The Nationals’ 2021 season will always be defined by their decision to hit the reset button and trade away eight key veterans at the deadline to bolster their farm system. How that decision will be perceived over time, however, is still an open debate.
As Washington tumbled down the standings on its way to a 65-97 record, wins and losses became less important than the play of its potential building blocks for the future. The lineup, rotation and bullpen each saw an infusion of youth where graduated prospects and recent trade acquisitions got the chance to show they belonged.
Who made the case to be part of the Nationals’ next competitive core? Here are four players that took advantage of extended opportunities at the big-league level.
OF Lane Thomas
There weren’t very high expectations for Lane Thomas when the Nationals acquired him. The former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder was received in exchange for starter Jon Lester, who had a 5.02 ERA in 16 starts before being traded. Thomas was a .172 career hitter in 142 plate appearances for St. Louis, though he rarely got the chance to string multiple starts together.
Washington called Thomas up Aug. 15 and he was their everyday center fielder a week later, supplanting the struggling Victor Robles after he was optioned to Triple-A. In addition to showing a stable presence in the outfield and flashing speed on the basepaths, Thomas just flat-out hit. He posted an .853 OPS with seven home runs and 14 doubles for the Nationals, collecting more hits (48) over 45 games than Andrew Stevenson did (44) in 109.
It’s certainly no lock that Thomas opens next season in center field. Robles struggled mightily at the plate, but the organization doesn’t appear ready to give up on him just yet. Depending on who the Nationals add in free agency and whether the DH makes its way to the NL, Thomas could end up in left and Robles in center. Or the two could be for a spring training competition.
Either way, the Nationals have to be pleased with what they’ve seen from Thomas so far.
C Keibert Ruiz
The headliner of the Nationals’ return for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in their trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Keibert Ruiz first reported to Triple-A before being called up to D.C. on Aug. 30. In both stints, Ruiz started off slow before heating up after settling in.
When the season ended, Ruiz stood as a .284 hitter with two home runs in 23 games with the Nationals. Though not a huge sample size, the biggest number that stood out from Ruiz’s performance was that he struck just four times in 89 plate appearances.
Ruiz didn’t show a lot of the power he displayed in the minors — he hit 21 home runs in AAA this season — but his advanced approach at the plate was evident. Coaches and pitchers also raved about his preparation as a game-caller, something the club has valued highly as a team built around pitching for the last decade.
Ruiz should be the Nationals’ everyday catcher next season, when he’ll have the opportunity to live up to his lofty prospect status.
SP Josiah Gray
The Nationals acquired Josiah Gray along with Ruiz in the Scherzer/Turner deal and immediately inserted him into their rotation. He made 12 starts, which are best assed in three different groups.
Over his first five starts, Gray was lights out. He had a 2.89 ERA with 29 strikeouts and eight walks, holding opponents to a .229 batting average against. However, there was an underlying problem: home runs. Gray allowed eight homers in those five starts, lucking out by all of them being of the one-run variety.
After that, regression took hold. Gray allowed 22 runs over his next four outings as home runs and walks plagued him. The league adjusted to him and the results weren’t pretty. Then, Gray made adjustments of his own. He tossed three solid starts to finish the year, making it into the sixth inning in all three and never allowing more than three runs.
Gray is a lock to open next season in the Nationals’ rotation. How he improves off his rookie season will go a long way toward determining when Washington will next be competitive.
C Riley Adams
As far as the getting-excited-over-small-samples hype goes, there are several Nationals that starred in limited action. Starter Josh Rogers put up a 3.28 ERA across six outings. Reliever Patrick Murphy struck out 23 batters over 18 2/3 innings. Catcher Tres Barrera hit .264 with six extra-base hits in 30 games behind the dish.
Yet the player who stood out the most in this regard was Riley Adams. The former Toronto Blue Jays catcher landed with the Nationals in the Brad Hand deal and he didn’t wait long to make an impact. Adams hit a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning against the Braves in just his second start for the team — a feat that will quickly endear anyone in the hearts of Nationals fans.
Adams hit .317 over his first 25 games with the club before giving way to Ruiz. He then went hitless over his final 19 plate appearances to close out the season as the Nationals used him as a pinch hitter and occasional spot starter. Washington liked his bat enough to start working him out at first base with plans to consider him in the outfield as well.
Even with no clear path to playing time in D.C., Adams will be a player to watch in 2022.