When you trade Juan Soto, a player who hits like an inner-circle Hall of Famer from age 19, you had better get multiple stars in return. The Nationals sent Soto away and put their hopes into CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, James Wood, Robert Hassell III, and Jarlin Susana. That was about one year ago, and one year into CJ Abrams' Nationals career, things aren't going quite according to plan.
CJ Abrams was supposed to be a star. He was drafted #6 overall as a lightning-fast shortstop with legitimate five-tool potential. He shot up the minor leagues and debuted in San Diego at age 21, and was featured near the top of various prospect rankings. When he came to DC, he became the immediate starter at shortstop without much competition.
Now that we're halfway into the 2023 season, CJ has played about a full season's worth of MLB games. In 171 games he has hit .246/.286/.360 with 9 home runs, 21 stolen bases, and subpar defense at shortstop. He's still remarkably young - several older players were drafted out of college the other day - but his performance is not that of a future superstar. Generally, the perennial All-Star types in the league hit the ground running, or at least perform at an average level as a rookie. It is worth mentioning that in the recent 3 games since Abrams got moved to the leadoff spot, he has gone 6 for 12 with a walk and 3 stolen bases. A small sample size, but still encouraging.
First-Half Abrams In Review
So, let's break down the first half that was for Abrams. He generated 0.4 WAR, ranked 25th out of 34 players with at least 200 plate appearances at shortstop. In that group, he was 22nd in wRC+ and 31st in FanGraphs' defensive metrics. It's clear he didn't play great, but there are several paths from here to the territory of productivity.
The scouting reports on Abrams as a prospect highlighted his hit tool above all else. Several evaluators put a 60 or 70 grade on Abrams bat, foreseeing an elite feel for contact and high batting averages. That is the primary thing that has gone wrong, I think, for Abrams so far. That elite hit tool hasn't developed at the major league level. A lack of power, struggles with plate discipline, and rough defense has also pained Abrams, but all of that could be made up for with an elite bat.
Translating a 70-grade hit tool to the majors looks something like Anthony Rendon (when he was a National, of course) or Freddie Freeman. Players with elite bats rarely strike out, make solid contact against multiple pitch types, and run above-average BABIPs. Right now, Abrams has a 22.2 K% and a .298 BABIP, leading to his .245 batting average. Abrams has hit for a respectable amount of power for a shortstop, but is brought down by a low walk rate of 4.0%. A .292 OBP is not going to cut it for Abrams, who can't utilize his speed on the base paths with such a low average and walk rate.
Defensively, Abrams has been even worse. He has elite speed and great arm strength, but has been extremely shaky with his glove and error-prone with his arm. Statcast's Outs Above Average rates him as the 4th-worst shortstop in a group of 36, and grades him at -4 runs on plays to his left and -4 runs on plays going in. Defense takes a while to learn at the majors, and CJ will almost definitely improve, but he will be improving from a very low starting point.
What Will CJ Abrams Do Well?
All things considered, CJ Abrams does not have a standout skill right now. His speed is a clear asset, though it only is in the 83rd percentile per statcast. Everything else has been disappointing, and true stardom seems incredibly difficult to achieve from this point forward. Forget stardom, though. What the Nationals need is a consistent, productive regular to balance out the infield, score some runs for the offense and complement the stars that are hopefully on the way.
To get there, CJ Abrams can do one of two things: he could be a little bit better at everything, or he could be a lot better at one thing. The four tools that are relevant here are hitting for contact, hitting for power, plate discipline and on-base skills, and defense. Speed is already a given.
It's unlikely that Abrams suddenly becomes an on-base machine, a little bump in OBP would go a long way but its unlikely that it will be his carrying tool. His hit tool is supposed to be his carrying tool, and I'd say that would be his likely path to productivity. He's struggled with breaking balls and against lefties, and has hit too many popups. Something needs to change drastically for Abrams to reach the ceiling of his hit tool, but it's possible. If he becomes a superior line drive hitter that's the best version of him.
If he can't get his hit tool to an above-average level he'll need to be boosted by something else, namely power or defense. He's not great at either thing right now, but the potential is still there. Despite being a speedy, skinny shortstop and looking like a slap hitter, Abrams has some pop in his bat. His 6'2" frame rotates well and he has solid bat speed, and his max exit velocities are above average. He has seven home runs, 16 doubles and three triples already. If he can get those totals to 20 home runs and 35 doubles in a year, that's more than enough to be a good player.
Everyone knows what a difference-making shortstop on defense looks like. Abrams simply does not have that magic glove that players like Jose Iglesias or Francisco Lindor have. He has made plenty of highlight plays thanks to his athleticism but those aren't nearly enough to make up for his errors.
There are many possible outcomes for Abrams, and it's impossible to predict which version of him we will be getting. In the future multiverses, there is a CJ Abrams that turns into a .310 hitter with good power and speed and he plays like a mini version of Derek Jeter or Trea Turner. That is the true ending, the Abrams that was promised. In another future, he's a power-first shortstop who makes mistakes on defense and strikes out but still hits 25 bombs, and we have another Ian Desmond. The on-base machine Abrams is a future that is hard to see, but he looks a lot like J.P. Crawford there. My favorite future would be the one where the defense wizard waves his wand over CJ's glove while he is sleeping, and he wakes up and becomes Andrelton Simmons. There's even futures where Abrams is a pure speedster, he gets moved to center field and steals 50 bases like Ben Revere.
We don't know what is going to happen, that's the fun of it. Abrams is under contract until 2029. There has to be something he's good at.