The Nationals are taking chances on former prospects
But here’s what unites them heading into next season: Each player once entered professional baseball as a first-round pick. And each is about to get at least some amount of opportunity from the Washington Nationals.
“Any time a guy starts over, it can be an exciting time for him as a player, as a person,” Smith, 27, said on a video call with reporters Wednesday. “It can be an exciting thing for the organization. And for me, I’m excited for the opportunity to go out there and play every day. That’s all I’ve ever wanted in my career, just to finally be in a position where I can go compete, show what I can do.”
Smith is in a different situation than Downs, Hill and Chavis. After he was designated for assignment by the New York Mets in November, the Nationals signed Smith to a one-year, $2 million major league contract, which can reach $4 million if he gets all performance incentives. As Smith says, the club expects to play him at first base and perhaps as a designated hitter, depending on how Joey Meneses is used and if the club continues to add. No matter what, Smith has a defined role.
Downs, Hill and Chavis have no such guarantee. Since Downs, 24, was claimed off waivers in December, he’s been on the 40-man roster and has a good shot at making the Nationals at some point. With Hill and Chavis signed to minor league deals, they’ll need to impress in spring training to make the Opening Day roster, just like veteran Dee Strange-Gordon did last April. Hill’s competition in the outfield includes Alex Call and Stone Garrett, who are each already 40-man. If Chavis hopes to contribute as a versatile outfielder, Jake Alu, a surprise pitcher in Washington’s system, could stand in his way.
Hill, 27 and drafted 23rd overall by the Detroit Tigers in 2014, was DFA from Detroit in August and claimed by the Seattle Mariners. In 254 plate appearances with the Tigers, he posted a .291 on-base percentage, never maximizing his ability to steal bases. Chavis, 27 and drafted 26th overall by the Red Sox in 2014, has appeared in 129 games with the Pirates in 2022. He has a .237 average, .283 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage in 1,090 plate appearances on the race plate.
There are solid reasons why each player was available in minor league free agency. And there’s a strong case to be made that the Nationals, a team with bats and innings to spare, should really target specific tools and profiles, not just rely on these players to bounce back to meet past expectations or come close remotely One counter, however, is that something, or several things, made Hill, Chavis, Downs and Smith so sought after in the first place. Another is that for Washington, for a club responding to a third straight last-place finish by shedding its payroll, it won’t take much for Washington to take a look.
“Before I talked to Washington, I had them marked as the first place I wanted to go if I had a choice,” Hill said in a recent phone interview. “
With Smith and Hill, there is a chance to benefit from Major League Baseball’s latest rule changes. Last season, Smith, a left-handed hitter, was one of the least productive hitters in the sport while dealing with a changeup. This year, teams will have to have two outfielders on each side of second base, which means Smith should have a lot more room to throw hits to the right side.
“I’m sure a lot of lefties around the league feel that way. I think it’s going to help a lot of guys,” Smith said of the shift ban. “… Whether the numbers say it affected it or it didn’t, I think personally it did.. So just having that even pitch where all the defenders are normally where they should be, I think it’s going to open up a lot of hits for lefties, especially line drives up the middle, line drives to short right field.
“I can’t wait to see some of our numbers.”
For Hill, bigger bases and a limit on pitcher’s walks could help him take advantage of his speed. With the new pitch clock, pitchers can only stop him twice by going down or making a pickoff pitch. Once they do, the next step is an automatic stop unless a pitch causes a runner to retire. So if Hill finds himself in this situation, expect to take big leads and be aggressive on the basepaths, something most teams have moved away from in recent years.
While nursing a hamstring injury last summer, he watched AAA pitchers struggle to control the run game. He pictured himself on first base, slowly closing the distance on second before breaking into a sprint. Between 2015 and 2019, Hill averaged 29 steals per season in the minors.
This is the player he wants to be again. Getting to the base is an essential first step.
“I definitely think it’s going to play into my hand, especially now that my legs are finally good,” Hill said. “In my few stints with Detroit, teams knew I wanted to run and I would only throw four or five times to burn out my legs before I pitched. Now they can’t do that, so the fast guys will have fresh legs and not they’re going to collapse going back to the bag 10 times a game.”
#Nationals #chances #prospects