Earlier this week, we wrote about MacKenzie Gore - one of the six players acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for Juan Soto and Josh Bell.
The other young big leaguer who was part of that haul was shortstop CJ Abrams. Unlike Gore, he hadn't experienced any considerable success in the majors at the time of the trade. However, much like Gore, the results have been more favorable since arriving in Washington, where they've both been emphasized as core pieces of a rebuilding team.
Prior to arriving in DC, Abrams had been the No. 6 overall selection in the 2019 MLB Draft. In the following three years, he'd been among the most heralded minor league prospects in the game.
He met his first significant adversity when he was promoted to the senior circuit last season. Before being trading to the Nationals in August, Abrams was batting a meager .232 for the Padres while filling in for All Star, face of the franchise Fernando Tatis Jr.
It wasn't immediate, but the tables turned quickly after the trade. Abrams hit for above a .300 average in September/October - albeit with minimal power and not a single walk drawn. There were still areas that undeniably needed improvement, including his power potential and ability to draw walks (which he only did once in the final two months of the season). However, he entered the offseason with some clear reasons for fans and the organization to be excited about him, but
Abrams' 2023 season started relatively slowly, but he's heated up more recently. He's still only batting .240 on the season, but he's gotten objectively better at the plate. Prior to an 0-for-3 night on Friday, he had recorded a hit in 11 of his prior 28 at bats, while also driving in seven runs over that span.
Even with those improvements, Abrams' Baseball Savant profile is an eyesore. He ranks among the bottom 10 percent of the league in average exit velocity, expected weight on-base average, barrel percentage, outs above average, chase rate. and expected slugging. Yikes!
An additional criticism is that Abrams isn't stealing as many bases as he should be. That may have more to do with coaching philosophy than Abrams' decision making, but in either case, it needs to improve. He's only stole 11 bases in his 121 big league games, compared to 42 swipes in 114 games in the minors. The latter would be unsustainable at this level, but he undoubtedly has enough speed to steal at least 20 bases per season - and that's on the conservative end.
On the plus side, Abrams ranks in the top 20 percent of the sport in sprint speed, the 64th percentile in whiff rate (meaning he doesn't swing and miss frequently), and better than average in maximum exit velocity (showcasing that he does hit the ball reasonably hard at times, albeit inconsistently). He's also within three points of the team lead in slugging percentage - although that perhaps says more about Washington's lack of power, as opposed to a compliment towards Abrams.
Abrams is also elevating the ball, finding the sweet spot, and walking more this season than last year - all of which suggests that his overall process at the plate is improving. However, the overwhelming majority of his success has been against fastballs (.367 batting average and .551 slugging percentage) as opposed to offspeed pitches (.127 batting average). For certain, that's an area in which he'll need to grow.
The biggest improvement from Abrams has arguably been his defense. When the Nationals acquired him, it wasn't a certainty that he'd remain a shortstop longterm. He seems to have silenced all doubt. Whereas he was rated as a poor defender at shortstop last season, he's much closer to league average so far this season. That's also factoring in the three errors he committed on Opening Day - whereas removing that one game paints a more accurate picture of what he's been in the field in 2023, which has been steady and at times flashy.
Especially lately, Abrams doesn't look overmatched. With a 22 year old like him, that's essentially all that's needed to be seen. It also suggests that the team can and should start putting more on his plate. He's been batting almost exclusively eighth or ninth in the lineup. With his recent success, not to mention the struggles of the rest of the team, it's time to move him into the top six - and perhaps the leadoff spot.
There's still plenty of room for Abrams to continue to grow, but he's shown clear signs of improvement. In 2023, when it comes to Abrams and a handful of other young players, that's what matters for the Nationals.