The 2023 season is going to be a very important one for the Nationals organization. There are multiple players both at the major league level and the minor league level that have something to prove and that are critical to the rebuild. First thing’s first, when I say the 5 most important players in the Nationals organization, I don’t mean the top prospects, or the best players at the major league level. I mean the most important players that either need to continue developing, or the most important players that need to prove something this year. Even still, this was an incredibly hard list to come up with, and I’ll preface the list by saying this is completely my opinion. I’ll touch on a couple of guys later on that could have made this list and why they didn’t make the cut. But for now, here are the 5 most important players in the organization coming into the 2023 season:
MacKenzie Gore has front of the rotation stuff. The question for Gore is consistency, whether he can limit hard contact and whether he can lower his walk rate. Anybody who has seen Gore pitch can admit he has some pretty nasty stuff. He was the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 draft and was a top prospect in the Padres organization for 4 years before making his Major League debut this past season. But what we saw from him in the Majors was similar to what he was doing in the Minors. Across 3 minor league levels in 2021, he walked 5 hitters per 9 innings pitched. Making his debut with the Padres last year, that number dipped only slightly to 4.8. For comparison, Joan Adon walked 5.4 hitters per 9 innings last year over 14 starts for the Nationals. Josiah Gray, who also walks way too many hitters, walked 4 hitters per 9 innings. Gore has to get the walks under control. He was also in the bottom 4% of MLB pitchers in exit velocity (90.8) and bottom 6% of MLB pitchers in hard hit % (45.4%). Put all those numbers together and you’d probably wonder how he posted a 4.50 ERA over 70 innings. Maybe some of it was luck, but the other part is because he has the potential to be that good. His stuff has #1 or #2 starter potential. Now he needs to have a fully healthy season where he focuses on his command and limiting hard hit balls. It’s a big year for the 24 year old, but he’s one of the players that I’m most excited about watching this year.
CJ Abrams/Luis Garcia
I know this is cheating, but the two players are actually very similar and should be the future of the Nats middle infield for years to come. The Padres picked Abrams 6th overall in the 2019 draft. Despite missing the entire 2020 minor league season due to the pandemic, Abrams moved quickly through the Padres system and made his Major League debut last year, just like Gore. Abrams sprint speed was in the 91st percentile last season, which was the same as well known speedster Billy Hamilton. Trea Turner was in the 99th percentile. To be brutally honest, we may never see speed on the Nationals like we saw with Turner, but Abrams is pretty close. Garcia signed with the Nationals in 2016 and made his Major League debut (likely too soon) in 2020 at 19 years old. While Abrams has All-Star potential, Garcia should be able to settle in as a very good everyday player. The two players share a very similar issue though. Abrams had a borderline non-existent walk rate last year once he arrived in DC at 0.6%. He walked 1 time in 163 plate appearances with the Nationals. Garcia, who has a very well known walk issue, walked 11 times in 377 plate appearances last season (2.9% of his plate appearances). The Nationals simply can’t have 2 everyday players walking in under 5.0% of their plate appearances. But wait, they don’t just have 2, they have 3 because Victor Robles rarely walks either and has a 4.2% walk rate. It’s pathetic. But while Robles is likely helpless, Abrams and Garcia both need to just be more selective. Both players posted a chase rate above 40% last year. That number has to come down and there’s reason to believe that the 22 year olds can both do it (yes, they’re both that young). Both players also have very similar batted ball profiles, and unfortunately they aren’t very impressive. But one thing that both players have going for them is that they make a lot of contact. Neither strikes out at a very high rate, but they need to make harder contact and barrel up more balls. It’s an important year for both players. They’re both still extremely young, but if they put up another year or two of the same production that they put up last year, we might be comparing them to Victor Robles afterall.
Wood is possibly the most important player that the Nationals received back from the Padres in exchange for Juan Soto last year. He has tantalizing talent and he’s on this list for one reason and one reason only. We want you to just keep doing what you’re doing, James. Stay healthy and keep producing in the minors. Wood hit 12 home runs, drove in 62, somehow stole 20 bases and posted a .313/.420/.536 slash line last year in 76 games across 3 levels in the minors. The fact that the Nationals have Wood and Elijah Green in the same system is actually insane. These guys are freaks. Standing at 6’7, Wood shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing. Most prospect rankings that you’ll find to start the season have Wood anywhere from the 3rd best prospect in baseball to the 17th best prospect in baseball. Each one said they wouldn’t be surprised if Wood were the top prospect in all of baseball by the end of the season. Please just keep putting up the gaudy numbers, James.
Full disclosure, earlier this week, this spot had gone to Cade Cavalli. With Cavalli leaving Tuesday’s start with “discomfort behind his throwing elbow” (a surefire sign that he’ll need Tommy John surgery), I’ve replaced him with Josiah Gray. Both pitchers are equally important, but I had given Cavalli a slight edge because in my eyes, he has a slightly higher ceiling than Gray. While we’ve seen flashes of what Gray can be, there are some question marks as well and I think everyone was excited to see how Cavalli’s stuff played in the Majors. It looks like we’ll have to wait until 2024 now for that.
The question for Gray is whether he and the Nats have come up with a solution for his 4-seam fastball, which hitters hit 24 home runs off of and slugged .738 against last year. If not, we might be talking about moving Gray into a multi-inning relief bullpen role where he can throw his slider and curveball more. He’s been working on a cutter this spring and it’s been very effective so far. Gray’s slider and curveball are both elite. Hitters were unable to square up either pitch on a regular basis, slugging under .330 on both pitches. He ‘s historically used both pitches to routinely strike hitters out once he gets ahead. If the cutter ends up playing, then that pitch could turn out to be a key to saving his career as a starter and actually turning him into a front end starter.
We’re starting a trend now. The Nats 2020 and now 2021 first round picks both make the list. But they make the list for different reasons. Cavalli made it mostly because it’s time to see how his stuff translates in the Majors. House makes the list because we need to see what kind of player House is. He missed the majority of his first professional season due to a back injury. Before the injury, House was adjusting just fine to minor league pitching. He posted a .341/.424/.471 slash line in Fredericksburg before getting hurt. He tried to play through his back injury, but it was clear he wasn’t himself. His K% went way up and his power was almost non-existent after the back injury. Now that House is fully healthy, and starting to get adjusted to playing 3B, it will be interesting to see what kind of numbers he can put up. If House can make his way to AA Harrisburg by the end of the year and keep his K% around or below 27%, this would be a very successful season for him. Strikeouts have always been a part of House’s game, as evidenced by his 33% K rate last season. But, before his back injury, his K% was at 29%, compared to 37% after the injury. If he can lower that a couple % points, then he’d be in business. His patience was also tested after the injury. He went from walking in around 12% of his ABs to walking in around 2% of his ABs (a CJ Abrams level). I think House has the potential to be an All-Star level player at 3B as long as he can display the patience and power he showed before his back injury. If we see more of the player that we saw after the back injury, there could be some serious red flags.
There were a couple of other players that were really close to making this list, namely Robert Hassell III and Kiebert Ruiz. Both of these guys are going to have a huge impact on the Nationals rebuild and both could stand to make huge strides in 2023. In Ruiz, Nats fans should be looking for their $50 million man to take huge steps forward in 2023. In order to do that, we might need to see him become more selective at the plate. That sounds silly because of his elite K%. In becoming more selective, he might sacrifice some of his K%, but it should improve his BB%, hard hit % and overall power at the plate in becoming more selective. If Ruiz can become a 15-20 home run guy, his new contract is going to turn out to be a steal for the Nats. Either way, it’s hard to see his contract turning out poorly for the team.
Although Hassell is still in the minors, he’s just as important as Ruiz. Like Brady House, Hassell too was playing through an injury last year. After coming over from San Diego, Hassell displayed close to no power. Although Hassell likely won’t develop into a 20-25 home run guy, most of his power drought last year can be attributed to the hamate injury. We know Hassell can hit, the question is whether he’s going to be a 10-15 home run guy in the Majors or if he can develop some power and turn into a 15-20 home run guy. Regardless, I’ve been thinking of Andrew Benintendi as a good comp when I think of Hassell. He’s going to be a very good everyday player. He’ll hit for average, he’ll take his walks, he’ll steal 5-10 bags for you, he’ll play a solid outfield, but he won’t hit for a ton of power. He’s a safe player and one that you desperately need during a rebuild, especially when a sizable amount of the Nats rebuild is centered around whether the club can develop Wood, Green and House.
This season isn’t going to be measured by wins and losses, but it is going to be measured by how the young guys are doing. We need to see some substantial progress from everybody named in this list if the Nats have dreams of opening their “window” in two or three years. Hopefully the club has done enough to give these guys the tools they need to continue adjusting and developing, but that really remains to be seen. All we can do is hope at this point.
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