The Nationals could soon be in line for a shakeup of their infield. Top shortstop prospect C.J. Abrams was arguably the centerpiece of the six-player return for Juan Soto and Josh Bell. The Nats immediately optioned Abrams to Triple-A Rochester, but Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post writes that the club is likely to soon recall the 21-year-old to the majors.
Once Abrams makes his way to Nationals Park, he’s likely to play everyday at shortstop. Dougherty indicates the organization views Abrams as their long-term franchise shortstop, which is hardly a surprise after the club made him a key piece of such a monumental trade. The former sixth overall pick only has a .232/.285/.320 line through his first 46 big league games, but he owns an impressive .311/.366/.503 mark in his first taste of Triple-A action. Baseball America rated him as the sport’s #11 overall prospect on their latest update.
The Nats have already been turning to a young player at shortstop. Luis García has been one of the organization’s more promising prospects for years, but he’s still just 22 years old. The 6’2″ infielder has drawn praise from evaluators for his pure hitting ability. He’s hit plenty of line drives in his limited big league time, but he’s also shown an extremely aggressive approach. García carried a .290 batting average into play tonight, but he’d reached base at just a .295 clip based on a microscopic 0.9% walk rate. (That’s gone up slightly, as he did draw a free pass in tonight’s game).
The jury may still be out on García’s offensive upside, but it’s apparent he’s miscast as a shortstop. Prospect evaluators were divided on his ability to stick at the position long-term, and the results in his big league time have been ghastly. In 568 2/3 career innings at shortstop, García has rated a staggering 19 runs below average by measure of Defensive Runs Saved. Statcast’s Outs Above Average has him at 17 plays below par. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com observed this afternoon (Twitter link), public defensive metrics have rated the Nationals’ shortstops as by far the worst collection of defenders in the majors this season. That’s not entirely on García — the since-released Dee Strange-Gordon and Alcides Escobar also struggled — but it’s clear the team could use a better defender to anchor the infield.
García won’t lose his spot in the starting lineup on a rebuilding team, though. Once Abrams is in the big leagues, García is likely to kick to the other side of the second base bag. He’s rated as a below-average but not quite so disastrous defender at the keystone. Still, there’s reason for Washington to challenge their young players in non-competitive seasons. That’s particularly true with the team rostering a couple of aging veterans who are playing out the final few months of one-year contracts.
Second baseman César Hernández and third baseman Maikel Franco have each played the majority of games this season, but neither has performed well. Hernández owns a .241/.305/.306 line through 476 plate appearances. The switch-hitting infielder has incredibly not connected on a single home run all season after popping a career-high 21 longballs last year. Franco has only a .228/.255/.337 showing in 373 trips to the plate. Among players with 300+ plate appearances, only Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop has a lower on-base percentage (.240) than Franco’s .255.
Clearly, neither player is going to be a key piece of the rebuild. The club’s hope of cashing either in for future value at the trade deadline has come and gone, with both struggling so badly there was no real interest from contenders. With that in mind, Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com wonders whether Hernández and Franco will even hold their roster spots for the rest of the 2022 season. Zuckerman notes that Franco may be in better position to remain in the lineup. While Abrams’ arrival should push Hernández out of the starting lineup, journeyman Ildemaro Vargas stands as Franco’s biggest competitor for reps at the hot corner with Carter Kieboom out for the season.
Hernández and Franco aren’t the only struggling veterans on a club that’s 39 games under .500. Southpaw Patrick Corbin has been one of the sport’s least effective starters. After allowing six runs and failing to make it out of the first inning in a start against the Phillies on Saturday, Corbin carries a 7.02 ERA through 110 1/3 innings. That’s easily a personal worst, but Corbin has been well below-average for three straight years after an excellent first season in Washington. Since the beginning of 2020, he owns a 5.98 ERA through 65 starts.
Manager Dave Martinez told reporters (including Andrew Golden of the Washington Post) that the club will take advantage of a team off-day on Thursday to skip Corbin’s next turn through the rotation. That’s a temporary measure designed to afford the left-hander more time to work with pitching coach Jim Hickey, and the club is apparently not considering permanently removing Corbin from the starting five. “I want to leave this year with a positive moving forward to next year because, regardless of what anyone thinks, he’s going to be one of our starters next year and the year after that,” Martinez said of Corbin.
The 33-year-old is under contract for two seasons beyond this one. He’s due around $24MM next season and will make a bit more than $35MM come 2024. Given Corbin’s struggles, it’s hard to envision the Nationals getting out from under any of that money. With Washington likely to be rebuilding over the next two seasons anyhow, the club can live with some struggles from Corbin as he picks up innings as part of an uncertain rotation.