Was Cluff’s strong showing in AFL a sign of things to come?

We spend the majority of our time here talking about major leaguers, but with the lockout now preventing teams from making any transactions involving players on 40-man rosters, let’s take an opportunity to delve deeper into some of the Nationals’ top minor leaguers. We continue this weekly series with a recent riser within the organization ...

SS JACKSON CLUFF

Height/Weight: 6-foot-0, 185 lbs.

Age on opening day 2022: 25

How acquired: Sixth-round pick, 2019 draft, BYU

2021 stats (Double-A Harrisburg): 35 G, 144 PA, 126 AB, 14 R, 24 H, 5 2B, 0 3B, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 9 BB, 39 SO, 3 SB, 2 CS, .190 AVG, .278 OBP, .278 SLG, .556 OPS, 6 E

2021 stats (Rookie Florida Complex League): 5 G, 17 PA, 15 AB, 2 R, 5 H, 0 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 5 SO, 3 SB, 0 CS, .333 AVG, .412 OBP, .333 SLG, .745 OPS, 0 E

2021 stats (Single-A Fredericksburg): 5 G, 22 PA, 18 AB, 2 R, 5 H, 1 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 2 BB, 3 SO, 1 SB, 0 CS, .278 AVG, .409 OBP, .333 SLG, .742 OPS, 2 E

Cluff-Throws-White-ST-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: Jackson Cluff didn’t exactly open the season high atop anyone’s list of top prospects, and truth be told, he didn’t exactly end the regular season having gained a ton of new fans. That’ll happen when a sixth-round pick, playing at Double-A at 24, produces a sub-.600 OPS.

In his defense, Cluff never got much chance to find a rhythm at the plate because of a pair of injuries that disrupted his season. He broke his thumb only 10 days into the season in May and wound up missing six weeks. Then he broke the hamate bone in his wrist in mid-August and missed the regular season’s final six weeks.

Cluff’s true calling card, though, comes not at the plate but in the field, where he is proving to be an elite defensive infielder. A natural shortstop, he has shown the ability to be just as smooth at second and third bases, raising his stock within a Nationals farm system short on elite infielders.

What really turned heads, though, was Cluff’s performance in the Arizona Fall League. He not only continued to excel in the field, winning AFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. He also hit exceptionally well, even against the top pitching prospects he was facing, slashing .342/.432/.456 with six doubles, a homer, 14 RBIs and eight stolen bases over 96 plate appearances. All of a sudden, those abysmal numbers from the regular season didn’t look as concerning.

2022 outlook: Cluff’s AFL performance certainly will allow him to report to spring training with some positive momentum after an otherwise frustrating year. But he’s going to have to prove those 22 games in October and November were actually a sign of progress, not just an isolated hot streak at an opportunistic moment.

Nobody seems to doubt if Cluff is defensively gifted enough to play in the big leagues. He has to show, though, he can be at least a competent hitter, and the clock is ticking. Having just turned 25, he’s probably ticketed to open the season as Triple-A Rochester’s shortstop, which would put him one phone call away from his major league debut.

History is littered with “great glove, weak bat” infielders, and it’s certainly possible to sustain a long career as a utility guy who can come off the bench and play all around the diamond. But if Cluff is to develop into more than that and actually have a shot at playing every day in the majors, he’ll need to show he can pose some kind of threat at the plate.

His showing in Arizona was an encouraging sign. Now he’ll show if it was legit.

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