Ex-Detroit Tigers 3B Jeimer Candelario searching for ‘really special’ season with Nationals

Detroit Free Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — There was a time when Jeimer Candelario, the third-best third baseman in baseball across the 2020-21 seasons, looked like a potential long-term player for the Detroit Tigers.

His 5.8 fWAR ranked third behind José Ramírez (Cleveland Guardians) and Manny Machado (San Diego Padres) in those two seasons. He hit nearly .300 with a career-high .872 OPS in the shortened 2020 schedule, tied for MLB’s lead in doubles with 42 in the full 2021 schedule and secured back-to-back Tiger of the Year awards.

In November 2022, the Tigers cut Candelario from the roster.

“I don’t have time to live in the past,” Candelario said, lacing up his cleats in the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse. “I have to learn from the past and go forward. That’s what I did. I’m really happy for the opportunity here, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”

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Candelario, projected to receive $7 million in his final year of salary arbitration, was non-tendered by the Tigers in mid-November and immediately became a free agent for the first time in his career. Scott Harris, the Tigers’ new president of baseball operations, made the decision.

Eleven days later, Candelario signed a one-year, $5 million contract with the Nationals. The 29-year-old, who can earn an additional $1 million in performance bonuses, is expected to be the everyday third baseman.

The Tigers never acquired an everyday third baseman in the offseason.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Candelario said. “It was hard to leave Detroit, but this is a business. We got to do what we got to do to get better. I’m here right now with the Washington Nationals. I’m really excited for the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to contributing to my team.”

In 2020-21, Candelario hit .278 with 23 home runs, 85 walks (10.2% walk rate) and 184 strikeouts (22.1% strikeout rate) in 201 games. His above-average walk rate, and his switch-hit ability, made him seem like a potential fit for Harris’ objective to dominate the strike zone.

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In 2022, Candelario hit .217 with 13 homers, 28 walks (6% walk rate) and 109 strikeouts (23.3% strikeout rate) in 124 games. He struggled throughout the entire season, just like everyone else on the roster, and paid the price by losing his job.

“We got to be consistent producing in the big leagues because a lot of things can change,” Candelario said. “We got to be mentally ready and producing. I got to be able to produce from the first day to the last day. You never know in the big leagues.”

Other notable players from last year’s team lost their jobs, too: Willi Castro, Harold Castro and Victor Reyes. But the Castros and Reyes were worth a combined 1.8 fWAR in the 2020-21 seasons, nowhere near Candelario’s production.

Dumped by the Tigers, Candelario joined the Nationals and prepared for spring training in the Dominican Winter League. The results were putrid through 10 games in the regular season.

But Candelario heated up in the postseason. He played 21 games in the Dominican Winter League playoffs, hitting .380 (30-for-79) with four home runs, nine walks and eight strikeouts.

“We always have to prove ourselves,” Candelario said. “We have to prove something every day. I’m looking forward to seeing what the season is like for me. It’s going to be really special.”

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Two months later, Candelario stayed red hot while representing the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic as a last-minute replacement for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who suffered a knee injury in spring training.

He hit .500 (6-for-12) with two walks and two strikeouts in four games.

“It was crazy,” Candelario said. “I’ve never experienced that before, and it was a really good experience for me and my family. Playing in those games is like playing in the World Series, with the fans, the crowd and the pressure. It’s different, and I’m going to carry that into the season.”

Candelario also played 14 games for the Nationals in spring training and hit .273 (12-for-44) with one walk and nine strikeouts. He faced the Tigers on March 19 and went 1-for-3 with one strikeout.

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The Tigers, meanwhile, still have a hole at the hot corner.

Nick Maton, a 26-year-old acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason, is the closest thing to an everyday third baseman, but he profiles better as a second baseman. Maton also needs to prove he can hit left-handers and pitches at the bottom of the strike zone.

A few more players, like Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Kreidler and Zach McKinstry, should get opportunities at third base early in the season. The Tigers will shuffle the lineup in hopes of exploiting matchups.

For the first time since 2017, Candelario won’t be playing third base for the Tigers on Opening Day.

“The fans on Opening Day at Comerica Park were special for me, for my family, for my daughter,” Candelario said. “Those Opening Days in Detroit, the fans, the way they supported us during the year in the cold weather, the hot weather, the bad moments, the good moments, it was special. They’re always going to keep a really good love in my heart.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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