Talk Nats 2023 Seasonal Positional Preview – Shortstop

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

Welcome to the 2023 Talk Nats season positional preview! Between now and Opening Day, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about a particular position, eventually covering every spot on the diamond. Below is a deep dive into the shortstop position. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section, and as always, go Nats!

The Starter – CJ Abrams 

The Washington Nationals will be rolling with CJ Abrams as their everyday shortstop during the 2023 season. Once a former top-20 prospect in all of baseball, Abrams is expected to lead the Nats this year in many categories and contribute to the lineup on a daily basis. He was the sixth overall draft pick by the Padres in 2019 direct from High School and was one of the key parts of the return package for All-Star Juan Soto and first baseman Josh Bell.

Abrams debuted for the Nationals in mid-August and showed off his defensive range in the field and his speed around the basepaths. However, his stint in Washington started rocky, as the young shortstop hit .160 in August and struck out 13 times. Abrams initially played for Triple-A Rochester, hitting .310/.360/.480/.840 and was called up when Luis García suffered an injury.

Before being traded to Washington, Abrams played 44 games in San Diego; however, he didn’t become a starter, even with Fernando Tatis on the suspended list, due to the Padres’ depth. In total last season, Abrams slashed .246/.280/.324/.604, recording a 76 OPS+ but only recording an 85.2 average exit velocity. When Abrams gets on-base, his speed allows him to control the basepaths. Unfortunately, last season Abrams had troubling OBP and didn’t consistently produce hard contact, recording a 47% ground ball rate. As noted above, Abrams demonstrated range but sometimes had trouble making the easy plays, tallying 11 errors last season.

Abrams and second baseman García are expected to be in the spotlight this season, as they are projected to be the youngest SS/2B duo in the Majors. The President of Baseball Operations, Mike Rizzo, talked about his excitement for the pair and how they bonded over the offseason.

“Yeah, they’re good young players, and they can be in this league for a long time, ” Rizzo told reporters. “I think they will be part of a nucleus that is our next group of core championship players and like the spirit and energy they bring to the ballpark every day… I think to have a young team with a lot of energy, that plays the game the right way, and you know, has to learn to gel together is going to be important.”

Bench option – Ildemaro Vargas

The Nationals signed infielder Ildemaro Vargas last May and optioned him to Triple-A. Vargas was an intriguing signing by the Nationals as he’s versatile, and his strengths demonstrate a capability for multiple positions. He is an athletic fielder, a capable hitter for the bench, and offers speed on the basepaths. Before being signed by the Nats, Vargas played in the Cubs organization before being DFA’d. He played ten games with the Cubbies but didn’t find himself on-base often, recording three hits while slashing .130/.231/.348 and producing a .579 OPS.

Vargas debuted for the Nationals on August 3 and shocked Nats fans by going four-for-four. It wasn’t long until manager Dave Martinez decided to bench third baseman, Maikel Franco, and put Vargas in the daily lineup. One interesting nugget about Vargas is that he has no Minor League options. If the Nationals determine they don’t value Vargas, Washington would outright release him. The hope is Vargas can be a utility player for the Nationals this season, and if Rizzo trades a veteran infielder, Vargas could be slotted into that spot the second half of the season.

Minor Leaguers – Leonel Valera, Jeter Downs, Jake Alu

During the first week of the offseason, the Nationals signed infielder Leonel Valera. The 23-year-old spent time in High-A and Double-A in the Dodgers organization last season. It’s unlikely Valera will see much playing time this season with the Nationals since he hasn’t reached the Triple-A level yet and is still developing. Last season Valera hit .288/.361/.472 in 527 plate appearances, playing 130 games. I expect the Nationals to start Valera in Triple-A Rochester this season, with the possibility of being called up to D.C.

The Nationals also have Jeter Downs for infield depth. I wrote about Downs in my 2B positional preview, as he can also play second. Downs is having a productive spring training, slashing .156/.270/.219/.489 in 13 games and 32 at-bats. Downs has experience playing second, third, and short, but his numbers decrease when he is called to play shortstop. In his professional baseball career, Downs has played 364 games at shortstop while playing 129 games at second and 11 at third. So it’s hard to bash him on his lower numbers as the proportions are off, but his fielding average is .943 while playing short, 14% lower than his second baseball fielding percentage. Likewise, his RF/9 is 3.49, which is .77 less than when he plays second. Down’s only Major League experience came last year, compiling six hits and four RBIs with a .427 OPS.

Jake Alu is another potential option for shortstop; however, it’s not his primary position, as he is a natural at the hot corner. Alu has also spent time playing second, but he’s far down on the depth chart to play in the hole.

Top Prospects – Armando Cruz 

With top prospect Brady House‘s positional switch in Spring Training from shortstop to third base, the Nats top prospect depth is deeper in the system and far from Washington, D.C.  This young stud is their top prospect at shortstop, as Armando Cruz is a defensive whiz. Cruz entered the Nationals organization in 2021, signing a $3.9M contract. He started in the Florida Complex League, hitting .275/.320/.362 in 52 games in 197 plate appearances last year.

Cruz is known for his quick feet and unmatched agility when playing in the field, and although the 19-year-old still needs time to develop correctly with the bat, Nationals fans should be stoked for the future. Along with his slick defense, the 5-foot-10 shortstop impresses many with his contact ability at the plate. Many believe Cruz can reach the Major League level, but there’s a question of whether he could compete with Abrams or García for their spots on the diamond. Cruz is versatile and could be utilized at the Major League level, but he’s far from ready and will likely be in the Low Minors this season.

Divisional Rankings

  1. Trea Turner, Philadelphia Phillies
  2. Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
  3. Vaughn Grissom, Atlanta Braves
  4. CJ Abrams, Washington Nationals
  5. Joey Wendle, Miami Marlins

Coming in last for the N.L. East position ranks is the Marlins shortstop Joey Wendle. He joined the Marlins last season and will be their starting shortstop this year. The Marlins’ decision to put Wendle at short raised questions as Jazz Chisholm Jr. was a former top shortstop prospect and Wendle has primarily played at second. Wendle has minimal experience at short for the Marlins, playing 34 games last year and recording six defensive runs saved. Many would say Wendle is a better offensive player than a defensive player. At the plate, he slashed 259/.297/.360/.658 in 101 games while dealing with an injury. However, before 2022, Wendle was a power-hitting phenomenon and an All-Star in 2021.

Vaughn Grissom will be at short for the Braves this season after hitting .295/.353/.440/.792 in 41 games last year. Grissom was called up at the beginning of last season and performed at a high level throughout the year. Grissom was Atlanta’s starting second baseman, but with All-star Dansby Swanson departed the Braves last offseason, Grissom has the tall task of playing shortstop daily. Even with a strong bat, Grissom’s fielding leaves some question marks. Although the Braves hired one of the best fielding coaches, Ron Washington, there is no guarantee Grissom can turn it around.

Francisco Lindor was traded to the Mets a couple of years ago and has been inconsistent ever since. Last season he slashed .270/.339/.449/.788 and was more consistent than he’s ever been at the plate. Defensively, Lindor had a spectacular campaign with a 4.2 UZR and was at the top of many statistics, including his .985 fielding percentage. Lindor is one of the best shortstops in the MLB on defense, and his glove is arguably better than Trea Turner‘s. The 29-year-old only committed nine errors last season and had a 6.8 fWAR.

While writing this article, I had the World Baseball Classic in the background; we all know how that ended. Former Nationals legend Turner hit a grand slam, BOMB, to propel the USA past Venezuela. Now back to the Phillies. Turner and Lindor are alike in several ways, and it’s hard to rank one above the other. However, Turner is the best shortstop in the East. Turner is one of the true five-tool plays in the MLB, recording a 121 OPS+ while hitting .298/.343/.466/.809 last season. Turner’s defense, offense, and speed make him a particularly impressive player.

The best-case scenario for 2023:  Abrams shows why he is one of the strongest players on the roster and consistently delivers at an elite level all season. He earns a nomination for the Gold Glove award. More realistically, perhaps an extension is brewing for the young shortstop… ( I know that word can trigger some Nats fans).

The worst-case scenario for 2023: Abrams doesn’t improve, and the Nationals have to find other options at shortstop.

Overall position grade: C


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