A very happy birthday to CJ Abrams who is celebrating his 23rd birthday today. His 2023 season came to a close on Sunday, and as it turned out, his age-22 was very special. There were only two players who ever hit at least 18 home runs and stole at least 47 bases by age 22 before this year — and they were Cesar Cedeno and Mike Trout. Abrams and Corbin Carroll both joined them this season as the only four members of the 18/47 Club.
With the new rules of larger bases and limiting pick-off attempts, stolen bases were up this year as expected. Through June 23, Abrams only had seven stolen bases, and he stole 40 bags in the final 86 games of the season. The Nats were just not taking advantage of the new rules like they should have and woke up at that point in San Diego as you might remember when Juan Soto kept gesturing into the Nats dugout. The team seemed to come alive and went on quite the run from June 24-August 26 which corresponded to the week when Stone Garrett broke his leg. In that period, the Nats played to a record of 34-22. Imagine doing that over the full season. The team had Garrett and Jeimer Candelario for much of that time.
There was some poor decision making that plagued this team early in the season. This 2023 Nats’ team was built with some athleticism and speed and finally started to take advantage of their strengths. When you aren’t hitting for power as a team, you better find other ways to win. In the end, Abrams, Lane Thomas, and Jacob Young ran wild on opposing teams. The Nats were 81 percent successful in stolen base attempts as a team.
Putting together power and speed are two of the top tools in baseball, and Abrams and Thomas were definitely putting on a show in 2023. Consider Abrams’ age, that put him in rare company.
There is no predictive values to assign to Abrams with anything near 100 percent certainty. However, if you look at Cedeno, he would never hit more than 26 homers in his career, but he made four All-Star teams through his age-25 season, and probably could have made more after that if injuries did not slow him down. Abrams has to stay healthy as a key to his future. You could see him following a Cedeno trajectory or maybe even Trea Turner.
Scouts loved Abrams’ elite athleticism, speed, and contact skills as a left-handed hitter. Some have compared him to Turner at the same age, with similar tools and size at 6’2″ and a skinny 185 pounds. Of course the Padres drafted Turner also, and traded him to the Nats for a little déjà vu. Baseball America rated Abrams in a pre-draft analysis as “An 80-grade runner, Abrams gets out of the batter’s box well and posts sub-4.00 second run times regularly.” Then he had a broken tibia with a sprained MCL with the Padres, and that dropped his elite speed to where he is today.
This offseason, Abrams said he will work on adding on a little muscle — but quickly made the point “but not too much.” His sprint speed actually dropped some from last year which might have been more about preservation. The speed tool is still very good with an average sprint speed of 28.6 which ranks him in the top 18 percent in baseball, and to give you perspective, Young is the fastest on the Nats at 30.0 which is tied for 9th best in all of baseball with Carroll. That is elite speed. Abrams never had Young’s type of speed, and as always, speed is about how you use it. Abrams set the new single-season mark for steals in Nats’ history at 47, topping Turner in team history.
Where Abrams has to improve is with the hit-tool and his defense. The hit-tool was better when Abrams was moved to the leadoff spot at .258, and you would expect this to improve. The defense was hurt by errors which totaled 22 for the season, and his -8.0 OAA was fourth from last of qualified shortstops and that won’t cut it long-term.
Some worried that Abrams wouldn’t stick at shortstop, while others worried he needed more time in the minors to develop. He basically developed at the MLB level. By doing that, the Nats have used up critical service time which would make him a free agent after the 2028 season. That brings us to where we were exactly a year ago when I suggested that Rizzo extend Abrams. A year later, and some are saying this is a top priority. Fine, it did not get done last year. Maybe Rizzo tried. Maybe he didn’t. After Abrams slow start to the 2023 season — there were plenty of people who were relieved that the Nats didn’t extend Abrams. That’s the problem with small sample sizes.
Again, nobody knows what will happen in the future. When projections are published for next year by FanGraphs, expect that they will have some nice arrows pointing up for Abrams. Baseball Reference had Abrams as the Nats’ Top-WAR player on the team at +3.4 and just edging out Thomas by a 0.20 margin. FanGraphs had Thomas at +2.6 to Abrams at +2.2 in WAR just showing how subjective the WAR calculation varies from site-to-site.
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 long time. They have Ronald Acuna Jr. wrapped up for five more years at $17 million a year. He will easily win the MVP this year in one of the most incredible seasons in baseball history.
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. But 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.
Last year, the Braves invested a guaranteed $72 million in Harris who won the Rookie of the Year. His deal included 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 drew an annual salary of $5 million for this season and for next year, and then 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 gave the Braves control to include four free agent years for Harris and his most productive years for a position player.
Last year plenty of comments on the article pointed to the obvious deficiencies in Abrams’ game which of course was obvious. We could point to negatives on all players. Giving extensions is about seeing the potential and what that value is. Yes, it takes two to tango. Getting an extension done might not be easy — but you at least have to try.
The funny thing is that seven years ago I wrote a similar article about extending Turner. There was a lot of debate of extending Bryce Harper at that time being two years from free agency. Some wanted Anthony Rendon extended too which I was never going to suggest. On Turner at that time, few agreed, and many disagreed on extending him. 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. Turner is the 11th highest in baseball in that span.
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. With a long-term deal for Abrams, you have to assess the risk and make an offer commensurate to that.
By the way, Abrams is repped by Brodie Van Wagenen of Roc Nation. There is no excuse to be made with this player because he is not tied to Boras. This also comes at a time when the Nats payroll is hovering around $100 million with just three remaining years of Stephen Strasburg‘s contract. For cashflow purposes, just backload the Abrams deal. By tying up a key middle infielder, the team’s window of competing would be much clearer it would seem for the future.