When a team is primed to make a deep run into the playoffs, the attention is on the superstars and hired guns who will almost certainly be the reason they get there. The 2023 Washington Nationals have a different story to tell.
This season the focus is still on the future. After shipping off a handful of fan favorites for top prospects, we’ll see what some of the new guys can do. Of the young players acquired over the last two years, the four “MLB-ready” players that stand out are Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, MacKenzie Gore and CJ Abrams. There’s also Cade Cavalli, the 2020 first-round pick, who appears to be one of the few top picks in recent memory that has a realistic chance to develop into a solid contributor on the mound. While it’s easy to expect the world of these young talents because they’re in the spotlight, it’s important for the fans to set expectations.
After coming over in the blockbuster Max Scherzer and Trea Turner trade, Josiah Gray quickly earned the reputation as the future #2 or #3 starter. Following the trade, he was immediately slotted into the starting rotation as “a glimpse into the future” and the perfect way to show-off the newly acquired goods. Over 12 starts that year Gray had a 76 ERA+, well below the league average of 100.
In 2022, Josiah Gray’s performance arguably declined. He led the league in both homers given up and walks issued while recording a 5.02 ERA (which would’ve been third worst if it qualified) in 148.2 innings pitched. The positive takeaway from last season being that Gray did not spend any time on the injured list, but as a former top prospects and future rotation piece, that is simply not good enough.
The analytical reasons for Gray’s struggles are obvious. To put it simply: his once great four-seam fastball is now a home run hitter’s dream. In 2023, expect him to be a similar pitcher but given his competitive nature, he’s surely to have worked on preventing the long ball over the offseason which if successful, is a giant step in the right direction. At only 25 years old, there is no doubt that Josiah Gray still has time to establish himself as a solid starter to go along with his current reputation as a very likeable, young, National.
The other headline player that came over in the Dodgers exchange was starting catcher, Keibert Ruiz. The switch-hitting backstop has been exceptional during his year and a half tenure in Washington and still has a lot of potential to improve.
Not only was Ruiz third in the league in runners caught stealing last season with 20, but he also accumulated a 1.7 WAR in 122 games. While that doesn’t seem like an eye-popping number, a 23-year-old catcher with that kind of production doesn’t drop into your lap often.
MLB Pipeline’s scouting report on Keibert Ruiz as a prospect predicted that his fielding could lack consistency and his bat will be elite, but that was the opposite of what we saw in 2022. Luckily for the Nationals, it’s not uncommon for young hitters to need an adjustment period when making the jump to major league pitching.
Ideally, Ruiz will increase his power production at the plate in 2023. But, if he can just build on his defensive efficiency from last year while putting up above-average numbers at the plate, he will easily become a household name among Nats fans. Expect to see more Ruiz jerseys around the ballpark this year.
Time is a flat circle. Seven years after acquiring first-round pick Trea Turner from San Diego, the Nationals made another move to acquire a speedy, top prospect shortstop from the Padres. CJ Abrams is the new starting shortstop of the Washington Nationals, and he deserves all the hype.
Abrams has the tools to become a household name in the big leagues. Heading into his age-22 season, expect to see a slightly above-average infielder with speed on the bases. He will likely have the most stolen bases on the team if he can reach base with any regularity. The most important thing about his game this season will be the upgraded defense he brings to the position. Fans should not be looking for huge offensive numbers. That will come with time.
For comparison’s sake, Turner made his MLB debut during his age-22 season. He ended the year with 27 games played, 40 at-bats, and a .225 batting average. Expect Abrams to have better production than Turner did at the same age, but the point is that Abrams might not breakout as a hitter in 2023, and that is okay during a rebuild.
Prior to his elbow inflammation, MacKenzie Gore was dealing at the highest level. By July 3rd of last season with the Padres, he had a 3.18 ERA and 3.48 FIP through 12 starts and 65 innings. His three starts after that phenomenal stretch were a clear sign that something went wrong. Gore hit the injured list in late July, only a week before he was shipped to the Nationals in the Juan Soto and Josh Bell trade.
Gore did not make an appearance with the Nats in 2022 for precautionary reasons, but he’s set to start the year in the rotation and expect him to fight hard to stay there. In his second season, Gore will be a fun pitcher to watch. With three of his four pitches scouted as “plus” by MLB Pipeline, Gore thrives in the strike zone and had some of the best minors’ swinging-strike rates in 2019 to prove it. After COVID in 2020 and an injury-hindered 2021, Gore will be ready to build on a solid 2022 season by getting back to his potential as a future #2 or #3 starting pitcher.
Cade Cavalli could be the last hope for success to come from any Nats’ first rounder drafted since Anthony Rendon in 2011. As a rookie starting pitcher with a history of command issues, what defines success should be tempered by the realities of being a budding major league pitcher. You don’t have to be a superstar to have success.
The 2023 Steamer projections (provided by Fangraphs) for Cavalli entering the season are a 4.41 ERA, 4.46 FIP, and 1.1 WAR in 129 innings across 23 games started. While that isn’t a Cy Young caliber year, nor does it fill the hole that Max Scherzer left, that is a successful season and something to build on. Cavalli is a top prospect for a reason, but he’s also not THE top prospect for a reason. He will be a viable arm in the Nationals’ rotation but might not be the ace that some fans expect him to be. And that is okay.
The Washington Nationals are in a rebuild. That does not mean they’re going to have four rookie of the year candidates. Understandably, it’s easy to get impatient coming off of a decade of playoff level Nats teams. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the 2019 Washington Nationals. For the former top prospects still 25 and younger entering their first or second full seasons, check your expectations and enjoy going out to watch these young players grow and gel into a winning team.