The final 46 games of a miserable season need to mean something to the Nationals. It’s far too late for the outcomes of these games to mean much of anything, but there’s still an opportunity to use what remains of the 2022 campaign on setting the stage for what’s to come in 2023 and beyond.
And the best way the Nats can do that is by getting a good look at any potential long-term pieces to the puzzle who are ready to play in the big leagues. Which makes tonight’s series opener against the Cubs as significant a game as they’ve played all summer.
With CJ Abrams set to be promoted from Triple-A Rochester and make his debut at shortstop, the first of five prospects the organization acquired from the Padres in this month’s Juan Soto-Josh Bell trade will be in uniform and in action on South Capitol Street.
Abrams is probably going to be the only one to play for the Nats for a little while longer. MacKenzie Gore, who was on the injured list with left elbow inflammation at the time of the trade, has begun throwing again but remains weeks away from pitching in a game. The three other prospects (Robert Hassell III, James Wood, Jarlin Susana) are still years away from making their major league debuts.
So that puts some significant pressure on Abrams, who is merely going to be asked to prove the trade was worthwhile via only his own performance on the field.
That’s not fair, of course. Abrams was just one of five prospects in the deal, one of six total players acquired when you include Luke Voit, who has found himself in the heart of the Nationals’ lineup for more than a week now. He alone isn’t going to be the make-or-break player in the trade.
But like Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray last August, Abrams is going to have a big spotlight on him from the get-go. Probably an even brighter spotlight, both because of the player the Nats traded to get him and because he’s a higher-rated prospect than either Ruiz or Gray.
Abrams was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 Draft out of Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, Ga. The 21-year-old quickly ascended up the Padres’ ladder and ranked as one of baseball’s top 10 prospects entering both the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Thrust into San Diego’s big league lineup out of spring training due to Fernando Tatis Jr.’s shoulder injury, Abrams got off to a rough start (he was 2 for his first 24) and was demoted to Triple-A El Paso for a six-week stretch in May and June. He enjoyed some more success upon his return to San Diego on June 20, and in 26 games before the trade hit .271 with a .654 OPS.
He’s held his own in the field to date, charged with only two errors in 100 defensive chances at shortstop (plus two more in 37 chances at second base).
As they did with Ruiz last summer, the Nationals wanted to give Abrams a little bit of time to get acclimated to the organization. So they had him spend the last week-plus with Rochester, where in eight games he went 9-for-31 with two doubles, two RBIs, two walks, eight strikeouts and four stolen bases.
And now, with Luis Garcia possibly headed to the IL with a groin strain, Abrams is going to get his first chance to make a good impression on the Nationals and their fans at the big league level. Barring something unforeseen, he’s going to be the everyday shortstop the rest of the way, bumping Garcia to second base once he’s healthy again. And he’s probably going to hold a prominent place in Davey Martinez’s lineup.
There will be some bumps along the way. Abrams doesn’t turn 22 until the season’s final week, and he’s far from a finished product. He’ll impress with his natural skills, but he’ll also look like the rookie he is at times.
That’s OK. The Nationals don’t need him to be a star from the very beginning. They just need him to look the part of a major league shortstop, one who should continue to improve over time.
If Abrams can make the most of these first 46 games in D.C., he’ll help his new organization start to make the case to a skeptical fan base the Soto trade could have a happy ending when it’s all said and done.