The Nationals chose to protect four prospects, all pitchers, from being lost in the upcoming Rule 5 draft. To do so, they cut ties with three players who ended the season on their major league roster, most notably first baseman Dominic Smith.
Smith and right-hander Cory Abbott were both designated for assignment today, with reliever Andrés Machado granted his unconditional release as well to pursue opportunities in Japan. The team then used those three open slots, plus one that already was open, to add left-handers DJ Herz and Mitchell Parker, plus right-handers Cole Henry and Zach Brzykcy, to their 40-man roster. That ensures none of those four prospects can be lost in next month’s Rule 5 draft.
The decision to drop Smith came as the biggest surprise of the day, considering the manner in which club officials spoke up the first baseman’s defensive value and clubhouse leadership this season in spite of his offensive struggles. Signed for $2 million last winter after the Mets chose not to tender him a contract, Smith hit .254/.326/.366 with 12 homers, 46 RBIs and a .692 OPS in 153 games for the Nats. Six of his 12 homers came in September alone, leaving the 28-year-old with some hope he had solved the power woes he endured for the majority of the season.
Even with those woes at the plate, Smith was lauded for his glove work at first base, where he produced five Defensive Runs Saved and was a calming influence for young infielders CJ Abrams, Luis García and Carter Kieboom.
Smith was eligible for arbitration and was projected to make roughly $4 million through that process. Now, the Nationals will be in the market for a new first baseman for the second straight offseason, likely prioritizing power from that corner position to help bolster a lineup that hit a National League-worst 151 homers this year. They could also move Joey Meneses full-time to first base and seek a new designated hitter.
The moves to drop Abbott and Machado came as less of a surprise. Abbott spent the season bouncing back and forth between Washington and Triple-A Rochester, finishing with a 6.64 ERA and 1.703 WHIP in 22 appearances, the vast majority of those in long relief and low-leverage situations. Machado enjoyed some strong runs near the end of a season that previously saw him designated for assignment twice but ultimately returning to the majors, but was finally let go for good after finishing with a 5.22 ERA and 1.320 WHIP in 44 games.
With four slots now available on their 40-man roster, the Nationals purchased the contracts of four pitchers who were deemed by club officials to be close enough to big-league-ready to potentially be lost in the Rule 5 draft, which gives teams the opportunity to select players from other organizations as long as they remain on the major league roster the entire season.
Herz was the most likely candidate to be protected all along, the 22-year-old left-hander having impressed with a 2.55 ERA, 1.132 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings for Double-A Harrisburg after he was acquired from the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario at the trade deadline. He’s a candidate to make his major league debut sometime in 2024.
Parker, a fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft, had a 4.72 ERA and 1.419 WHIP in 28 combined games between Harrisburg and Triple-A Rochester this season. The lefty’s 150 strikeouts in 124 innings, though, leave team officials hopeful he can be a major league contributor in the near future.
Henry was deemed one of the organization’s top prospects in 2022 but suffered a major bump to his career when he needed thoracic outlet surgery. The 24-year-old right-hander returned to pitch in the second half of this season, finishing with a 6.21 ERA, 1.470 WHIP and 37 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings across three levels of the minors. He’s not big-league-ready yet, but the Nats were worried another team might take a flier on him and stash him in a major league bullpen for the season to secure his long-term rights.
Brzykcy (pronounced "BRICK-see") has also dealt with major injury issues, missing the entire 2023 season following Tommy John surgery. The 24-year-old reliever will attempt to return in 2024 and, if healthy, could earn his way into the big league bullpen before season’s end.
Among the prospects the Nationals chose not to protect were relievers Tim Cate, Holden Powell and Orlando Ribalta, 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg, Single-A starter Andry Lara, shortstops Kevin Made, Jackson Cluff and Jordy Barley, first baseman/outfielder Roismar Quintana and catcher Brady Lindsly. Any of them could now be lost in the Rule 5 draft.
* The Nationals also announced today they avoided arbitration with outfielder Victor Robles and reliever Tanner Rainey by agreeing to one-year contracts for 2024.
The club had previously declined a $3.3 million option for Robles, but he remained in the organization and was eligible for arbitration one more time this winter. Terms of this new contract weren't immediately known, but it is almost certainly for a lower salary after the 26-year-old missed most of the season with a back injury.
This move does suggest the Nats intend to give Robles one more shot next year, his last before he becomes a free agent. With top outfield prospects Dylan Crews and James Wood likely to be big-league-ready sometime in 2024, Robles probably has to perform well from the outset to have a chance of retaining his job in center field.
Rainey made his long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery during the season's final weekend and now hopes to re-establish himself as a key piece of the Nationals' bullpen. The 30-year-old made $1.5 million this season and is under club control for two more seasons.