The Nationals performed in such a manner this season that seems to have them poised to take another big leap forward again in 2024. The black holes at certain positions that were constantly band-aided by over-the-hill veteran players that were way past providing anything close to replacement value seems to finally be coming to a close. There is legitimate talent rising through the Nationals' minor league ranks and might just knock on the door of the Major Leagues next season.
That process got started today as the Nationals have selected the contracts of RHP Zach Brzykcy, RHP Cole Henry, LHP DJ Herz and LHP Mitchell Parker, adding all four arms to their 40 man roster and thereby making them ineligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft next month.
In order to facilitate protecting all four players, the Nationals elected to designate Cory Abbott and Dominic Smith for assignment.
There is a lot to break down here, but we'll start with the young guys.
DJ Herz is probably the most intriguing name on the list and was a near lock to be protected. Acquired in the deadline deal for Jeimer Candelario, Herz excelled in his time in the Nationals' system. Herz pitched to a 2.55 ERA in 35 innings in AA Harrisburg, with a whopping 53 strikeouts. There is the possibility the Nationals turn him into a reliever, but he is a high quality arm on their roster regardless.
Mitchell Parker is a good depth addition for the Nationals, especially following the release of Cory Abbott. Parker was superb in 2022, pitching to a 2.88 ERA in 100 innings with High A Wilmington. Parker struggled a bit in AA and AAA in 2023, but still managed to cover 124 innings in 26 starts. He could be up at some point early in 2024 if injuries occur.
Cole Henry has the biggest upside of the bunch, but also has the longest road ahead of him to joining the Nationals' active roster. Henry missed much of the season recovering from surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, the same injury that effectively ended Stephen Strasburg's career. Henry is thankfully pitching again, but the Nationals undoubtedly will be careful in his recovery. Adding him to the 40 man roster now shows they are optimistic that Henry can regain his previous form.
Zach Brzykcy is the wild card here, and could emerge as a weapon for the Nationals. Brzykcy put together a lights out 2022 campaign before a forearm injury led to Tommy John Surgery and had him miss the entire 2023 season. He did have a 1.76 ERA across three levels in 2022, which could put him in a great spot to get the call should the Nationals need bullpen help (when don't they) at some point during the season. Like Henry, the Nationals will be careful in Brzykcy's recovery, but adding him to the 40 man roster shows a great deal of faith in his potential.
Now to the flip side.
The losses of Cory Abbott and Andrés Machado are not huge blows to the pitching staff. Abbott really struggled in 2023 and while Machado flashed potential, he was not nearly consistent enough to warrant a roster spot. Moving on from both in order to protect young arms makes sense.
The real surprise, and a welcome one, is the release of Dominic Smith. After Smith had a strong season relative to expectation, similar to the Nationals as a whole, it seemed likely that the Nationals would just be content with what they had at First Base and continue on with Smith and Joey Meneses. DFA'ing Smith now shows they know they need more production from the position and their lineup as a whole, which should be a very welcome sight for all Nationals fans as I know there is a soon-to-be ex-Phillie First Baseman hitting the market that would look great in a Curly W.
The other option is to address 3B or DH in Free Agency instead and let Meneses receive the bulk of the playing time at First, which statistically leads to better offensive production from Meneses as opposed when he is just the DH. Meneses had 8 home runs and a .265 BA in 131 Games as the DH versus 4 home runs and a .333 BA in 19 Games at First. It is a small sample size, but certainly one worth exploring if the Nationals do not address the position in Free Agency.
The result of today's moves is this: the Nationals are simultaneously protecting the young guys they value while handcuffing themselves a bit in Free Agency. Protecting four guys from the Rule 5 Draft means four fewer spots to sign Free Agents. They could of course make additional moves, with players like Jeter Downs, Alex Call, Carter Kieboom, Amos Willingham and possibly Victor Robles all at risk of being let go, but that remains to be seen. Right now their roster sits at a full 40 players, so they would need to clear space in order to sign any players in Free Agency.
The evident truth is that the Nationals have several players on their current 40 man roster that will not be contributors for their next contending team. The question is will they replace them now or later. The silver lining here is that for those young talented players who are close to the Major Leagues, there will likely be straightforward decisions for the Nationals to clear roster space. Small victories.
We will have to watch to see how many players the Nationals let go. If they just move on for one or two, then they are likely not going to be major players in Free Agency. If they move on from the full list, then expect the roster overhaul to continue, which I would be in support of doing. Who knows, maybe the Nationals are working on quality over quantity, prioritizing one or two larger Free Agents as opposed to several fliers like last offseason. One can dream.