Thoughts on last week's Nationals news

Hope everyone had a happy, healthy and safe holiday weekend. My thanks to Bobby Blanco for staying on top of all the Nationals news last week while I was on vacation with my family. Turns out the Nats made a fair bit of news during what often is a very slow time of the year.

Here are some thoughts on what transpired since we last spoke …

* Jeter Downs claimed from Red Sox
Two years ago, this would’ve registered high on the Richter scale. The Nationals acquiring one of the top infield prospects in baseball? That’s big news, right?

Well, maybe in December 2020 it would’ve been. Not nearly as much in December 2022.

That’s because Downs has seen a once-promising career flounder over the last two seasons. After putting up big numbers in Single-A and Double-A in 2019, Downs was perhaps the centerpiece return in Boston’s blockbuster trade of Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. But nothing went right for him with the Red Sox organization.

After all minor leaguers missed the 2020 season due to the pandemic, Downs got his first crack at Triple-A in 2021 and struggled mightily. The numbers were just as bad this season. All told, in 180 Triple-A games the last two seasons, he hit a paltry .193/.292/.368 with a whopping 230 strikeouts. The one upside to everything: He did hit 30 homers and steal 36 bases in 740 plate appearances. So there is still some impressive talent there.

The Nationals have no illusions that Downs is about to become a major part of their rebuilding plan. But they’re also in the kind of position that affords them the luxury of taking a shot on the 24-year-old. He’s got two minor league option years left, so he can play all three infield positions in Rochester to begin the season. And then if he performs well enough – and the Nats have a need at the big league level – he can get a shot in D.C.

If it doesn’t work out, no harm done. If somehow it does, the Nationals will have themselves a highly talented player for years to come. Think of it this way: Who would you rather have as Rochester’s starting shortstop in 2023: Jeter Downs or Lucius Fox? Speaking of which …

* Lucius Fox, Gerardo Carrillo clear waivers, Reed Garrett designated for assignment
The Nationals had to clear three spots on their 40-man roster over the last couple weeks to account for new acquisitions, and these three were the victims. None was particularly a surprise, though Carrillo’s removal is probably more noteworthy. (More on that in a moment.)

Fox’s inclusion on the Opening Day roster this season made for a nice story, but it was clear he wasn’t big league material. The fact the Nats never called him back up despite all their roster churn during the course of the year spoke volumes.

Because he cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A, Fox will remain with the organization. But he’s now off the 40-man roster and thus behind the likes of Downs and Jake Alu on the depth chart. At this moment, the Nationals should be giving those two more of a serious look than Fox, anyway.

Carrillo also cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A, so the right-hander remains in the organization as well. But he becomes the second of the four players the Nats acquired from the Dodgers in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner blockbuster to be designated for assignment, joining Donovan Casey. Both are still in the organization, and obviously neither is as significant as the other two players who came over in that trade (Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray). Still, it’s not a great look that the Nationals dropped both from their 40-man roster less than 18 months later.

* Tanner Rainey avoids arbitration
We’ve kind of glossed over Rainey this winter, because he’s still in the early stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready to pitch until midsummer at best. But he’s still an important part of the Nats’ bullpen in the bigger picture, and if he comes back healthy in August and September, he still has a bright future here.

Rainey, who reportedly signed for $1.5 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility, is still under team control through the 2025 season. There’s a long way to go from now to then, but a best-case scenario would see him re-establish himself as a key piece to the back end of a bullpen that could be a real strength for a team that hopes to contend again in 2024-25.

Rainey won’t be ready to return Opening Day, but with Erasmo Ramirez’s re-signing now official, the Nationals bullpen looks quite deep on paper: Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, Andres Machado, Mason Thompson, Thad Ward, Paolo Espino, Cory Abbott, Ramirez and possibly Sean Doolittle.

* Carlos Correa still hasn’t officially signed with anyone
The Giants balked at Correa at the last minute out of concerns with his physical. Now the Mets are at least delaying their signing of him. At what point is it within the realm of possibility the Nationals could swoop in and sign the star shortstop to a one-year “pillow” contract to re-establish his value before trying free agency again next winter?

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