If you’re of the belief the Nationals could exceed expectations and be a surprise wild card contender next year, you’re probably also of the belief Dylan Crews and James Wood, plus perhaps Brady House and Robert Hassell III, are going to play a big role in the club’s ascension.
That may very well become reality. Any or all of those top prospects could make his major league debut in 2024 and make an immediate impact for a lineup that could use some more thump to go along with CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz and Lane Thomas.
But it’s also entirely possible none of that happens. Before any of those prospects can become contributors in D.C., they need to actually make it to D.C. And before any of them can do that, they need to actually have success in the upper levels of the minor leagues.
At this moment, all are underwhelming at Double-A Harrisburg to some extent.
Wood, widely believed to be closest to major-league-ready of this group, has mashed 16 homers and driven in 46 runs in 76 games at Double-A. That’s good. His .223 batting average and .315 on-base percentage are less good. And his 109 strikeouts in 324 plate appearances really aren’t good.
Nobody doubts the big guy’s immense skills, or that he’ll put it all together eventually. But he’s not quite there yet.
Crews, widely considered one of the most complete college hitters in recent memory, dominated the competition at low Single-A Fredericksburg, posting a .355/.423/.645 slash line with five homers and 24 RBIs in only 14 games to begin his professional career and earn a quick promotion to Harrisburg, leapfrogging high Single-A Wilmington.
Turns out even the most accomplished 21-year-old can need some time to adjust to the more advanced pitching he’s now facing at Double-A, where Crews is 6-for-34 with zero homers, three RBIs and a .558 OPS in his first 10 games. The good news: He’s only got eight strikeouts in 41 plate appearances. Again, give him time, and nobody doubts he’ll master this level. But he does need some time to do it, and there’s only two weeks remaining in the 2023 season.
Like Crews, House was quickly promoted up the organizational ladder this season after producing an .869 OPS in 36 games with Fredericksburg, then a .908 OPS in 16 games with Wilmington. But while the 2021 first round pick is still hitting for average (.296) at Double-A, he has yet to homer in 28 games and shockingly only has one RBI.
Nationals' staffers are overwhelmingly pleased with House’s progress this season after a lost 2022 campaign due to a back injury. But, once again keep in mind, he’s a 20-year-old with only 611 professional plate appearances on his resume. He still needs time to develop.
And then there’s Hassell, who has endured through a frustrating season, to be sure. The 22-year-old outfielder looked like he might be on a fast track to the majors, but his full recovery from hamate bone surgery during the offseason has been slow, and the stats suggest he may not be all the way back yet. In 95 games with Harrisburg, he’s batting just .216, slugging just .319 and has struck out 141 times in 427 plate appearances, an 11 percent increase from his strikeout rate last season.
None of this is to suggest these four players aren’t still top-notch prospects who are more likely to become good big leaguers than busts. Wood, Crews and House aren’t going to plummet in anyone’s prospect rankings at season’s end. And Hassell has the valid excuse of his wrist injury and deserves the chance to head into 2024 with a clean slate.
The point is this: The path to the majors usually isn’t as short and direct as we’d like to believe. Sometimes, a Juan Soto comes around who breaks the system, reaches the big leagues in record time and never looks back. More often than not, guys experience some highs and lows in the minors before earning their final promotion.
It would be wonderful for the Nationals if any or all of these prospects are ready for the spotlight early in 2024 and become instant sensations. But deep down, they know it’s not as simple as that. They’ll get their chance to debut in D.C. at some point. But they still need to earn it.