Grading the 2023 Washington Nationals: position player edition

Right fielder Lane Thomas was one of the Nationals’ top performers of 2023. (Photo by Sol Tucker for

The Washington Nationals finished 71-91 in the 2023 season. That’s still a fifth-place finish in the National League East, but it’s a big improvement from 2022.

Who to credit for the improvement? Many observers thought the Nats would fall well short of 70 wins this year, a mark they ultimately surpassed.

The purpose of this report card is to take a look at each position player on the roster and grade how they performed relative to reasonable expectations. Players like CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz are considered franchise cornerstones; did they live up to the hype? Players like Jacob Young and Blake Rutherford knocked down the door after strong minor league seasons; how did they acquit themselves in their major league debuts?

The standing assumption here is that if a player was called up to the major leagues, he was called up because the Nats believed he had a chance to succeed in his assigned role. Put another way: Anyone on this list could have earned any grade. A player with a limited ceiling isn’t limited to a low grade because he’s never going to be a Bryce Harper or a Juan Soto. Failing grades are reserved for players who got a chance and did not thrive.

While the C range is considered a passing grade, it’s indicative of a player who didn’t perform well enough in his assigned role to stand out. A and B grades are more desirable and suggest the Nats should have greater confidence in — and expectations for — a player going forward than they did this season.

CJ Abrams — B+

Abrams entered 2023 with a lot of question marks and ended up answering most of them. While his toplines for the season aren’t going to blow anyone away — he finished with a .712 OPS, eighteen home runs, and a team-record 47 stolen bases — the broader context is always important here. Abrams made his major league debut in 2022, was almost immediately traded to Washington in the Juan Soto blockbuster, and struggled down the stretch. Abrams got off to a slow start this season, infamously committing three errors in the Nats’ season-opener and only hitting his first home run in late April. The Nats shortstop also seemed oddly timid on the basepaths; by Independence Day, he was still in the single digits for bases stolen. Things seemed to click in the second half, though. From the end of the All-Star Break through Patriot Day, Abrams posted a .793 OPS, hitting eleven homers in 52 games and stealing 27 bases while only being caught once (and committing but six errors). Abrams definitely slowed down over the last eighteen games, slumping with a .200/.572 batting line and not hitting another home run the rest of the way, but his torrid stretch across most of the second half ought to have the Nats feeling hopeful about the kind of player the just-turned-23-year-old will be in 2024.

Riley Adams — B+

Adams is a real enigma to grade here. He exploded with a .273/.807 batting line over 44 games that showed dramatic improvement from his .176/.555 line in 2022. That’s good! That’s really good! Even as a backup catcher, he rates as one of 2023’s most valuable Nationals. Unfortunately, two bitterants: Adams’ power numbers took a dive, as he only hit one home run in the second half (and just four all year) despite his estimable raw power, and Adams finished the year on the 60-day injured list after breaking his hamate bone, an injury known to further sap power. If Adams’ hamate bothered him for longer than was known, that might explain where his over-the-fence pop went; and even without hitting for much power, Adams still contributed when he was in the lineup, even carrying a batting average over .300 and an OPS over .900 into late August before the slump that ended with him being pulled, midway through an at-bat, from an early-September game. Adams now occupies the odd, uncomfortable space of having clearly been a much-improved, genuinely valuable player in 2023 who doesn’t have a clear path to a roster spot in 2024. Drew Millas also impressed down the stretch and finished the year healthy; Keibert Ruiz is firmly entrenched as the starting catcher. Where Adams fits in, if he still does, is an open question this offseason.

Jake Alu — C-

Alu muscled his way onto the 40-man roster in 2022 with a breakout year in the minor leagues. He was more average than good as a minor league hitter in 2023, but he did enough to earn his major league debut and established himself as Davey Martinez’s usual everyday left fielder after Stone Garrett‘s injury in late August. With the Nationals, Alu really didn’t hit much, with a measly .226/.571 batting line and simply not enough hard-hit balls. Nonetheless, Alu kept grinding and improved with more major league time, rapping out a .269/.875 line over his last ten games. That’s an awfully small sample size, but it’s enough to say Alu earned his keep. As for whether he did enough in 2023 to guarantee him an Opening Day roster spot in 2024, the answer is clearly “no”, but it’s reasonable to say he did enough for the Nats to keep him on the 40-man roster as an up-and-down, play-everywhere type. There’s probably no everyday ceiling here, but Alu still has a chance to establish himself as a useful utilityman.

Travis Blankenhorn — INC

Blankenhorn earned a cup of coffee in September, but aside from homering in his Nats debut, he didn’t do much with the opportunity before hitting the injured list, where he ended the season. Blankenhorn is too old to be considered a prospect, and while he can play a number of positions, he’s not considered a plus defender anywhere, which leaves him with a rather limited ceiling (not unlike Alu). Because he only played ten games with Washington before getting hurt, it’s difficult to evaluate Blankenhorn’s season. He was cut loose days after the season ended.

Alex Call — C-

Call entered the season as the Nats’ fourth outfielder, but he ended up getting into 128 games and serving for much of the season as the starting center fielder when Víctor Robles was injured. But Call’s bat struggled to keep up, and he was sent down to Triple-A Rochester for a spell as the Nats auditioned other options. It’s not all bad for Call this season; he finished the year in the majors, after all, and he actually led the team in walks (with 53), which might say more about the team’s overall hitting approach than it says about Call. At his best, Call relentlessly grinded out at-bats; unfortunately, the results were a .200/.614 campaign at the plate, which could have Call on the outside looking in come 2024.

Jeimer Candelario — A

Candelario was signed by the Nats to be their starting third baseman and veteran power bat in the middle of the lineup. He absolutely delivered, turning in a bounceback season, before the Nats (predictably) flipped him for prospects at the trade deadline. Candelario showed off outstanding defense at third base. He arguably deserved to be an All-Star. Candelario finished his time with the Nats having played in 99 games while hitting sixteen home runs; his .823 OPS leads the team among players with more than 35 plate appearances. He was everything the Nats could have asked for this year, and hopefully the return for trading him — young lefty DJ Herz, who impressed in the Nats’ minor league system after the deadline, and young infielder Kevin Made, who did not — pays dividends for years to come.

Michael Chavis — C+

Chavis, somewhat surprisingly after he made the team as a non-roster invitee, stuck around with the Nats all season. While he only appeared in 48 games, he was able to play multiple positions and contribute with a competent, if unspectacular, .242/.622 batting line. Chavis’ days of being the Next Big Thing as an up-and-coming Red Sox infielder are long behind him at this point, and he only batted in five runs, so it’s not like he made a tremendous impact with the Nats. Relative to expectations, though, he acquitted himself decently.

Corey Dickerson — D

Dickerson is the dark mirror to Candelario for the Nats this year. Whereas Candelario rebounded from a tough 2022 to be all the Nats needed him to be, Dickerson continued his 2020s slide, batting .250/.637 around a lengthy stint on the injured list. The Nats reportedly shopped him at the trade deadline but got no interest; he was released in August. Dickerson appeared slow-footed in the field and overmatched at the plate. While the Nats hoped to take advantage of his great career numbers against right-handed pitching, Dickerson’s platoon splits were virtually identical in 2023 — and mediocre all the way around. The writing was on the wall for Dickerson as the Nats trusted Stone Garrett more and more against right-handed pitching, and the Nats ultimately moved on from the veteran.

Jeter Downs — INC

Downs only appeared in six major league games and had nine plate appearances, including a memorable walkoff blooper to center for his first Nats hit. The Nats never really found room on their roster for Downs, though, bouncing him a couple times between Triple-A Rochester and the major leagues as needed but rarely putting him in the lineup. There’s really not enough here to grade, although it’s a fun fact for the season that Downs — in a tiny sample size — actually had the highest OPS of any Nats hitter at 1.067 and the team’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio, with four walks to just one strikeout.

Luis García — B-

García’s middling performance and at-times-questionable work ethic — he drew scorn even from the resident Pollyannas in the MASN booth for apparently being unprepared for a pinch-hitting appearance in one July game, forcing Martinez to put in a different hitter — frustrated the Nats for much of the season. The highs were high, including a team-record six-hit game in late May, but the lows were low, including a .197/.481 scuffle over eighteen games after the All-Star Break before the Nats finally sent him down to Triple-A Rochester. That remedial assignment seemed to jog García, finally, as he came back looking a bit leaner and hit .304/.867 in September and October. He finished on a 15-for-35 heater over his last ten games, with just three strikeouts in that span. While it was certainly a strange season for García, and the overall numbers are more passable than good, finishing on as high a note as he did boosts him into the B range and should leave the Nats feeling better about him as part of their positional core. The key for García will be not getting complacent in that knowledge.

Stone Garrett — A-

Garrett’s breakout season ended in a painful way, literally and figuratively, as he fractured his lower leg in a late-August game and had to be carted off the field. Until then, everything had been going right for Garrett. He spent just a few days at Triple-A Rochester before being called up, at first in a part-time role before gradually earning his manager’s trust against same-side pitching. While the righty mashed left-handed pitching to the tune of a .262/.839 line, he was more than serviceable when facing right-handers, hitting .277/.758. Garrett played mostly left field, with a few appearances in right, and established himself by mid-June as the Nats’ more-or-less-everyday left fielder. All season long, Garrett was one of the Nats’ best hitters. While his strikeout rate was high, around 30%, and he didn’t access his power quite as readily as he did in his debut season with the Diamondbacks, hitting a modest nine homers in 271 trips to the plate, the overall results were strong. The question going forward is how quickly Garrett can return, and whether the leg injury will affect his play.

Derek Hill — F

Hill earned a look this season with several weeks of excellent play at Triple-A Rochester. Unfortunately, when given an opportunity to take over as the Nats’ everyday center fielder, he just couldn’t seize it. Hill appeared in 13 games (all starts) and scuffled to a paltry .170/.411 line, with just one extra-base hit in 50 plate appearances. Defensively, Hill wasn’t great shakes either, with negative ratings in center field. The Nats designated him for assignment after seeing all they could stomach, and he finished the year in Rochester.

Carter Kieboom — C

Kieboom, at this point, has fallen into a definite pattern: He starts out looking great, then he abruptly fades away. Kieboom worked his way back from early-2022 Tommy John surgery and was finally called up to the major leagues in late August for his first appearance in nearly two years. While the Nats gave him a lot of rope, as he played nearly every day after his call-up, the wheels seemed to come off within about a week of his return. Through his first six games, Kieboom raked, hitting three homers and posting a .273/1.032 batting line. But in a classic cautionary tale about small sample sizes, Kieboom crashed back down to Earth after that, hitting just .185/.500 — and only one more home run — the rest of the way. Defensively, Kieboom played only third base for the Nats and looked somewhat shaky, committing two errors and earning slightly negative fielding ratings. Kieboom is now out of options, and the former top prospect still owns a career batting average below the Mendoza line and a career OPS under .600. One wonders if he’s used up his last life with the Nats. He admirably battled his way back, and on balance, he wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t very good either and he probably needed to be. Brady House, Yohandy Morales, and Trey Lipscomb are waiting in the wings.

Joey Meneses — C+

Meneses broke out in a huge way in 2022. The 30-year-old rookie hit thirteen homers in just 56 games with the Nats, keying their second-half offense with a mammoth .324/.930 line. This year, Meneses was a league-average hitter — and, by extension, a below-average 1B/DH — hitting .275/.722. While he led the team with 89 runs batted in, he equaled his 2022 home run totals over 154 games this time; perplexingly, he hit just two homers over the first three months of the season. Although he was otherwise a competent hitter, Meneses’ power outage left a considerable hole in the Nats’ expected offense, as they spent the entire season with a heart-of-the-order hitter who rarely hit for power. The Nats still have Meneses under control for cheap, as he’s not even arbitration-eligible until after the 2025 season, and there’s no harm in keeping him around, but they have to be somewhat disappointed in his 2023 output — and it’s now clear he won’t stand in the way of their young infielders’ rise to the majors in 2024.

Drew Millas — A

Millas endured an up-and-down 2022 in the minors and came into 2023 looking like he’d figured some things out. He did nothing but hit all season long, earning what was probably intended to be little more than a cup of coffee in late August but ending up in eleven games with the Nats in part due to Adams’ season-ending wrist injury. Aside from a harmless blooper-reel moment — he hit a debuting Jackson Rutledge in the noggin with an errant throw down to second base — Millas was wholly impressive in his limited 2023 action, hitting .286/.839 while displaying good bat-to-ball skills and strikezone discipline, as well as capable pitch framing. While Adams also had a good season, his injury coupled with Millas’ strong September could leave Millas playing second violin behind Keibert Ruiz in 2024. The Nats have to be excited about what they saw from the rookie; originally acquired in the Yan Gomes trade in 2021, Millas is off to a good start toward becoming an iconic Washington catcher in his own right.

Víctor Robles — C

Robles has been the Nats’ most enigmatic player of the decade, and 2023 did nothing to answer any of the questions that swirl around the former top prospect. On the one hand, Robles hit .299/.750, by far his best offensive output since his rookie season in 2019. On the other hand, he didn’t homer once in his 126 plate appearances, and he only appeared in 36 games due to a back injury that kept him out for most of the season. Most puzzlingly for a player who was a Gold Glove Award finalist in 2019, Robles was downright putrid in center field. On one infamous early-season play that foreshadowed his 2023 defensive misadventures, he was nowhere to be found on a routine flyball to medium center field at Coors Field, having apparently taken it upon himself to join Lane Thomas out in right field and leave center field completely open. Beat writers have repeatedly needled at perceived tensions between Robles and the Nats organization, and it raised some eyebrows when the Nats essentially stopped providing meaningful injury updates on Robles late in the season, even as the outfielder traveled with the team. Robles is arb-eligible for the last time this winter, and with Jacob Young establishing himself as the Nats’ starting center fielder of the present and a wave of top outfield prospects rising rapidly through the minors, the Nats could finally cut ties with their international man of mystery before the calendar rolls over to 2024.

Keibert Ruiz — B

Ruiz signed a major extension through at least 2030 with the Nats during spring training, but for much of the season, he didn’t seem to really live up to it. By the All-Star Break, Ruiz had a mediocre .226/.639 slash line and rated as the worst pitch-framer in the major leagues. But Ruiz picked things up in the second half, hitting a much-improved .300/.809 over 63 games. Used hard in the first half, Ruiz got more days off and more opportunities to DH in the second half, with good results. Notably, for the season, his OPS was over 100 points higher (a batting line of .349/.819) in his sixteen games as a DH than in his 116 games as a catcher (batting .242/.693). While Ruiz finished the year on a positive note, and the Nats should be optimistic about him building on the improvements he made in the second half, the longer-term worries surround his future as a catcher. Ruiz’s caught-stealing rate this season was a dismal 15%, with even slow runners stealing bases at will on him and his pitchers. He rated negatively behind the plate defensively and as a pitch-framer, and he led the National League in passed balls with eight. If Ruiz can stabilize as a .750+ OPS hitter with 20-25 home runs per season, that’s certainly a good bat-forward profile behind the plate, but it isn’t really enough to recommend a move to 1B/DH, and yet on days he’s catching, Ruiz has been a net negative for the Nats on defense. This has to be an area of emphasis for Ruiz as the 25-year-old cements himself as the leader of the new wave in Washington.

Blake Rutherford — F

Rutherford tore it up for months at Triple-A Rochester, and the 26-year-old former top Yankees prospect earned a promotion to the major leagues for his major league debut. But like Hill before him, Rutherford just couldn’t justify keeping him around. He hit just .182/.388 in fifteen games before the Nats sent him back down in late August; while he was called up again late after Blankenhorn hit the IL, he got into just one more game, going 0-for-2 before he was subbed out. Rutherford has had a rough ride, proving himself at the highest levels of the minors but struggling to break through. He’s still fairly young and still has a top-prospect pedigree, and he very well could get another look in spring training, but as long-awaited as his major league debut must have been for him, he’ll have to work hard to prove his paltry 2023 results are not the pinnacle of his career.

Dominic Smith — C

Smith was cruising toward a failing grade until he turned on the jets a bit down the stretch, hitting half of his twelve homers on the year in September alone. Even still, his .254/.692 line is hardly impressive for a first baseman, and his passing grade is owed instead to his superb defensive work. Smith was a stalwart on the right side of the infield all season, handling the vast majority of innings at first base; his absence was felt on days he didn’t play, and significantly, he only served as the Nats’ DH once — such was his value as a fielder. Unfortunately, in the modern game, first basemen are expected to hit, and to hit for power. If Smith had turned in September levels of production all season long, he would have been a borderline All-Star. As it is, he’s in real danger of being non-tendered this winter. The Nats could keep him around into spring training, but it won’t be long before he’s fighting not just Meneses, but also House, Morales, and Lipscomb for a roster spot.

Lane Thomas — A-

Thomas was arguably the Nats’ best player all season, with Abrams taking a few months to find his footing and Candelario being traded away at the deadline. He handily led the team in home runs, despite not hitting his first of 28 this season until May 1. He stole 20 bases and had eighteen outfield assists, playing right field for most of the season. He was a positive presence and influence in the dugout, even when he was slumping. And the slumps did happen; after homering in four straight games to start September, Thomas cooled to a frosty .124/.471 line over the rest of the month before busting out his first career four-hit game on the last day of the season. Thomas did battle some back problems in the second half but avoided the IL, for better or worse. Despite some cold streaks in August and September, Thomas turned in his best season yet, hitting .268/.783 and solidifying himself as a team leader, both on the field and off. The Nats resisted calls on Thomas at the deadline, and assuming they continue to rebuff trade offers through the winter, Thomas figures to be the everyday right fielder again in 2024, soon to be joined by top prospects like James Wood and Dylan Crews but unlikely to be supplanted anytime soon.

Ildemaro Vargas — B

Vargas has already agreed to terms for the 2024 season, and the Nats must be glad to bring him back. No standout at the plate, Vargas nonetheless chipped in with a competent-for-a-utilityman .252/.666 batting line this season, and he showed off outstanding defense all over the diamond, particularly at second and third base, where he saw most of his playing time. Vargas led the team with the lowest strikeout rate, punching out just 20 times all season in 286 plate appearances (6.6%), and while he didn’t make all that much hard contact, he consistently put the ball in play. As for the intangibles: Vargas seemed to have a permanent grin on his face, and TV cameras frequently captured him in animated conversations with teammates in the dugout. He earned high praise from Martinez for his leadership, encouraging teammates and, when needed, getting on their case. Every team needs a veteran leader and do-it-all utility player like Vargas, and while his numbers don’t stand out in any way from 2023, it might have been a very different team without him.

Jacob Young — B+

Young rose quickly through the minor leagues after starting the season at High-A Wilmington. Hitting (and stealing a lot of bases) at every level, he found his way in Washington after Garrett’s season-ending injury. Martinez swiftly entrusted the job of everyday center fielder to Young. At the plate, he peaked with a .311/.802 batting line after his first fourteen games before coming back down to earth by hitting .210/.554 the rest of the way (unsurprisingly, that first sample features a bloated BABIP and the second an improbably low one). Young nonetheless found ways to contribute, quickly proving himself to be a demon on the basepaths. He stole thirteen bases without being caught once, a rate that if replicated over an entire season would have, even with Young’s modest overall batting line of .252/.658, ranked him among MLB’s most prolific thieves. He flashed some excellent defense, despite a couple of flubs, recording two outfield assists across 32 games in center field. Young isn’t a finished product, and he’ll need to hit more and for more power to hold down his job as Wood, Crews, and the rest come into the picture. But for a player who started the year in the low minors, he certainly exceeded expectations and filled a season-long need for the Nats to end the year.

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