Spring storylines: The kids are here at last

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – There admittedly hasn’t been a lot of juice at Nationals spring training in recent years. Such is life when you tear down the remnants of a championship roster and start over, recognizing it’s going to be a while until the fruits of your labor pay off.

For the last two years, it felt like there was more reason to pay attention to minor-league camp than major-league camp, as the franchise’s next wave of prospects began the long trek up the organizational depth chart.

The Nats aren’t all the way there yet. There is no serious talk of contention in 2024. When the season begins, those prospects are almost certainly all still going to be in the minor leagues.

But for the first time, several of them will be participating in major-league camp. And even if none of them survive to the end of March, their presence alone is going to create some sorely needed juice that’s been lacking in recent springs.

The three big non-roster invitees to camp are Dylan Crews, James Wood and Brady House, the organization’s consensus top three prospects. Two first-round draft picks (House in 2021, Crews in 2023) and perhaps the best of the five young players acquired in the Juan Soto trade (Wood). All closed out last season at Double-A Harrisburg, suggesting all could be on track to debut in D.C. sometime this season.

The Nationals will be careful not to put too much stock in anybody’s performance this spring. These players aren’t being judged on their Grapefruit League stats, and they aren’t competing with anybody for roster spots. General manager Mike Rizzo will insist, as he always does, the team will take “the best 26 players north,” but everyone knows that rarely actually happens. There are other considerations.

What club officials do hope to gather this spring is a sense of how close these players are to big-league-ready. How they perform matters to some extent, yes, but how they handle themselves in this environment is just as important in the evaluation process.

“I want to see them play. They will definitely get a lot (of playing time),” manager Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing is really getting to know them and work with them, and kind of give them an idea of what we’re looking for and how we want to attack the game. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

It’s not all that unlike the scenarios the organization faced with Stephen Strasburg way back in 2010 and Bryce Harper in 2012. Neither was going to make the Opening Day roster. But both proved ready to play among major leaguers during spring training, and it was only a matter of time before the Nats called them up (Strasburg in early June, Harper three weeks into April).

Who among this spring’s group is closest?

It’s not House, the youngest of the bunch at 20. After missing much of the 2022 season while dealing with a lower back injury, he took major strides last season, showing not only he could stay healthy but thriving at both levels of Single-A to earn a late-season promotion to Double-A.

House figures to return to Harrisburg to begin this season, tasked not only with refining his swing and plate approach but also his defense at third base (which he only began playing last year). If all goes well, a midseason promotion to Triple-A Rochester would be appropriate, then perhaps a late-season call-up to Washington if club officials believe he’s ready.

Wood has the most professional experience of this group, and he was first to reach Harrisburg last summer. The 6-foot-7 outfielder has elite tools in every category and will make a physically imposing presence whenever he steps in the batter’s box.

The 21-year-old is not a finished product yet, though. He still swings and misses a lot, and the Nationals are going to want to see some improved plate approach before they deem him ready. Perhaps the most telling sign of his timetable, though, will be his location on Opening Day. Do the Nats send him back to Harrisburg to begin the season, or do they move him up to Rochester, one step from the majors?

Crews is the least experienced of the trio. Least experienced at the professional level, that is. In some ways, the outfielder (who turns 22 this month) is more advanced than either Wood or House, having played the last three seasons for one of the top college programs in the country and dominating along the way, leading LSU to a national championship while winning the Golden Spikes Award.

That the Nats were willing to let Crews play at Double-A only three months after drafting him spoke volumes about his advanced status and the organization’s belief it won’t be long before he reaches the majors. Like House, he figures to return to Harrisburg to open the season. But it stands to reason he won’t stay there for long.

“Players, they tell me when they’re ready by their play on the field,” Rizzo said. “We’ve never had a problem with moving players quickly to the big leagues if they can perform up there. And we’ll have no qualms about putting them there now.”

Crews, Wood and House will draw the most attention at Nationals camp this spring, but they aren’t the only notable prospects who were invited. Infielder Trey Lipscomb, outfielder Robert Hassell III and infielder Darren Baker each merit close watching, each getting an opportunity to show the club how he handles the situation and how close to big-league-ready he is.

Take a clubhouse that already features CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray and Cade Cavalli, then add Crews, Wood, House, Lipscomb, Hassell and Baker to the mix, and you’ve got the biggest influx of promising young talent the Nats have had in one room in a long time.

Unproven talent, yes. There are no guarantees, except for one: Spring training in West Palm Beach will have some juice again.

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