Having witnessed a game in which young players like Josiah Gray and Riley Adams stole the show, the DC community should also be reminded of what’s important for the next two months.
Don’t let the potentially poor production of Gerardo Parra and Alcides Escobar cloud your opinion of the Nationals. The young players are who matter, whether they produce enough to win games or not.
Whenever he’s on the mound, that starts with Josiah Gray.
The second start the 23-year-old made for the Nationals was better than his first – which was impressive in its own right. Against a Braves team that features some intimidating hitters (even with Ronald Acuña Jr. on the Injured List), Gray struck out 10 batters and allowed only four hits over five innings.
Sure, we can all argue that Dave Martinez should let Gray pitch into the sixth inning, but that’s not the point. Any double-digit strikeout performance from a rookie pitcher is worth getting excited about.
Still, two starts into his career in Washington, Gray looks like a future middle-of-the-rotation starter at worst.
Gray isn’t alone, though, and the important developments extend beyond the major league roster. The Nationals traded for a lengthy list of minor league prospects at the Trade Deadline, and they – combined with the likes of Carter Kieboom, Luis Garcia and Cade Cavalli have taken on elevated importance.
The Other Big Leaguers
In additional to Gray, Mason Thompson has opened eyes on the mound. In his first three appearances (2 2/3 innings), he has yet to allow a run and has struck out four batters. Although he’s been almost exclusively a one-pitch specialist (a 97-MPH sinker), it’s a devastating primary pitch. If he can develop a second – and ideally a third – pitch entering 2022, he’ll have an opportunity to claim a seventh or eighth inning relief role for Washington.
The more familiar names, however, are Kieboom and Garcia. The latter has struggled to hit with much consistency and has begun to play more second base than shortstop, but he’s also hit three home runs in 38 at bats since being recalled from Triple-A Rochester on July 29. Kieboom, however, has seen more sustained success, batting .343 with a pair of homers over the same stretch, while securing the starting role at third base.
Of note, 25-year-old backup catcher Riley Adams came up big with a game-winning home run in Saturday’s game against the Braves. Adams was acquired rom the Blue Jays in exchange for Daniel Hudson and may push Tres Barrera for the starting gig behind the plate.
Catcher Keibert Ruiz, who was acquired in the same trade as Gray, only has two hits in his first 15 at bats in Rochester, but one of them was a big one. He’ll likely be promoted to the major league level by September, but for now, he’s the unopposed starting catcher in Triple-A.
On the heels of a shutout performance that earned him Northeast League Pitcher of the Week, Cade Cavalli had another strong outing this week. With my unofficial Harrisburg consultant (Link:https://twitter.com/eric_belles) on-hand, the Double-A ace tossed five one-run innings with eight strikeouts against Erie (Detroit Tigers) – a team which features two very highly-touted hitting prospects. The lone run he allowed came in the first inning, after which he settled into his typical upper-90s, unhittable self.
Lastly, shortstop Yasel Antuna of the Wilmington Blue Rocks (High-A) merits discussion. Since the calendar turned to July, he has 41 hits in 131 at bats and appears to be on the cusp of a promotion. Although he’s likely at least a year a way from making his major league debut, Antuna seems as likely – and probably more so – to become an option at shortstop as Luis Garcia does.
Other Top-Performing Prospects
For simplicity’s sake, stats reflect the period from August 1–7.
■ Armando Cruz (shortstop, Dominican): 4-for-14, two walks, two stolen bases
■ Drew Millas (catcher, High-A): 3-for-7, one walk
■ Donovan Casey (outfielder, Double-A): 8-for-20, double, home run, stolen base
■ Jordy Barley (shortstop, Low-A): 4-for-22, home run, six walks, four stolen bases
Perhaps the most interesting development amongst this group is that Casey, who was primarily a right fielder in San Diego’s organization, has exclusively played center field in Harrisburg. That likely won’t be his primary position long term, but displaying the ability to play up the middle could lead to him presenting more versatility if/when he reaches the big leagues.
Some of Washington’s second and third-tier pitching prospects (including Jackson Rutledge) have admittedly had discouraging seasons – mainly due to injuries. However, Gray and Cavalli are the most important arms, and they’ve looked outstanding. Somewhat surprisingly, so have a few important hitters.
To be clear, the Nationals don’t need their prospects to fill all of their roster holes. By trading away Trea Turner in particular, Washington has some money available to spend – the dream of a Juan Soto extension notwithstanding.
Assuming Gray and Cavalli are in Washington’s starting rotation in 2022 (which seems like a fair assumption); catcher continues to flesh itself out; and players like Antuna, Casey and Lane Thomas (the center fielder acquired in exchange for Jon Lester) can continue to thrive as they progress to the higher minor league ranks; next season may not be as bleak as the experts suggest.