Nats’ CJ Abrams struggles with back strains during spring training


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — CJ Abrams hasn’t played since Tuesday, and nobody here seems overly concerned. At least not Dave Martinez or Abrams, who quietly confirmed on Friday that he’s been struggling with back strains. Martinez, the Washington Nationals manager, then admitted that Abrams would likely be the team’s first shortstop if it weren’t for mid-March.

But it’s mid-March, so Washington will be cautious. And why not? Nothing counts in the Grapefruit League. Abrams, 22, has 26 at-bats in spring training and shouldn’t need many more. On Friday afternoon, the Nationals faced the Houston Astros, narrowly narrowing down Leonel Valera. Behind him was Ildemaro Vargas, who is expected to be Abrams’ backup during the regular season.

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Valera, a non-roster invite, finished last year with 18 homers and 33 steals in the High Class A and Class AA for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The downside: In 130 games, he struck 176 times. Vargas, 31, returned to the mix after remaining as Washington’s utility man in 2022. Since he could play third, junior and second this season, Martinez is looking to get him replays at each venue in the final 10 days of camp. While Abrams’ minor setback is an obstacle on the way to opening day, it has also given Martinez a chance to see other players in midfield.

Before an 11-7 win over Houston, Abrams put in some light work in the batting cage. During the game, Valera went 0 for 2 with a strikeout while Vargas hit two singles in the ninth game. And with Vargas in second place, Astros manager Dusty Baker’s son Darren Baker clipped a crucial grand slam on the other side of Devin Conn. The Nationals eventually rallied for eight runs in the ninth, topped by Vargas’ RBI knock up at center.

Baker, a minor league second baseman, started the afternoon exchanging roster cards with his father, just like they did last spring. He then capped it by taking out the final.

“I kind of knew a fastball was going to get there, and I’m taking my chances with a fastball,” said Baker, who was smiling broadly after the win. “I don’t know; I tried to hit something hard and it accidentally flew out of the park.”

As for Abrams, he was happy to let other infielders lead for now.

“I just wanted to play it safe with this one,” Abrams said Friday morning. “It’s spring training. No reason to overdo it.”

“I play, throw. i can swing I can do anything,” he continued. “Just no reason to play, I guess.”

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While Abrams wasn’t sure when to pinch his back, Martinez pointed to a slide against the New York Mets on Tuesday. Anyhow, it’s noteworthy that Abrams mentioned the narrowness rather than trying to enforce it. Spring is ripe for young players hiding injuries to impress the club. Abrams arrived in West Palm Beach with just 302 major league appearances.

But in the context of Washington’s recovery, he’s not your typical 22-year-old. He didn’t come to spring training to earn a role. For the past month, he’s focused on maintaining the 5 pounds of muscle he gained over the winter, hitting better pitches, turning more grounders into line drives, and most importantly, staying healthy. Comfort helps achieve that last part, and it might help curb a bit of back tension for just that.

“He’s been getting a lot of at-bats already,” Martinez said, referring to both plate appearances in the game and encounters with teammates in the backfields. “We don’t want this to become a bigger problem. So give him a few days, let him recover a bit. He’ll probably do some baseball activities [Friday]and then we’ll get him out again.” Nats’ CJ Abrams struggles with back strains during spring training

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