Happy 22nd birthday CJ Abrams! Is it time for a present from Mike Rizzo?

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 28, 2022: CJ Abrams #5 of the Washington Nationals hits a walk-off single at Nationals Park to beat the Braves (Photo by Sol Tucker/TalkNats)

First of all, happy birthday to CJ Abrams who is celebrating his 22nd birthday today in the Big Apple. Just last week, Abrams hit his first walk-off in his MLB career. The 22-year-old will certainly have a lot of firsts. That happens when you are new to the league and just 42-games in his Washington Nationals’ career.  The question might be, do the Nats tie up Abrams for the long-term now? That’s the multi-million dollar question. To state my obvious to the question, “I do.”

Some would say, what’s the rush? For me as an evaluator, I see future star talent at a young age — and this player has it. Over the past ten years, I’ve made this suggestion just two times including Abrams for early extensions. There’s no kneejerk reactions. You must be selective. In turn, you should project their future value for a long-term deal. If I’m wrong down the road, you will be back to criticize. But if I’m right, I will remind you.

The rival Braves have been tying up young potential stars early in their MLB careers at very low AAVs. It gives them cost certainty with continuity and team stability. This comes with risk of dollars, as the Phillies learned the hard way, with Scott Kingery when they signed him in 2018. But so far, the Braves have hit on every one of these long-term deals, and they’ve been doing them for a years now.

There are a lot of similarities in the age and experience of Abrams and Braves’ rookie centerfielder Michael Harris II.  In fact they were both selected in the 2019 draft out of Atlanta area high schools and worked out together and played against each other. And Abrams was the highly touted 1st rounder while Harris slipped to the 3rd round. Harris was actually drafted as a pitcher and converted to a full-time centerfielder which was a key in his quick rise to the majors.

The Braves just invested a guaranteed $72 million in Harris who is the current odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and worst case should finish in second place in the voting. His deal includes a $15 million club option for 2031 with a $5 million buyout and a $20 million club option for 2032 with a $5 million buyout. Harris will draw an annual salary of $5 million the next two seasons, an annual salary of $8 million from 2025-26, a $9 million salary in 2027, a $10 million annual salary from 2028-29 and $12 million in 2030. That gives the Braves control to include four free agent years for Harris and his most productive years for a position player.

Some may say that Abrams doesn’t deserve an extension with a .247 batting average and an underwhelming .607 OPS with a +0.1 WAR during his Nats’ short tenure. When you look at Abrams OAA defensive ranking at 43rd among shortstops at a poor -6, you have to really question going long with this young player. As of today, Abrams ranks 441 for all rookies. But I see the untapped potential for power to go with that speed, and in time, he will be more consistent in production as the tools mature with ability to decipher pitches, and just MLB experience.

The funny thing is that six years ago I wrote a similar article about extending a very young Trea Turner along with the “veteran” Bryce Harper. There was a lot of debate of extending Harper at the time being two years from free agency, and he should have been extended years ago. Some wanted Anthony Rendon extended too, but I was against it based on several other factors. As they say, you can’t sign them all. Also, the Nats payroll was so high at the time that they were over the CBT cap making any long-term signings more difficult.  Few agreed, and many disagreed on extending Turner. Guess who has the highest FanGraphs WAR of any current or former Nats’ player from 2017 to today? Answer: Trea Turner by a wide margin.

Having the foresight to see talent is a talent. In some industries they call them talent scouts. In baseball, they are known as GMs. It is far from a perfect science. The GM who did the Kingery deal is no longer the Phillies’ GM. If I am wrong, maybe it is only a hit to my credibility — but the good news is my track record has been excellent on this.

With a long-term deal for Abrams, you have to assess the risk and make an offer commensurate to that. If you look at the best players in all of MLB since September 3, Abrams is the 94th highest rated player, and 10 spots ahead of Juan Soto, the player he was traded for in that blockbuster deal with the Padres. That’s the shortstop you are looking at extending, not the slow starter to his MLB career.

This is a polar opposite comparison of a player who struggled as a 21 year old who was called up to the Padres abruptly due to an injury to Fernando Tatis Jr. You could argue that Abrams was not ready for that initial call-up. He was playing the most demanding position in baseball at shortstop. Since September 3, Abrams is showing the player the scouts thought he would be slashing .320/.327/.420 with a .747 OPS.  Yes, he needs to take some walks, and hit for more power. That will come in time.

If Harris the contract comparable, you would want to come in below that number for Abrams given the statistical differences. Could anyone argue that Abrams is worth more today than Harris?

This is where you can point out some of the deficiencies of the Mike Rizzo era as General Manager as we did back in 2016 when we suggested doing a Turner extension. Fast forward six years, and Rizzo still has not done a pre-arb extension deal, ever. Some would say Keibert Ruiz is more deserving of a long-term deal, but Keibert’s agent is Scott Boras. The irony is Ruiz changed agents after he was traded to the Nationals. Enough said. By the way, Abrams is repped by Brodie Van Wagenen of Roc Nation. Let’s see what happens here.

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