Spring storylines: Another extension for another young player?

The most significant moment of the Nationals’ 2023 spring training didn’t happen on the field. It happened in an office room at the team’s complex, when Keibert Ruiz grabbed a pen and signed a long-term extension with the club.

Whether Ruiz’s eight-year, $50 million deal was a good move for the organization or the player remains to be seen. He enjoyed an improved season at the plate but regressed behind the plate, calling into question his ability to stick as a franchise catcher for years to come.

But the significance of the move doesn’t change. After countless attempts to get other young cornerstone players to sign long-term extensions before reaching free agency fell flat, the Nats finally got this one done. And they got it done five years before Ruiz would’ve even been eligible for free agency, making him the first player in club history to agree to such an extension at such an early stage of his career.

That, of course, produced an obvious follow-up question: Can they do it with anyone else?

“This is the first one we’ve ever got done, yeah,” general manager Mike Rizzo said at the time. “But it wasn’t the first attempt at it.”

Extensions can get done any day of the calendar year, but spring training often provides a favorable setting for them. Players and club officials are together. They aren’t consumed with the rigors of the regular season. So it’s fair to believe the Nationals will at least approach the idea with other young players this spring.

Who fits the bill at this point?

There are three young starting pitchers who hope to be part of the club’s long-term plan in MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray and Cade Cavalli. Each, though, presents some significant risk. Gore was erratic in his first full big-league season, dominant when he was on but the complete opposite when he was off. Gray took a big step forward in his second full season with the Nats and was named an All-Star, but he’s never really been viewed as an ace-level starter. Cavalli has the pedigree but only one major-league start on his resume, missing all of 2023 following Tommy John surgery and likely looking at a June return this year.

If the Nationals really want to get bold, they could take the ultimate gamble on an elite prospect who has yet to play in a big-league game and try to preemptively lock up Dylan Crews or James Wood. It’s rare, but it has happened with no-doubt prospects. In these cases, the odds would seem to be slim because neither player is likely to make the Opening Day roster. Oh, they’re also both represented by Scott Boras, whose track record of encouraging clients to go to free agency is too well known by Nats fans.

So the most plausible choice for extension talks this spring figures to be CJ Abrams. He’s coming off a standout second half to the 2023 season. Like Ruiz, he’s five years away from free agency (eligible in 2029). And he’s represented by Roc Nation, whose top baseball agent (Brodie Van Wagenen) has a long and productive history working with the Nationals, having previously represented Ryan Zimmerman.

Abrams, 23, is hardly a sure thing. His total stats over 241 big-league games with the Padres and Nats aren’t eye-popping: a .246/.293/.383 slash line, with 40 doubles, 20 homers, 85 RBIs and 54 stolen bases across 916 games.

But his play once he took over the leadoff spot in July was improved across the board: .258/.316/.433, 34 steals in 36 attempts, much better defense at shortstop. He was a dynamic force atop the lineup and a highlight-maker in the field.

Want to see more from Abrams before making the commitment? That’s fair. But understand he very well could play himself into a much larger deal a year from now.

It’s worth comparing Abrams to another young shortstop: Bobby Witt Jr. The young Royals star was a 22-year-old rookie in 2022 and finished with a .254/.294/.428 slash line. He then stepped it up as a 23-year-old last season to slash .276/.319/.495. And he was just rewarded for that with a massive, 11-year, $288.7 million extension.

Those numbers are a bit misleading, because Witt has the ability to opt out after seven years (and eight, and nine and 10), so it may not be as big a commitment by the Royals as it appears on first glance. But it’s still a major extension for a still-young player without a lengthy track record.

Abrams hasn’t matched Witt’s production yet, but he’s still a year behind him in service-time measurements. If he enjoys a breakthrough 2024, the price tag could skyrocket.

Those are the factors the Nationals have to consider when raising the possibility of an extension this spring. And Abrams has to consider them as well, balancing his interest in securing his future now vs. letting his career play out.

There’s no guarantee it will happen. Maybe Ruiz’s deal last spring was a one-time event. But if the Nats are serious about building another winning team – and then keeping it together longer than the last one – they have ample reason to push for Abrams to do something this spring.

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