With wrist finally healed, Hassell finally showing hitter he can be

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – He’s the forgotten prospect, the one who used to be ranked ahead of James Wood, the one who was touted as one of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues, the one who was supposed to be the first of the bunch to reach the major leagues.

Robert Hassell III lost all of those designations over the last 12 months, a disappointing 2023 season in the wake of a wrist injury suffered the previous fall in Arizona turning him into something of an afterthought for those following the Nationals farm system.

The hype coming into spring training was about Wood and Dylan Crews and Brady House and Cade Cavalli. Hassell no longer showed up on those top-100 prospects lists he used to be all over, deemed by multiple evaluators one of the top 30 prospects in the game.

Perhaps the diminishing luster will be proven accurate, and Hassell will never become the player the Nats hoped they were getting in the Juan Soto trade. But there’s still plenty of time for the 22-year-old to flip the narrative back into his favor. And if his performance in the early portion of spring training is to be taken seriously, he’s already on track do just that.

It began in Saturday night’s Grapefruit League opener. Wood had barely finished rounding the bases on his titanic fifth-inning homer when Hassell followed by driving the very next pitch to left-center for an easy triple. He came back two at-bats later with a single to the same direction, a couple of opposite-field hits that lived up to his longstanding reputation.

“To see that early is a good sign for me,” he said. “I’ve been seeing it in my work and BP. When I’m on, I’m hitting it to all fields. But definitely the other way with backspin.”

Hassell also showed an ability to pull the ball Sunday, lining a single to right in his first at-bat off the bench and leaving him 3-for-4 on the spring to that point. He later added a sacrifice fly for his first RBI.

Is this the guy the Nationals have been expecting all along?

“Yes,” manager Davey Martinez said after Saturday’s game. “We’re really working on him keeping the barrel on top of the baseball. He did it well today. And another guy we’re trying to get him a little more quiet at home plate. He’s never had trouble hitting the ball that way, as we all know. I think that’s going to allow him to do other things. But he’s really good. He’s staying behind the ball well.”

This is who the Nats thought they were getting when they made Hassell one of the centerpieces (along with Wood, CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore and Jarlin Susana) in the August 2022 trade with the Padres for Soto and Josh Bell. At the time of the deal, he was batting a robust .299/.379/.467 for San Diego’s high Single-A affiliate.

But almost from the moment he joined the Nationals organization, Hassell stopped hitting. In 158 total games since the trade, he has batted .220 and slugged .312 with 22 doubles and 10 homers.

Perhaps to blame for the dramatic drop-off? A wrist injury. Hassell’s right wrist bothered him throughout the final month of the 2022 season, and then as soon as arriving for the Arizona Fall League, he broke the hamate bone altogether, requiring surgery to remove it. Though the bone was healed before the start of the 2023 season, he admits now it still bothered him for months.

“I’m definitely clear of it now,” he said. “I’ve been monitoring it a lot, and I feel great. I felt great all offseason. But all last offseason and coming into spring training dealing with it, it was hurting me for a while. I didn’t realize that, really, until coming into this year with how good I felt.”

Hassell returned to the AFL this fall and showed what a difference a healthy wrist can make. In 20 games, he batted .290 with a .366 on-base percentage, a solid stepping stone for big league camp this spring.

It still remains to be seen what becomes of him now. The Nationals view Wood and Crews as near-sure things who should take over two of their three starting outfield jobs sometime this season, alongside right fielder Lane Thomas. Hassell would need to leapfrog someone to get into the mix himself.

But there’s a reason he was so highly ranked all along. And if he’s healthy again and continues to produce the way he did in the first two games of the spring, the forgotten prospect might just put himself back on the map soon enough.

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