The promising Nationals still have a lot of work to do rebuilding

Jacob Young’s walk-off single on Wednesday night will forever be a memory for a rookie whose future in the big leagues isn’t guaranteed. But the Washington Nationals’ season will not be defined by this victory over the New York Mets, nor by the previous losing streak, nor by the encouraging month before it. This is a complex, incomplete assessment and absolute statements only involve risks. Write everything in pencil. Currently.

What we do know is that with Wednesday’s 3-2 win, the Nats both stopped a six-game deficit and are somehow at 35-30 since June 23rd. During this time they have won 13 series and lost only seven. In a period of more than two months and 40 percent of a season, that’s not nothing. It’s not just progress when compared to the disaster of 2022 with 107 losses. It is progress that points to something in the future.

But if and when the Nationals are good again, if they play games in September that matter as much as they have for so long, it won’t be because the road back is a straight line. Remember: Cade Cavalli broke his elbow. Luis García was sent to the minors. CJ Abrams, Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz have all stood out and have all hit the wall. MacKenzie Gore is inconsistent from start to start and pitch to pitch. Put the rulers aside as you plan each player’s path to success. These curves will look more like Richter scales.

This is not a major concern about the direction of the roster and system. It is just an admission that there will be joys and difficulties in this process. Predicting a 2025 roster — unless it’s unrealistic to think the Nats could resemble their 2012 predecessors who unexpectedly won the franchise’s first division title — is both fun and folly.

In other words, it’s easy to sit back and say, “Invite new prospects and everything will be fine.” The trades of Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Juan Soto — and so many other World Series heroes — made sense , because an aging core could no longer hold up the squad and the farm system was exhausted to the point of insignificance. Yes, for years the Nats have traded minor league players for in-season fixes to prepare for the postseason. But they also failed in the draft and failed to develop replacement players. A restart was in order.

So recent developments serve as a reminder in more ways than one: Baseball is inherently hard, and once you think a player has it figured out, it turns out to be nearly impossible to figure out.

To make this return to competition work at a pace that the fan base and front office would deem appropriate, Abrams has the shortstop to be, if not a star, at least a stabilizing presence. (Stern would be preferable.) During a torrid 33-game stretch from July 4th to August 4th. 11, that’s what he looked like – he batted .316 with an on-base percentage of .370 and a slugging percentage of .481, with four home runs among his 13 extra-base hits. He steals bases. He can make all the plays. There were outliers. But he was on the rise.

Because: Even with his game-winning single on Thursday night, Abrams’ slash line in his last 22 games is .179/.239/.321 with four home runs – but no doubles or triples.

That doesn’t mean Abrams is failing. It means he finds his way. As Abrams finishes his first full season in the majors, it’s important to remember that his path to becoming an everyday shortstop in the major leagues was hardly a linear one either. He was drafted sixth overall out of high school in 2019, played no games during the lost 2020 pandemic season, broke his leg in the middle of 2021 and entered this year as the incumbent major league shortstop with a total of 534 minor league appearances. Ideally he would have twice as many. He’s not just young in face and on his driver’s license. He is young in experience.

That includes recognizing the enormity and relentlessness of a six-month, 162-game season. Ruiz, the catcher, hit .358/.423/.596 after a torrid 30-game stretch – including six home runs and eight doubles – with a tepid .216/.245/.294 stretch in 14 games since then. Gray was an All-Star in July, but his ERA over six starts in August and September is 8.49, and he has walked nearly one batter per inning over that span (21 free passes in 23⅓ frames). Young went on an uncharacteristic outburst after losing a ball in the sun on Sunday, and the need for growth is evident throughout.

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It can’t be right to bring in players and expect them to perform just because they rank high in prospect rankings. That ignores the work that needs to be done by coaches and development staff. Dylan Crews, the second overall pick in the draft, posted a 1.068 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 14 games against lower Class AA Fredericksburg and earned promotion to Class AA Harrisburg, earning a Level skipped. His first dozen games there: a .525 OPS. Last year’s first-round pick, outfielder Elijah Green, has had a strikeout in a whopping 41.6 percent of his 346 plate appearances. Outfielder Robert Hassell III is hitting a meager .215/.312/.316 in Harrisburg.

Is this cherry picking? Secure. Put these guys together with James Wood and Brady House in Class AA, Daylen Lile, Yohandy Morales and Andrew Pinckney in upper Class A, and others, and not all of them need to practice for the Nats to have their next core on the way . What is good. Because not all of them will work.

Ask Garcia. He played 100 games this season as the Nats’ current and future second baseman – and then was sent to the minors. General manager Mike Rizzo — the architect of that rebuild, who has not yet signed a contract for next season — said this week on 106.7 The Fan that the demotion was a “preparatory assignment.” This is code for: “Hey Luis. Get in shape and learn how to be a pro.”

That feeling could extend to the entire organization in the final four weeks of the season. The remaining games are important. They are crucial to how individual players prepare and perform. They play a role in assessing what needs will be top of mind in the offseason. They are important in identifying who has developed the professionalism to survive and excel through 162 games and who still needs work.

Through two trade deadlines and two or three drafts, the Nats appear to have put together many of the pieces that could bring them back to prominence. But the pieces alone don’t make a puzzle. There’s a lot of work behind it. There is still more ahead of us. The promising Nationals still have a lot of work to do rebuilding

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