moves this week, after the trade deadline had come and gone. One move was popular amongst fans, and had been needing to happen for a while. The other, not so popular and possibly unnecessary.
Washington Nationals  v Baltimore Orioles
Washington Nationals v Baltimore Orioles / Greg Fiume/GettyImages

The Nationals made waves amongst their fans on social media at the Trade Deadline when they decided to only trade Jeimer Candelario and no one else. In their defense, waves would have been made regardless of how many players they traded, but it was still quite the decision nonetheless.

Typically once the trade deadline passes, you expect to finish out the remaining two months of the season with your roster as constructed, health permitting. The Nationals had other ideas.

The Nationals waited to announce this move until after the media conference had ended after the game on Wednesday afternoon. The Nationals were off yesterday and are in Cincinnati tonight, so a strategic timing by the Nationals to avoid any questions regarding these moves, at least for now.

The first move is the "expected" transaction. Corey Dickerson seemed like an odd signing to begin with and after getting hurt on opening day, which caused him to miss more than a month, it did not help his case. The Nationals clearly signed Dickerson to try and trade should he perform well in the first half of the season, like Jeimer Candelario. Dickerson did not, so they did not, or were unable to. Nats' GM Mike Rizzo did say they had conversation with teams on some guys he did not previously mention - Lane Thomas and Kyle Finnegan - but they were unable to come to a deal. Cutting Dickerson the day after the deadline leads me to believe Dickerson was one of those players the Nationals attempted to move.

That is the game you play with these one year, prove it type players you take flyers on. It worked tremendously well with Jeimer Candelario, but so often you end up with a player like 2023 Corey Dickerson who is more of a hinderance than a help to a team's direction. The Nationals made the right move cutting ties at this juncture and now they can play other players and Dickerson gets the chance to latch on with a contender.

As Andrew pointed out above, the "wow" is definitely the demotion of Luis Garcia. Garcia had not necessarily been setting the world on fire, but this move was still unexpected. The Nationals are tracking to lose near 100 games yet again this season and playing a guy like Luis Garcia full time seemed like the right thing to do for a team that is rebuilding and working to identify key players of their future. Garcia had not exactly established himself as such, but he has only spent portions of the last 3 years with the Nationals and one could argue the constant back-and-forth and shuffling between AAA and the Majors had not led to the best results from Garcia.

Nevertheless, the Nationals opted to send him down, simultaneously sending a message. It is slightly reminiscent of the team demoting Victor Robles to AAA late last season, although Robles had gotten much more opportunity than Garcia to establish himself and that move, if anything, felt overdue.

I do not think the Nationals are giving up on Luis Garcia necessarily, but I do think they are starting to question whether or not they need to address the second base position going forward, whether it be an external move or someone else internally, perhaps Darren Baker, who is enjoying himself a strong season in AAA.

At the same time, however, it seems odd to make Garcia the sacrificial lamb of sorts when basically the entire team is struggling offensively. Garcia is a contact-first, low strikeout kind of player. So is Keibert Ruiz. So is Dom Smith. But Garcia was the one they decided to act on. It is also puzzling considering the philosophy of hitting coach Darnell Coles is just that: lots of contact early in the count. This leads to lower strikeouts, but weaker contact. Garcia had been struggling, but he was doing exactly that Coles has been teaching. When the offense is this bad and you blame one player instead of the one in charge of the offense, that just screams scapegoat.

So now Luis Garcia is in AAA Rochester, where he will hope to figure out his swing. Some might point to his defense, but let's be honest, if he was hitting well then no one would care about his defense. He was not sent down for defensive reasons. But it does seem odd that the coaches he is around everyday could not fix his swing (again, he was doing what he was told), but maybe the player development system in the minors can see something they did not.

So who is replacing Dickerson and Garcia?

Again, there is one popular move and one not so popular move.

Blake Rutherford has had his contract selected by the Nationals and will be joining the team in Cincinnati. Rutherford was a former first round pick by the Yankees back in 2016 and has been tearing it up in AAA. In 235 ABs, Rutherford posted a .978 OPS with 11 homeruns. He is batting 6th and starting in Left Field tonight for the Nats.

As previously mentioned, Darren Baker seemed like a great candidate to fill in at second base for the Nationals in the absence of Garcia. Baker is young (24 years old) and has proved himself in AAA. While not known for power, Baker has posted a respectable .750 OPS and a .296 batting average in 58 games. With an open spot on the 40 man roster, the Nationals surely gave him a shot, right?

Wrong. Instead the Nationals elected to call up Jeter Downs, a former top prospect who has severely struggled at every level past AA in the recent few seasons. A key component in the return for Mookie Betts in Boston, Downs was released by the club last offseason before the Nationals picked him up. Downs is hitting .165 in AAA this season.

It would be one thing if they decided to call up Downs to give him one final shot to prove himself (which I think we're past that point) but now he is not even playing for the Nationals. The Nationals have decided to shift Jake Alu to Second Base and play Ildemaro Vargas at Third Base for tonight's opener against the Reds. Vargas is a useful utility player, but is not a key piece of the future. Downs or even Baker might not be either, but playing them gives you more answers about your future than Vargas does.