When fans arrive at Nationals Park on Thursday for the home team’s season opener against the New York Mets, they’ll notice signage around the stadium depicting new faces looking down on them that weren’t there a year ago.
Gone are players such as Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer, two fixtures that had been associated with the ballclub for years. The Nationals have entered a new era, one full of the unknown and the unproven. There are many younger players now manning the positions fan favorites had called home and some new veteran additions D.C. will have to warm up to.
Here are five players, young and old, that could become household names in Washington by the end of the season.
The Nationals acquired Ruiz as the headliner of their blockbuster trade deadline deal that shipped Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer. He made his D.C. debut a month later and didn’t wait long to make an impression. The switch-hitter posted a .273 batting average and .742 OPS with three home runs in 29 games after tearing up opposing pitchers in Triple-A all year.
Ruiz exceeded rookie limits last season but 2022 will be his first full major-league campaign. The Nationals have shown how much they believe in him, making the 23-year-old their everyday starter behind the dish heading into the season. While he’s lauded by scouts for his plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone, Ruiz’s power started to come through last year as well.
One of baseball’s top catching prospects for years, Ruiz has the opportunity to be a cornerstone player for the Nationals if he can carry over his success from the minor leagues.
Gray was the co-headliner Washington acquired in that Dodgers trade and he immediately joined the club’s rotation. His first season with the Nationals can be broken into three stretches: five starts with a 2.89 ERA, four starts with a 11.42 ERA, three starts with a 3.12 ERA. The right-hander was undone by home runs, but he flashed strikeout potential and showed promise of developing into a reliable starter.
The Nationals made Gray their No. 2 starter heading into the season, though he would’ve been third had Stephen Strasburg been ready for Opening Day. Starting pitching was Washington’s biggest weakness last year, a startling fact for an organization built around its arms for so long. With Gray, the club hopes it’s found a starter that can be a staple of its rotation for the next half-decade.
Cruz has spent almost the entirety of his 17-year MLB career in the American League, so Nationals fans may not know just how dominant he’s been at the plate for the last decade and a half. Since 2009, he’s hit 427 home runs for the most in baseball over that span. The second most? Albert Pujols, who has just 360 across those same seasons. Cruz is one of the most powerful hitters in the world, period.
That’s good news for the Nationals, who plan to hit Cruz behind their 23-year-old face of the franchise Juan Soto. That tandem — with Josh Bell right behind them — has the chance to do some serious damage this season. If Washington is going to be a competitive team in 2022, the 41-year-old Cruz will have to continue hitting like he has his entire career. So far, he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
This might be cheating, because Cavalli is starting the year in Triple-A Rochester. However, the Nationals’ 2020 first-round pick was one of the best pitchers in the minors last year, leading all starters across the four levels with 175 strikeouts on the season. While he didn’t break camp with the club, Cavalli is one phone call away from the major leagues.
For now, he has to focus on his control. The right-hander did struggle with walks last year, which was his first professional season out of college after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of all minor-league games in 2020. Once he does hone in on his command, it will be difficult for the Nationals to keep him hidden away in the minors.
One of the biggest surprises of the Nationals’ second half, Thomas arrived in D.C. with low expectations. Washington acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for Jon Lester, who owned a 5.02 ERA at the time of the deal. Thomas’s lifetime batting average in 84 games for St. Louis was just .172. Though he boasted impressive speed, he seemed like more of a bench bat than an everyday player.
That is, until the Nationals gave him a shot. Thomas racked up 48 hits in 45 games (.270 average) with seven home runs and four stolen bases. He hit so well, the Nationals put him in center field and sent Victor Robles down to Triple-A. He’s now shifted over to left but continued his hot hitting this spring. If the Nationals really have found something in Thomas, that trade may end up looking like a steal.