Ranking the Next Three Likeliest Extension Candidates for the Nationals
As far as I am concerned, the Nationals rebuild officially started last night. They tore down their home, their World Series winning home, and leveled what once was. Now they did not do so blindly, as the materials to rebuild were there soon after, but last night was the Nats' way of officially breaking ground on the site.
Keibert Ruiz and the Nationals agree to 8 year, $50 Million deal with two additional club options.
Mike Rizzo and company certainly hope their young, top prospects can be the core of the next great Nationals' team. But as we know in any sport, prospects are far from a certainty. That being said, it is really great to see the Nationals put their money where their mouth is and lock up a young piece of that future core now rather than playing the wait and see game. This deal works extremely well for both sides; Keibert Ruiz gets guaranteed money up front and the Nationals lock in their catcher for the next decade at a more than reasonable price. It can't be a full rebuild unless you have foundational pieces locked up for a long term deal. Now, in Keibert Ruiz, they do.
Now here's the thing. Keibert Ruiz is not a superstar, at least not yet. He's not Bryce Harper or Juan Soto or Trea Turner. But that is what makes this extension so interesting. Ruiz isn't any of those players, so there is reason to believe he is just the first piece of the puzzle, the first domino to fall in the start of this now official rebuild. Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post even alluded to such:
This "plan" just fills me with pure excitement. For years, basically since the World Series, it truly seemed as if the Nationals were operating without a real plan and just flying by the seat of their pants. That may have had less to do with the Front Office's motivation and more to do with the ownership's lack thereof as they were looking to sell the franchise rather than reinvest into it after winning a World Series. But regardless, we now know for certain there is a plan in place. So what's next?
Dougherty names a couple of potential extension options for the Nationals' "next parts of this plan" but I thought it'd be fun to rank the likeliest extension candidates. These will be players who are still in the pre-arbitration portion of their rookie contracts, like Ruiz was before he signed his deal.
1. Luis Garcia
As I mentioned in my initial thoughts post, I do not necessary think Luis Garcia is better or more important than CJ Abrams or any other young player the Nationals have in their organization. After all, Garcia projects to be this team's second baseman - a position that is important, but not widely considered to be a premium position or as important as others around the diamond. That being said, I do think Garcia is by far and away the most likely to get the next extension.
As we and many others have pointed out, Luis Garcia and Keibert Ruiz share the same representation, Octagon Baseball. More than that, both Garcia and Ruiz joined Octagon Baseball around the same time just a couple of weeks ago, after they both left Scott Boras. Garcia had been represented by Scott Boras for several years, which makes me believe this move wasn't just by accident.
We know Scott Boras' tendencies to get his players paid and I do think he is good at his job and good for baseball and its players. That being said, it is nearly impossible to sign an extension before Free Agency with a Boras client. Both Ruiz and Garcia leaving Boras, and now Ruiz signing his extension just weeks later, leads me to believe Garcia's motivations are similar to Ruiz's motivations. Now it is just on the Nats to get it done, and they would be smart to do so before Garcia truly has a breakout season.
2. CJ Abrams
Now onto who I do think is the most important player to lock up to a long term deal: CJ Abrams. Abrams had some truly wow moments last year both with the Padres and after the trade to the Nationals. While his end of season numbers weren't anything spectacular, fans could absolutely see the potential on display with Abrams, whether it was his range defensively at Shortstop or his blazing speed on the basepaths. The Nationals weren't going to go forward without a long term answer at the position.
So why not make it a longer term? Like we said, Abrams 2022 numbers weren't demanding of a long term deal, but that might make now the best time to reach an agreement. It is safe to say Abrams will improve upon his rookie year now that there is no risk of him being traded midseason and he is more settled in DC. You also have to think about how the market for Shortstops has exploded the past couple seasons. Just this offseason alone, four free agent shortstops signed deals of $25 Million AAV or more (Correa $33M, Turner $27M, Bogaerts $25M, Swanson $25M). If you go back a year or two further, you run into the pacts for Francisco Lindor ($33.8M AAV), Corey Seager ($32.5M AAV), and Fernando Tatis ($30M AAV). All seven of these players signed for 7 years or longer, and 6 of the 7 signed for 10 years or longer with all 6 being paid until at least age 37, with a couple being paid until they are 40. If history is any indication, you don't necessarily want a 36 to 40 year old shortstop.
Signing Abrams to a 7 to 10 year deal now would only take him to his age 29 to 32 season, which would still be in his prime. The Nationals could lock up a premium position at a fraction of the market cost. Abrams still has much to prove, but if the Nationals believe he can get there, then it is well worth it to sign him sooner rather than later.
3. James Wood
I know, I know. James Wood hasn't even hit AA yet, let alone make his MLB debut. Why would the Nationals even think about extending him right now?
My thought process is twofold. First, for as deep as the Nationals are in the minor leagues at Outfield, no one is better than James Wood. Yes, they're all unproven, but the physical tools Wood possesses are second to none. It is because of this Wood may actually make it to the Major Leagues before some of the other outfield prospects. It won't be this season, but it could still be sooner than people expect. James Wood is currently ranked as the 17th best prospect in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline. Of the 16 players ahead of him, 10 have an ETA for the MLB of 2023, meaning they would likely graduate from their prospect status in 2024, likely making Wood a top 10, possibly top 5 prospect in all of baseball. There is no such thing as a sure thing in baseball, but the odds are Wood is more likely to pan out than the other Nationals' outfield prospects.
Secondly, I go back to what Jesse Dougherty said in his tweet: the Nationals want to build up the middle. If Ruiz, Garcia and Abrams are all locked up long term, that just leaves Centerfield as the lone position up the middle that isn't answered for the long term. And we know it won't be Victor Robles. Yes, Wood isn't necessarily going to be this team's everyday Centerfielder when he arrives to the majors, but he can still play a decent centerfield. The Yankees had Aaron Judge play centerfield in half of his games last season and he is the same height and overall similar build to James Wood. If another outfield prospect develops into a stronger defensive centerfielder, then Wood can easily slide into a corner outfield role. But you would be paying a player with the versatility to play all three outfield positions, something not every outfielder can do. James Wood has mega-superstar potential. Signing him long term before he fully achieves that status like with what the Braves did with Ronald Acuña Jr. ($12.5M AAV over 8-10 years) would be in their best interest.
There are of course other potential extension candidates, but I don't necessarily expect the Nationals to go full Atlanta Braves and lock up every single position player to decade long contracts. That being said, they could sign some more beyond the three listed above.
1. The Other Outfielders
Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green, Cristhian Vaquero and Jeremy de la Rosa all have similar arguments to James Wood's argument to getting an extension. But I believe if Wood signs an early extension, the rest will have to wait their turn in line until they get closer to free agency, provided a long term deal is warranted by their performance. Hassell is probably closest to the majors at the moment, but a new nagging wrist injury has derailed his Spring Training after another offseason wrist injury that required surgery.
2. The Arms
Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli all are in the Nationals' future plans and if everything goes according to plan, they will be the next great Nationals' trio of starting pitchers. But none of them have proven themselves as extension candidates yet, whether it be due to performance or injury. Pitching is volatile, so the Nationals will need to see a larger sample size or some sort of above-and-beyond performance before they consider extensions for any of these arms.
3. Brady House
The Nationals are noticeable light on depth at the corner infield positions in the minor leagues. Just recently, they officially moved Brady House from Shortstop to Third Base, a position more suited for his height and build. Beyond House, the Nationals just have two other prospects in their top 30 that play a corner infield position: Trey Lipscomb (19th) and Jake Alu (27th). While House will likely make a smooth transition to Third Base, his build is that of a prototypical first baseman as well, meaning a long term deal wouldn't lock into House being stuck at Third Base. It's unlikely as House is just 19 years old and has dealt with injuries himself, but if the Nationals continue locking up their young players, House could get consideration due to the lack of depth at the position.