Gore sharp in final spring tune-up as big leaguers win Futures Game (Lipscomb to minors camp)

gore pitches blue

It was a fun day on South Capitol Street, as the Nationals played the first-ever “On Deck: Nationals Futures Game” for their final exhibition outing before starting the regular season Thursday in Cincinnati.

The Nationals’ major leaguers were set to play a team full of the organization’s top prospects, many of whom spent the majority of spring training in big league camp. There were smiles all around this morning as the youngsters prepped for the game in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, while the major league team got settled into the home locker room with bags packed for tomorrow’s early morning flight to Cincy.

But once the game started, the niceties between organizational teammates disappeared for the next 2 hours and 35 minutes as the major league team flexed its muscles while dominating the Futures Team 13-1 in front of an announced paid crowd of 10,294 at Nats Park.

“It was good,” said major league manager Davey Martinez. “We had some good at-bats. I thought we played really well. The key was to get some at-bats, see some pitches. We had a day off yesterday, but I saw some really good things. And the young kids, they stood up there and they weren't afraid. The guys that we had, they swung the bats well. Our kids got up there and they got their swings. So it was a good day.”

MacKenzie Gore set the tone early in his final tune-up before taking the ball Monday for the Nats’ home opener against the Pirates. Facing top prospects Robert Hassell III, Dylan Crews, James Wood and Trey Lipscomb, the left-hander recorded three strikeouts in the first frame while only surrendering an opposite-field double to Wood.

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Young starters, Alu among Nats' first cuts; Hassell getting MRI

Jake Alu infield blue away

JUPITER, Fla. – It took nearly four weeks, but the Nationals finally made their first round of cuts this morning, removing seven players from their spring training roster, the majority of them young starting pitchers who weren’t going to get the innings they needed had they remained in big league camp.

Right-handers Joan Adon, Cole Henry and Amos Willingham, left-handers DJ Herz and Mitchell Parker and infielder Jake Alu all were optioned to Triple-A Rochester. Outfielder Travis Blankenhorn, who isn’t on the 40-man roster, was reassigned to minor league camp.

Adon, Henry, Herz and Parker all could figure into the Nationals’ rotation plans over the course of the season, the latter three hoping to make their major league debuts. Adon has spent parts of the last three years in the majors as a fill-in starter.

“I really wanted to see some of these young guys pitch up here, and for the most part I saw some really good things,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But it’s time to get these guys stretched out and get them on a regular routine.”

Herz joined the organization last summer, acquired from the Cubs along with infielder Kevin Made for Jeimer Candelario in the Nats’ lone trade deadline deal. The 23-year-old lefty impressed in eight starts at Double-A Harrisburg down the stretch, then pitched in the Arizona Fall League and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter.

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While learning in camp, Herz wants to be a "beast" to validate trade

DJ Herz Arizona Fall League gray

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – By recent standards, the Nationals were unusually quiet at last year’s trade deadline despite being in last place and receiving interest in a handful of their major league players.

But general manager Mike Rizzo made only one move, sending third baseman Jeimer Candelario and cash to the Cubs for prospects DJ Herz and Kevin Made.

Both entered the Nats system as mid-level prospects, but by season’s end, one clearly stood out as the one with the highest ceiling.

Herz, who turned 23 in January, quickly inserted himself as one of the best pitching prospects, and maybe the best left-hander, on the Nats farm in just eight starts with Double-A Harrisburg. He finished the season 2-2 with a 2.55 ERA, one home run allowed, 20 walks, 53 strikeouts and 1.132 WHIP and 13.5 strikeout-per-nine-innings rate in 35 ⅓ innings with the Senators.

Now on the Nats’ 40-man roster to be protected from last December’s Rule 5 Draft, Herz is settling into his first major league spring training with his new team.

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Most significant stories of 2023 on the farm

Dylan Crews Mike Rizzo intro

As the first week of the new year comes to a close, we’ve done our fair share of looking back at the Nationals’ 2023 season and ahead to the 2024 campaign. At the major league level.

During this week’s “The Hot Stove Show” on MASN All Access (which you can watch here), Brendan Mortensen and I talked a lot about the Nats’ top prospects in the minor league system and what to expect from some of them this year.

That got me thinking: We haven’t really looked back at the most significant stories from last year on the farm.

So to briefly coincide with Mark Zuckerman’s “Most significant stories of 2023” series from the week leading up New Year’s Day, here are seven of the most important headlines from the Nationals’ minor league side of the past year …

1) Dylan Crews drafted No. 2 overall
This one is the most obvious selection. At this time a year ago, one of the main focuses heading into the season was who the Nationals would select with the No. 2 pick in the MLB Draft.

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Nats' rotation depth options appear improved from recent past

Jackson Rutledge blue

What was the most astounding stat about the 2023 Nationals? How about the fact they only used eight starting pitchers the entire season?

That represented the second-lowest total in the majors (only the Blue Jays were better) and matched the club record for fewest starters used in a single season (previously set in 2012 and 2014).

Fewer starters, unfortunately, didn’t mean better starting pitching. The Nats rotation still ranked 25th in the majors in ERA (5.02), WHIP (1.501) and strikeouts (702). Improvement remains paramount.

But the Nationals still could take pride in their ability to keep just about everyone in their rotation healthy. Josiah Gray, Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams each made 30-plus starts. MacKenzie Gore made 27 starts before a blister on his finger ended his season a couple weeks early. Jake Irvin joined the group in early May and never lost his spot. All of that allowed the team to overcome a lost year for Cade Cavalli, who tore his elbow ligament during spring training.

With Cavalli on target to return in June, the Nats should enter 2024 feeling good about the health of their rotation. They also should enter the new year fully aware the odds of duplicating their good luck are minimal.

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Longosz on what excites him about Nats' farm system

Hassell Wood Crews Harrisburg

Last month, the Nationals promoted longtime front office staffer Eddie Longosz to vice president and assistant general manager of player development and administration after spending the last 13 years in the club’s scouting department, most recently as the director of scouting operations for the last eight.

Before the promotion, Longosz, a D.C. native, assisted general manager Mike Rizzo on all aspects of the organization's amateur, professional and international scouting operations.

That means he is now in charge of developing the players in the Nats’ farm system that he helped scout and draft.

The upper echelon of the farm system is now loaded, especially with position players, thanks to high draft picks, numerous trades and impressive international signings over the last three years, all with Longosz’s input.

At the top of the board is top prospect Dylan Crews, this year’s No. 2 overall draft pick, reigning national champion from LSU and Golden Spikes Award winner. The other recent first-round picks include third baseman and No. 3 prospect Brady House (No. 11 overall pick in 2021) and outfielder and No. 5 prospect Elijah Green (No. 5 overall pick in 2022).

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Rizzo on players Nats protected from Rule 5 draft

Cole Henry Harrisburg red

NASHVILLE – This afternoon’s Rule 5 draft marks the end of the Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. Typically held on Thursday morning the week of the Meetings, the league bumped it up to Wednesday afternoon last year, much to the delight of beat reporters who get to travel home a day early.

The Nationals historically haven’t utilized this avenue of roster building. Designed to keep teams from stashing prospects in the minor leagues, general manager Mike Rizzo has usually turned to acquiring established major leaguers instead of taking a flier on an unproven prospect that has to take up a roster spot for the entirety of next season.

But the Nats did stray away from that last year by selecting Thaddeus Ward from the Red Sox with the first-overall pick in the Rule 5 draft, their first selection in 12 years.

Although they hold the No. 5 overall pick this afternoon and have two open spots on the 40-man roster, the Nats aren’t assured of making a selection. But that doesn’t mean the Rule 5 draft will definitely be uneventful for them.

The Nats, of course, can lose players in this event and they have already taken steps to assure they keep the ones they definitely want.

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After joining Nats at deadline, Herz flashed impressive stuff

DJ Herz Harrisburg


Age on opening day 2024: 23

How acquired: Traded with Kevin Made from Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and cash in July 2023; originally drafted in eighth round by Cubs in 2019 from Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, N.C.

Ranking: No. 16 per MLB Pipeline, No. 25 per Baseball America

MLB ETA: 2024
* Projected by MLB Pipeline

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Smith, Abbott, Machado cut; four pitchers added to 40-man roster

Dominic Smith gray

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.

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Roster moves coming on Rule 5 draft deadline day

Alex Call blue jersey

There are two significant roster-related deadline days across baseball this week. On Friday, all teams must tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players, with the possibility looming that some could be non-tendered. But before we get to that, today all teams must decide which of their prospects they want to add to their 40-man rosters in order to protect them from being lost in the Rule 5 draft.

This is a day that usually didn’t garner much attention from the Nationals’ perspective when they were consistent contenders and basically sat out the Rule 5 draft for a decade. But it became important again last year, both because they owned (and used) the No. 1 pick in the draft and because they had a high number of prospects they wanted to protect, forcing them to part ways with several big leaguers.

A refresher course, for those who don’t remember how this works: The Rule 5 draft gives teams the opportunity to select unprotected minor leaguers away from other clubs for $100,000, with one critical caveat: Any player selected must remain on the major league roster the entire season (90 days on the active roster) or else be offered back to the original club.

The Nats, who hadn’t selected a Rule 5 player since 2010, finally got back in the game last year by taking Thaddeus Ward with the first overall pick. The right-hander missed several months with a shoulder injury but met the required standard by staying on the active roster enough to remain with the organization, which can now option him to Triple-A if it wants.

The Nationals did not, however, have anyone selected away from them in last year’s Rule 5 draft, evidence perhaps of some smart decisions they made to protect certain players and perhaps of the lack of big-league-ready talent further down the organizational depth chart.

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Nats trade Candelario to Cubs for two prospects

Jeimer Candelario blue

When the Nationals lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Brewers was published and Jeimer Candelario’s name wasn’t included, all eyes in the home clubhouse immediately turned toward the third baseman’s locker. Candelario, for the record, was there, in his usual Nats gear, preparing for batting practice.

Three hours later, he was no longer a National.

The Nats finalized a trade with the Cubs shortly before tonight’s game that will send Candelario back to the organization he began his career with, receiving two prospects in return, the club announced.

Kevin Made, a 20-year-old shortstop who was the Cubs’ 14th-ranked prospect, and DJ Herz, a 22-year-old left-hander who was their 16th-ranked prospect, will now join the Nationals organization.

Candelario was far and away the most likely Nationals player to be dealt before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. deadline. A number of teams, headlined by the Angels and Yankees, reportedly were interested in the 29-year-old, who entered the day with an .823 OPS, 30 doubles, 16 homers, 53 RBIs and 3.3 bWAR in 99 games played.

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