By now we well recognize that for each of our personal certainties about what to expect from our beloved Washington Nationals, there are things beyond our control — both bad and good. The biggest difference as we close out 2023 is that at this time last year, we had hopes and solutions that were a) fewer in number b) farther away from realization c) above all, less exciting.
The outfield future is still not only unclear, but the entire makeup of the 2024 outfield remains a mystery. With so many possibilities, very much impacted by the progress of numerous talents in the system right now, the solidified fate of Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez means that the 2024 thinking is well under way.
At this time last year, we were basically dreaming on Robert Hassell III, James Wood, and Elijah Green. Things look quite different now. Fortunately, the organization added considerably to its inventory, so the impact of disappointments has been imperceptible. Not that we have a sure-fire different trio now, and we just won’t know until a player settles in with a star-caliber contribution at the major league level and the team makes a longer-term commitment. Harrisburg, notably, currently sports four outfielders who are part of the discussion of who will make up the eventual starting three. In their week of gelling together, bragging rights of October 2023 will soon give way to whom we follow in the AFL. We know they’re all talented, as are realistic talents who reside in the major leagues right now. But Mentsch tracht, un Gott lacht.
Dylan Crews is the closest one gets to anointed, and a Face of the Franchise personality, but even he has not shown enough to earn a spot in the Opening Day 2024 outfield. Being drafted #2 gets you longer rope, but being #5 still meant, for Elijah Green, that nothing would be handed to him. Crews passed through his final act of a storied 2023 ably, flashing all tools as he made his way up to AA and gradually began to hit his stride before the Nationals drew the curtain on his enticing debut. At this time last year, no one anticipated the Nationals drafting an outfielder, much less getting access to the long widely-coveted Crews. But Gatt lacht. And now, the future of the Nationals outfield includes the possibility of two of the top three outfield prospects in all of major league baseball.
The other, of course, is James Wood. Beyond conjuring memories of Frank Howard, beyond the marketing potential of a local product coming home, and a giant superstar for the majority African-American demographic of DC, there remains obvious longing for someone transcendent to wash away Juan Soto’s self-defeating rejection. The great news is that Wood is truly exciting. At age 21 (a belated happy birthday), he displayed a full set of exceptional tools that include light tower power, great speed on the bases and coverage of a lot of outfield grass. As the year advanced, he continued to strike out at a high enough clip that worried some. The Nationals opted not (yet) to promote him, despite his strong September finish and being named Double-A Player of the Week for the final week of their season.
Now we head to the instructional leagues, and the winter. Rest him and coach him up? Get him more game experience in winter ball? Play it safe with a protected asset? Opening Day 2024 may be a stretch for player that the Nationals are not yet pushing to AAA, and even with a current logjam in Harrisburg. Certainly for further in 2024, and 2025 (Rizzo’s option year), we would *expect (placht)* Crews and Wood to headline the Nationals outfield. But then?
Lane Thomas, like several other players on the current Nationals major league team, is on the rise. He is now a proven everyday starting outfielder, not merely a lefty mashing platoon bat and is team-controlled through the 2025 season. Dream-on-power and big bats are nice, but proven thump and 25-30 HR power is not readily replaceable, especially when it comes with 20+SB. He is one steal from joining the prestigious 20/20 Club in Nats’ lore. Thomas has improved on defense as well, and sports a cannon arm in right field that has produced a whopping 17 assists this year that is tops in the Majors! As a point of reference, Expos legend Vladimir Guerrero never had more than 15 assists in a single year (But PS – Ellis Valentine once had 25). As we all well know by now, Thomas has two years to go on his contract. Does the team sell high this offseason in a trade for healthy and controllable high ceiling starting pitching? Or does it lock down a lunch-pail talent who continues to improve every year and who hits very well at Nationals Park? Rizzo has already scoped the market at the deadline and may even have his answers and his plan as we head into the Hot Stove.
Unless a trade is soon to be completed, I think the Nationals should sign Thomas anyway if the money is right, because his trade value would only heighten if he is a controllable piece beyond 2025. If you believe Thomas to be a 25-25 piece who can hold down RF, do you really trade him? I, for one, am not deterred by the rap on him as a platoon player; Thomas’ numbers have noticeably improved this year against RHP, he has had excellent power against righthanders, and I appreciate what he has done in the clutch. Even his stolen base numbers are up. Few envisioned we would be at this place with Lane Thomas right now. Certainly the Cardinals did not.
One player who was already faltering and has since disappeared is Victor Robles with a season gone due to a back injury as the official reason. The team controls him next year and he is signed to a $3 million team option that can be declined by Rizzo. But this year he was statistically improved with the bat — but otherwise did not yet use his speed and defense to the ceiling all had hoped for. All you need to know is that, injury notwithstanding, he essentially lost his job to Alex Call. It’s difficult to envision a role for Robles in 2024, especially if Call is around and especially if Jacob Young is with the big club.
Stone Garrett, at this time last year, was part of the Arizona Diamondbacks as a late season call-up making his MLB debut on August 17, 2022. He was DFA’d by them exactly three months later and signed to a minor league deal by the Nats. Given Arizona’s outfield glut, his availability was a pleasant surprise that the Nationals jumped on. But at our end, no one expected him to be more than a ripening AAA-AAAA bat. Sure, it was “interesting” to watch a guy with a Michelin Man body run around the outfield in the spring, but I admit I saw him only as a fallback option to a fallback option to a fallback option. Flash forward to injuries and underperformance of others outfielders and Garrett made it to the major league roster earlier than ever expected as a platoon bat. He kicked around for awhile, getting an occasional start and performing decidedly meh. And then, Garrett took off, and carried the team’s fortunes with him. His bat was a refreshing addition that kept the team aloft in a post-Jeimer world. But God had other plans for this year and Garrett after a painful looking leg fracture on a jump at the wall that caught a spike in Yankee Stadium. We don’t know what to expect of his comeback; but we do know the Nationals enjoyed penciling him into the lineup during the fun stretch we had this summer when they turned him into a full-time outfielder. And, more than fun, the team was winning (47-42) with Garrett in the lineup. Take that as you will.
What no Mentsch was planning for, even as late as August, was Jacob Young. He broke out in the minors, and even without much home run power, has game impacting abilities like we saw last night. He has been, arguably, the Nationals’ most exciting rookie call-up this year, not its best (have to give Jake Irvin his due). With clutch and highlight reel catches that instigated aggressive defensive range among his teammates, Young looks nothing like a virtual unknown with a fairly short run in AA and next to no time in AAA. Rather, Jacob Young has come to the majors and, tongue hanging out, has showed no fear and the kind of dynamism that lifts a team and its pitching staff. Across four levels and all of the adjustment that entails, he has garnered 46 stolen bases to date. Not to be outdone by Thomas, his own cannon arm has produced 15 assists this year. When you see yourself with a purple bubble gum tub hat as an avatar on TalkNats, you are relevant to 2024. How relevant? He’ll have all off season to refine his game and then, the Nationals can sort out whether his 2024 begins in AAA or the majors. He has the look of a player who is a waste when riding the bench
Robert Hassell is still high on the prospect lists and getting slack despite a bad year, because of his prospect pedigree and wrist injuries, and is still young and at AA. But the crowded company around him puts him on the outside looking in, even though he will be only 22 for most of next year. Hassell’s power started to appear later in the year, and his defense was strong. But Hassell’s strikeout tallies were way up, his walks down.
Andrew Pinckney can safely claim the title of an even darker horse than Jacob Young. An upperclassmen SEC talent, Pinckney extends a string of Nationals successes with such draft selections. But his pro showing after a full year at Alabama showed plenty to get excited about. Playing in the shadow of Dylan Crews, Pinckney continues to be overlooked, even after his fast start turned heads in the Natmosphere. The big and toolsy outfielder bears the knock of being strikeout prone, but in the notorious Wilmington, Pinckney hit well over .300, with almost as many walks as strikeouts, after showing his power a level below at Fredericksburg. As a college product, and now in Harrisburg, he has caught up to Hassell.
The 2024 Harrisburg outfield could be joined soon enough by Daylen Lile, a 20 year old Wilmington outfielder whose return to pro action after a lost injury year reminded all of why he was an award-winning high school product. Having come into the system only in late 2021, Lile was an unknown with a highly touted hit tool and not much else known. He served notice in the spring, and the Nationals introduced him to a fan base that watched him show good plate presence and outstanding confidence in the field while playing alongside big leaguers. Assigned to Fredericksburg, Lile’s power emerged in a Carolina League All-Star season. Promoted to Wilmington, Lile struggled thereafter but began coming alive as the season wound down.
And then there is Cristhian Vaquero, who has quietly waded through hyper-hype to earn two levels in his first year in the US at age 18. Great speed, taking his walks, lots of outfield assists, and at 6’3, 190, the power will come. Vaquero will presumably man a 2024 Fredericksburg OF with Elijah Green, whose star has dimmed with wrist injuries and then, swollen strikeouts. But Green still flashed dominant stolen base speed with elite exit velocities, terrific outfield defense, even with what some might call a lost year in his first run after high school. Let’s see what the coaching staff, including new arrivals, do with him after a rest and then over the winter.
Green and Hassell were not the only Nats outfield hopefuls whose 2024 was a step backward. TJ White was only 19 at Wilmington, and had his good power moments, but his numbers were quite poor. The Nats did not demote him, and White earned a lot of respect for how he approaches the game. But he has a long way to go. With others now passing him by, the Nationals can be patient and try to coax him to unlock the talent TJ White needs to show to move to the upper minors.
Jeremy De La Rosa looks the part in game action, but has been a marginal producer at Wilmington as well, and for well over a year. Once thought to be the next great Latin American find, he gave credence to such promise with a terrific start in Fredericksburg in 2022. But underperformance and injury followed at Wilmington. 2023 was better for DeLa Rosa in high A, and he made it through most of the year before being shut down in August while enjoying a better stretch run. De La Rosa’s present is as much a mystery as his future. But he will begin 2024 at only age 22 and has always performed well at spring training with the big club. He may not be luminous right now, but Jeremy DeLa Rosa is still an asset. Certainly I would expect him to make the major leagues with some organization more than I would Blake Perkins!
Jared McKenzie opened eyes after the 2022 draft with a big Fredericksburg start, just as Pinckney did in 2023. But McKenzie turned “Wilmington” as a Blue Rock. He will have to find himself this off-season to become more relevant to the team’s plans going forward.
Roismar Quintana is still young, and noticeably improved as the Fred’burg year went along, but lacked the power that some presume would flow out of that stocky build of his. He’ll only turn 21 next year and does not have a lot of professional baseball behind him yet. Moreover, he had a very good two month stretch in July and August before fading late. But his bat will have to carry him, because he doesn’t have the kind of defensive talent to be found elsewhere among the outfield prospects.
It is logical to consider that one or more of the above underperformers turns it around to reinsert himself into the future mix. Perhaps one of the above is destined for 1B, as TJ White and Quintana tried in 2023. Or perhaps one of the elite athletes with good speed and a strong throwing arm now at another position is ultimately ticketed for the outfield. Hey – wasn’t Kyle Schwarber once a catcher? The possibilities are manifold and again, Mensch tracht un Gatt lacht.