In ancient Greek mythology, there was a beast called a Hydra. A creature that had multiple heads and lived in the water, lurking until provoked. It was a feared creature in mythology, and in terms of baseball, the Washington Nationals are nothing close to that level of intimidation at this point in time. The rebuilding Nationals, fresh off a World Series win just two years ago, are now fully engaged in a rebuild, or as general manager Mike Rizzo termed it, a retool. That is not an issue for the team because of the potential Hydra-like team that could be assembled in a few years made from homegrown talent.
Any successful organization has a crop of prospects that turn into bonafide MLB stars. The Dodgers have churned out Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Walker Buehler, etc. The Rays have produced so many pitchers that it is nearly impossible to name them all. The formula might differ in terms of payroll and strategy from team to team, but overall, it is very uniform that in order to have a period of prolonged success, home grown talent is vital. The Nationals want to add their name to that list of elite minor league systems. Just about a month removed from the franchise altering Trade Deadline, the Nationals have already seen some of the fruits of their labor come to the highest league in the land. The debut of Keibert Ruiz is merely a cherry on top for the front office. The same front office has seen five players make their Nationals debuts since being acquired a month ago.
To fully delve into just how bright the future is for the Nationals, it is so important to look at some of the main pieces coming into the fold. Everyone knows about Juan Soto. The guy will hit and lead this team to whatever heights lay ahead. That is a given. Soto is a superstar and needs no explanation as to why. The players that will be focused on are Josiah Gray, Ruiz, and Cade Cavalli. The three of them are going to be the next core of young talent that the Nationals bring to the Majors. For each of them, they will be tasked with trying to bring Washington back to the promised land that was so arduous to find.
The most polished, MLB ready prospect out of the trio, Josiah Gray has already proven to Nats fans why he is heralded so highly. Gray is electric on the mound, combining a mid to upper 90’s fastball with two filthy breaking balls. His slider and curveball both come from the same spot in his delivery and are nearly identical in velocity. The only difference is that his slider makes a hard left turn while the curveball falls right off the plane. Every fifth day has turned into a spectacle for fans to cheer on what they hope is the future of their rotation.
For Josiah Gray to be as effective as possible, he will have to do one thing: continue to develop. Right now, he is an unfinished product, that is certain. The question that remains after his first handful of starts for the Nats is how much more development is left for the right hander. As he sits now, he looks like a middle of the rotation pitcher. That is clearly his floor. The exciting part about him is that no one can really project his ceiling. Like many top prospects, there are no real limits for how good he can be in the future. Gray has proven already that he is more than capable of getting professional hitters out with frequency. The next step is to simply dominate them. The Nats have been graced with the presence of a future Hall of Famer in Max Scherzer for the past few years. It is unreasonable to believe Gray will replace Scherzer, however, Nats fans have seen exactly what elite pitching can do. Gray needs to be the guy Scherzer was for so long: an ace. Someone for the Nationals to rely on to be “the stopper of losing streaks”.
Gray is full of untapped potential that just having him on the staff makes the team so much better. His energy has been rubbing off on everyone. More than anything, his calming, quiet nature is something that has not been seen by many top prospects in recent years. His start last night out the window, he has been spectacular in Washington. Everything else out the window, Gray has all of the tools to be one of the best pitchers in the league at this pace. The Nationals just hope to harness every bit of it.
Cade Cavalli is one of the most electrifying players on the Nationals and he hasn’t even made his debut yet. He has a furious fastball and combines it with wipeout stuff in addition. Recently, he was promoted to the AAA Rochester Red Wings. He has now played for three different teams within the Nationals’ organization this season. Since starting in High A, Cavalli has not stopped dominating. The biggest knock on him so far has been his control. He has had a tendency to try to strike every hitter out rather than simply pitch to his abilities.
To say that Cavalli has turned heads this year is an understatement. Even he didn’t think he would be this high up in the system coming off the lost season in 2020. The 2020 season, while a wash for the minor leagues, was so helpful for Cavalli. “The Covid year was great because I got to work with some of the big league guys and see that I can do this at this level and how I stack up against professional level talent”, Cavalli explained in a recent Zoom interview. The ability to face professional talent without even having any minor league experience is something unique. Cavalli tried to make the most of it and learn as much as possible during the simulated games and bullpen sessions.
Some of the hype around Cavalli has been centered around his arsenal of lethal pitches. He has the ability to get batters out with any of his pitches in any count. During the Futures Game in Denver, Cavalli showed off his lightning bolt of a fastball, clocking in regularly in the mid to upper 90’s. His slider looked deceiving, but the pitch that stole the show might have been the one he did not show very much. His changeup is one of the premier offerings he has in his back pocket. Of course, one of the main ways to prevent home runs is to throw pitches with downward, late movement.
“I think that my changeup is something that is really valuable, especially against professionals… I learned it by throwing it whenever I could. After long toss, getting to throw it and get a feel for it was huge. Then on the bump and getting to learn about how it moves was something I used to refine it.”, Cavalli details when asked about his changeup. The Nationals have been emphasizing in recent years that changeups are the way to best prevent home runs. Being able to throw a quality changeup is something that clearly the Nationals have wanted to see in their pitchers. It is also something that Cavalli has demonstrated time and time again.
When asked about his place in the organization, Cavalli, like many others in his situation, was bullish. “I can’t control if I get called up or where I go, so I just have to play as well as possible and let everything work itself out”, Cavalli said. He also added, “I want to force (the organization) to make the tough decision”. The way Cavalli expects to be playing at this high of a level is something rare in pitchers. Many simply want to continue to produce and not think about the other things that come with playing in the MiLB. It is admirable for Cavalli to truly care about trying to make it to the MLB and make an impact for the future as well as the present.
Moreover, Cavalli is trying to cement himself as one of the best players to ever suit up for the Nats. He acknowledges his unique set of circumstances that he is currently in, saying, “I have a chance to do something very special with this organization. Until I can make it (to the MLB), I just want to be the best player, the best teammate, and I can’t wait to impact a lot of people in the locker room and win a lot of games too”.
If there has been anything that can be considered an Achilles Heel for the Nationals in recent years, it has been their catchers. This is not to say that guys like Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes, Wilson Ramos, among others have not been serviceable. They just have not had a consistent bat behind the plate. This might just change with the arrival of Keibert Ruiz. Ruiz is one of the best prospects that the Nationals have to offer. He is a rare player in the sense that he does not chase pitches out of the strike zone. His strikeout rate that sat at 9.7% in the minor leagues this year all but proves that.
Even more, he is something that the Nationals have not had in quite a while: a highly touted position player prospect. Even when Soto came up to the MLB, he was not the top prospect in the system. The Nationals have relied on free agent signings and trades to build their lineup. That is a fine strategy, but one that does not always result in long term success. Albeit the Nats did win a World Series using this strategy. The arrival of Ruiz all but inserts a bit of hope into the starting nine.
One of the biggest drawbacks to having a catcher as a core piece of a team is durability. At best, a catcher will play four or five games in a week. That is not the most conducive factor if a team wants to batter opponents. Ruiz is someone they think that can break this mold. Gone are the days where the Nationals have a platoon behind the dish. With Ruiz in the fold, Nats fans have found their backstop for the foreseeable future.
No matter what one though about the Trade Deadline, it is in the past. The trades have been finalized and it is time to move forward with the players that are currently with the team. Of those players, there are some that are so intriguing and tantalizing that they are worth the price of admission. It is impossible for one player to lead a team to greatness. However. these three will be some of the foundation players for years to come and will be fan favorites for the next generation of Nats fans.