When Was The Last Good Nationals Rookie Hitter?

Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs
Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs / Quinn Harris/GettyImages

The Nationals have struggled with player development in recent years. The franchise goal is to return to the World Series after winning it in 2019, and to do that they need a new generation of star players. It looks like James Wood, Dylan Crews, and others are on the horizon for the team, so let's look at what rookies have done for the Nationals in the recent past.

Having an exciting and highly-rated farm system is great. Prospects, however, are only as valuable as the major leaguers that they will eventually turn into. Recent Nationals top prospects have been busts more than booms, and it's led to a weak 2023 club with several holes in the depth chart. I've noticed an unfortunate streak in recent years of rookies on the Nationals - none have been very good hitters.

I'm focusing on the bats today, while pitching development and defense are topics for another day. Here's what I've looked at: going all the way back to 2017, every rookie-eligible player with at least 200 plate appearances (minimum of 100 in 2020) has been sorted by wRC+. Of these players, there are about twenty or so every year that achieves a wRC+ of 100 or more. This is a rough way to determine players who reach the major leagues and are average or above average at the plate. I've noted every player who meets these criteria, and some teams fare much better than others.

There are clubs who have developed many successful rookie hitters, and then there are the Nationals. Several caveats apply, like hitters who struggle in brief rookie years and go on to improve later, but the Nationals don't really have any notable examples of those. The findings of this quick search does say a lot about the competitive state of most major league teams. Looking at the lists of players from each of these teams over the years answers an important question: has this team produced young quality hitters?

Do The Nationals Produce Offensive Talent?

First, here are the Nationals players who make this list in each year. 2022 had Joey Meneses, 2021 had Lane Thomas (split between St. Louis and Washington), 2020 had none, 2019 had none, 2018 had Juan Soto, and 2017 had Brian Goodwin. So far in 2023, Stone Garrett is slightly above 100 wRC+ and is maybe a coin flip's chance of qualifying at the end of the year.

Juan Soto is easy to talk about. He's one of the very best hitters in MLB and was already incredible at age 19. The Nationals won't be able to find another Juan Soto, but anybody who comes anywhere close would be quite valuable. The rest of the list is less inspiring. Thomas, Garrett, and Meneses were not drafted or originally signed by the Nationals and came to Washington at advanced ages. None of the players are All-Star quality, they're merely useful role players on the current squad. Brian Goodwin was decent in some short spurts with the team, but quickly became an interchangeable journeyman and his career may already be over in MLB, less than what you might expect from a former 1st round pick.

Is this a quality crop of talent over a seven-year span? It's clearly weaker than the groups that qualify for most other teams. Many notable Nationals names have not made the list, but there are no current quality hitters in the team that the methodology has overlooked. CJ Abrams barely exhausted rookie status in 2022 and is only slightly below the threshold in 2023. He's not an offensive success story yet, but his age does indicate future improvements making Abrams the shining hope of Nationals development.

The Best Of The Competition

Here's why the group of Garrett, Goodwin, Thomas, Meneses, and Soto stands out in a negative way in this test. The Houston Astros, with their multiple trophies and deep playoff runs since 2017, have found the following quality big league rookies. Max Stassi in 2018, Yordan Alvarez in 2019, Chas McCormick in 2021, Jeremy Pena in 2022, and Yainer Diaz in 2023, so far. This group may look similar to the Nationals, but is different and better in important ways. All of the players were with the Astros since being in the lower levels of the Minor leagues, and they accomplished this while never leaving a strong competitive window.

Compared to the Astros group, the Nationals hardly qualify as developmental success. Joey Meneses came to DC at age 30 as a complete product, and Lane Thomas and Stone Garrett were traded for as already-built and debuted major leaguers. The team simply has no group of young position players who can produce on offense, and that problem has been going on since well before the Nationals World Series win.

The Orioles have obtained Trey Mancini, Renato Nunez, Ryan Mountcastle, Ramon Urias, Adley Rutschman, and Gunnar Henderson, with more on the way. A good offensive team needs prospects to put together production in exactly that way, and the Orioles are reaping the rewards this year. The Dodgers have debuted Cody Bellinger, Austin Barnes, Matt Beaty, Alex Verdugo, and James Outman. The Rays have raised Willy Adames, Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe, Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, and Luke Raley. There's no one path to success, but every successful team can at least generate a couple everyday hitters.

Where Are The Young Nationals?

The answer to where the last good Nationals rookies are is obvious. Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos, and Bryce Harper are the standout examples in the last generation. Those players proved enough, when combined with lots of salary spent on pitching and veteran role players, other young players providing value on defense and on the bases, and the right amount of luck to win a title. Right now, there's essentially no offensive foundation to build on in the future, unless you really like Lane Thomas.

The Nationals are not without young talent, and have certainly tried with young hitters in the past years. Carter Kieboom, Victor Robles, Luis Garcia, and Keibert Ruiz were all regarded as top prospects with plus hit tools, but all have struggled to be actual threats at the plate against big league pitching. Wilmer Difo, Pedro Severino, Andrew Stevenson, Yadiel Hernandez, Alex Call, and many more have debuted as Nationals but there have hardly been any successes not named Juan Soto.

It deserves repeating: prospects on paper are great, but they only matter when a team can take them and create a winning team in the zero-sum major leagues. Dylan Crews and James Wood should by all means be the best two young Nationals hitters in a while, and end the team's extended development dry spell. These plus-hit, plus-power players sound so amazing now, but don't forget how great Carter Kieboom was supposed to be.

The team has spent the past several seasons wasting time with players equivalent to the lowest common denominator. Alcides Escobar, Starlin Castro, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, and Corey Dickerson have come in and played not because they're winning players, and not because they have trade value, but because there is nobody better to play. Right now, we're watching Jake Alu and Blake Rutherford make their cases, but these players aren't going to make the aforementioned leaderboards, the one that good teams produce strong annual entries on.