With Opening Day around the corner, now is the perfect time to dig up positive notes on a few young Washington Nationals players. These five players all have varying degrees of success at the big-league level, but all once carried top 100 prospect status. So who is going to improve and how?
If Victor Robles can return to the defensive wizard that he was in 2019, the Washington Nationals would be very happy. In 2019, Robles had the best in league 22 OAA. Over the past two seasons, Robles has only 4 OAA, a clear downgrade. According to Statcast metrics, he had far fewer opportunities this season than in 2019, but he also made a fewer percentage of those opportunities. This stems from a few different things. For starters, Robles has slowed a bit over this time, slowing a whole foot per second between 2019 and 2021. This makes Robles’s glaring hole defensively, his routes, even more, accentuated. If Robles learns to take better routes, he may return to the Gold Glove contender we saw in 2019. The light-hitting, the elite defensive center fielder is an archetype of a player who is worth playing every day. There is more to be optimistic about.
Victor Robles was also extremely unlucky in 2021. His actual statistics fell below his expected statistics in every category. The most extreme case of luck (or lack thereof) was his slugging, which was 19 points lower than his expected slugging. His xwOBA was 14 points higher than his actual wOBA. How significant is that? Instead of having an offensive output comparable to David Fletcher, Robles would instead be in line with formal National Michael A. Taylor. While Taylor was not great in 2021, he was a solid regular for the Kansas City Royals with a 1.9 fWAR. I’d happily take a solid regular over the current version of Robles we are seeing, especially a defensive wizard at a premium defensive position for a team built around pitching.
This one is rather simple. He was fantastic in September and October last year. In 20 games, he hit .292/.363/.417. He wasn’t a premium power bat, but a .363 OBP plays pretty well in the big leagues, especially for a catcher. Combine that with not being a liability behind the plate, and I become excited for Ruiz’s 2022.
Josiah Gray was a solid starter for the Nationals when he came over in the Max Scherzer and Trea Turner mega-deal last season. His numbers look bad from a four-start blow-up streak from August 30th to September 17th.
Gray’s peripheral stats, K/9, HR/9/, and BB/9, are quite interesting. His strikeout numbers, 9.68, look promising. Gray’s second in the league 2.42 HR/9 is unsustainable and will come back down to earth. Gray can further improve by learning to rein in the number of free passes he allows. A 4.20 BB/9 is tough to work around. Thankfully, his command is something scouts raved about while he was in the minors, with FanGraphs giving him a potential 60 on the 20-80 scale. If he can accomplish these things, Gray will comfortably slot in a solid number two, amazing three-type arm for the Nationals.
Something well documented on The Nats Report is my high hopes for Carter Kieboom. Despite that, I will admit he was not great in the 62 games he played last season. A .207/.301/.318 is not good, no matter how you slice it. On defense, he wasn’t great either having a -13 OAA in only 60 games. He, like Robles, underperformed according to his expected numbers, with a 20-point difference in at least all the major stats. He would remain one of the worst hitters in the league, but it is still a massive improvement. There is not much to rave about in Kieboom’s play. He cannot play good defense, struggles to hit, and is not a great baserunner. Where’s our silver lining?
Kieboom is still walking in 10% of his plate appearances. He just struggles to hit when the ball is over the plate. It’s hard to be that bad defensively again. Sometimes it takes one thing, and it will click for Kieboom. He has the tools to succeed, give him one last year, and let us see what he can achieve. Kieboom only has 106 games under his belt. He is only just now 24, the year most prospects debut. Let the kid play.
Luis García had a dreadful 2021, no matter how you slice it. He posted a triple slash of .242/.275/.411 in 70 games. His power numbers were quite promising, especially when he struck out at a 17.4% rate, far below league average. A .169 isolated slugging (which simply subtracts the batting average from the slugging percentage) is far better than what I believed he could do during his time as a prospect. An on-base percentage that starts with two is hard to justify unless you post elite power numbers or are an elite defender, something that he is not.
In fact, on defense, García is much worse than meets the eye. While DRS may like him at second base, UZR and OAA see him as a terrible defender there, with OAA being harsher on him, with -6 over 59 games there. His limited time at shortstop was even worse, having that same -6 OAA in eight games. The optimist in me suggests it is virtually impossible for a player with the defensive pedigree of García can struggle so much defensively again. Even if he maintains his pedestrian 86 OPS+, not being a defensive liability, or even being an asset at second base, would be a dramatic improvement for Luis García.