Candidates to make MLB debuts this year for Nats

Fifty-five players appeared in a game for the Nationals last season, and six of them made their major league debuts in the process.

At least one of those debuts, by Cade Cavalli, was both expected and promoted. The others, though, came as something of a surprise, whether it was Lucius Fox making the Opening Day roster, Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee getting summoned to start big league games after others got hurt, Israel Pineda getting a September call-up or Joey Meneses finally making it at age 30.

A 162-game season is full of twists and turns, and the 2022 season had no shortage of those from the Nationals’ perspective. And there’s every reason to believe the 2023 season will feature a number of debuts, of both the expected and the unexpected variety.

Who might we see don a curly W cap for the first time?

The likeliest candidate among the organization’s top prospects is Robert Hassell III, though the 21-year-old outfielder is hardly a lock to make it to D.C. this season.

One of the players acquired from the Padres in last summer’s Juan Soto-Josh Bell blockbuster, Hassell was thriving at Single-A Fort Wayne at the time of the trade but struggled afterward with Single-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg, where he hit .222/.312/.296 in 27 games. He then had his planned stint in the Arizona Fall League come to an abrupt end when he needed surgery to repair a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist, an injury that may have contributed to his post-trade struggles.

Hassell should open this season at Harrisburg, and if he performs well, a promotion to Triple-A Rochester would be in order sometime during the summer. That could lead to a September call-up to Washington to make his debut, though the Nationals clearly aren’t going to rush a top prospect if they don’t believe he’s ready.

If Thad Ward makes his major league debut this season, it will come right out of the chute in April. The top pick in December’s Rule 5 draft, Ward is required to make the Nats’ 26-man roster (and remain there all year) or else be offered back to the Red Sox. The 26-year-old right-hander isn’t regarded as an elite prospect, but he’s come all the way back from Tommy John surgery in 2020 and put up good numbers last season, both at Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League.

The Nationals figure to get a look at Ward as a long man out of the bullpen, limiting him to low-leverage situations at the outset, then perhaps giving him opportunities in more situations of consequence if he has success. History is filled with far more Rule 5 busts than booms, but this team is in the kind of position that affords someone like Ward an opportunity to prove if he’s legit or not.

There’s also an outside chance Jake Alu makes the Opening Day roster as a backup infielder/utility man. The 24th-round pick from the 2019 draft put up huge numbers at Harrisburg and Rochester last season, and some in the organization were surprised he didn’t get a September call-up. There’s still a valid question as to whether his skills will translate to major league success, but if he keeps hitting like he did last year, he’ll force his way onto the Nationals roster at some point this season.

The Nats hope not to put themselves in the same position that forced them to call up Tetreault and Lee to start big league games last season despite their lack of readiness. But they will need fill-in starters along the way, to be sure. They could have some experienced options available if non-roster invitees Chad Kuhl and Wily Peralta are willing to report to Triple-A. But if they need to summon a rookie, there are two potentially intriguing choices waiting in Cole Henry and Jake Irvin.

Henry looked poised to make his debut last season, but then the 2020 second-round pick needed thoracic outlet surgery after complaining of a shoulder injury. That procedure (as Stephen Strasburg and Will Harris can attest) doesn’t guarantee anything, but if Henry returns healthy this spring and is able to pitch effectively every fifth day in the minors, he could still be in line to pitch in Washington at some point.

Irvin, who turns 26 next week, was among the players the Nationals added to their 40-man roster over the winter, protecting him from being lost in the Rule 5 draft. He had solid numbers for Wilmington and Harrisburg (3.83 ERA, 1.142 WHIP, 107 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings) last season, and if he keeps that up in Rochester this year he would have to be considered among the options for a promotion.

Also added to the 40-man roster this winter were relievers Matt Cronin and Jose Ferrer. Given the organization’s lack of left-handed depth, it wouldn’t be surprising if either or both get a look sometime this season. Right-hander Zach Brzykcy would also be a possible candidate for bullpen help.

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