USA Today: Shortstop CJ Abrams growing into star for Nationals: ‘We’re going to go as far as he goes’

Gabe Lacques


May 7, 2024


WASHINGTON – It may someday be known as the Shortstop Class of 2019, a draft haul baseball enthusiasts evoke as fondly as football fans speak of the 1983 quarterback class, which produced three Hall of Famers.


The No. 2 overall pick: Bobby Witt Jr., who already has a 30-homer, 49-steal season to his credit and totes a .926 OPS for the surprising Kansas City Royals.


Anthony Volpe heard his name called at No. 30, and he now occupies one of the most cherished roles in sports: Batting leadoff, playing shortstop for the New York Yankees.


At No. 42, the Baltimore Orioles selected Gunnar Henderson, who is threatening to add an American League MVP trophy to the Rookie of the Year crown he claimed last year. He’s tied for the major league lead with 10 home runs, paired with a .914 OPS.


Now, the sixth overall pick that year has turned the terrific trio into a considerable quartet, while proving that development isn’t always linear, that prized prospects are sometimes forced to pack their bags, that an unexpected twist can lead to a golden opportunity.


CJ Abrams has methodically seized that chance, ever since the blockbuster eight-player, trade in August 2022 that sent him from San Diego to Washington in a package for Juan Soto.


He joined a club on its way to 107 losses, that would lose 91 more games the next year, yet would offer him things San Diego could not: A major league job, a runway to fail, a high ceiling for growth.


CJ Abrams has been playing consistently dynamic defense at shortstop for the Washington Nationals.

Less than two years later, both team and player have made startling gains.


Now 23, Abrams, in this early portion of the season, is on pace for a 30-homer, 30-steal season while maintaining a .914 OPS and playing consistently dynamic defense at shortstop.


The Nationals? This week, they’ll take their sixth shot at climbing above the .500 mark, a modest but appealing goal in light of their past three seasons and what’s to come.


“I think we’re going to be really good, really soon,” says Abrams.


“I think we’re already good.”


Washington has won five of its past eight series and leads the major leagues with 14 comeback wins. While playoff contention in a loaded National League might prove unrealistic, the Nationals certainly rate somewhere between general pain and significant challenge for opponents.


For now, a mix of short-term veterans and long-term talent is blending wonderfully. Yet few doubt they’ll eventually align behind their 6-2, 191-pound shortstop.


“He’s playing well right now,” says left-hander and emerging ace MacKenzie Gore, who came to Washington with Abrams in the Soto deal, “but he’s not satisfied.


“And it’s kind of a situation where we’re going to go as far as he goes.”


‘I knew he was going to be great’


That might have never been the case in San Diego, where uber-aggressive general manager A.J. Preller and late owner Peter Seidler admirably burned assets in pursuit of the Padres’ first World Series title. The 2022 Soto deal brought quick gratification – a trip to the NL Championship Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. But a desultory 82-win season followed, and the former Nationals slugger was flipped to the Yankees last winter.


Abrams was drafted two months after Fernando Tatis Jr. debuted at shortstop and was about to embark on his first season above A ball when Tatis signed a 14-year, $340 million deal in February 2021.


Shortstop would be blocked for the foreseeable future – Tatis actually moved to right field after shoulder surgery and a PED suspension in 2022 – and the go-go Padres certainly had no time to develop the skinny kid from Georgia.


Though he played 46 games for San Diego in 2022, his old teammates sensed change would open doors for Abrams. They still hold him in high regard.


“I knew he was going to be a great player,” says Tatis. “He didn’t get a lot of chances here in the big leagues, and didn’t get a lot of at-bats, but you could tell that guy was going to be a baller.


“I’m so happy for him.”


Says Padres first baseman Jake Cronenworth: “He’s still so young, too. It’s incredible to see, and he’s gotten to a place where he has an opportunity to play every day. I’m super-happy for him.”


Washington Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams (5) bats against the San Francisco Giants during an April 9, 2024 game at Oracle Park.

In Washington, Abrams and Gore represented a second wave of the rebuild, which began in earnest with a six-trade, eight-player implosion in July 2021 that closed the book on nearly a decade of consistently contending.


Abrams spent about a week at Class AAA Rochester, and played 44 games with Washington, quietly taking in the clubhouse and trying to tread water on the field, where he drew just one walk in 163 plate appearances.


“I just kind of went with it,” he remembers. “Everything happens for a reason. I’m a firm believer in that.”


It was a good reason. Abrams, ranked No. 9 by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline on 2022 prospect lists, would get a major league apprenticeship, with all the quiet contact and fielding misadventures that came with those early days.


“It was clear they were going to give him the reins and allow him to grow in front of our eyes,” says pitcher Josiah Gray, acquired in 2021 in the deal that sent franchise icons Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. “With that, it offered a sense of, ‘I can mess up and come back the next day and learn from that mistake.’ Because if you’re not able to learn from your mistakes, you can continue spinning that wheel over and over.


“For him and a lot of the young guys in this clubhouse, we were able to learn from our mistakes, to come back and be better baseball players the next day, the next week. Being allowed those chances means a lot for the progression of CJ Abrams or MacKenzie Gore or (starter) Jake Irvin.


“Because of how much experience matters so much in fulfilling potential.”


Says Gore: “Reps help. As frustrating as that is, it’s probably the most important thing.”


Getting right, up the middle

It’s happening all over the diamond. Abrams has developed significant rapport with second baseman Luis Garcia Jr., who was a top prospect debuting in 2020 and spent his first four seasons falling maddeningly in and out of favor, up and down to the minor leagues.


Manager Dave Martinez has called Garcia his personal project this year on more than one occasion, and Garcia and Abrams spend significant pregame time fielding grounders and working on timing with infield coach Ricky Gutierrez.


“It’s a tight group,” says Abrams. “Me and Luis put in work every day together, hit in the cage together, do our ground balls together. His work is paying off as well; it’s amazing to see.”


Garcia is batting .337 with an .891 OPS and six steals. Abrams has stolen eight bases in 10 attempts and the Nationals share the major league lead of 57 with Cincinnati.


Martinez is fond of telling his charges that they lead the majors in doubles – which they do if you give them extra credit for every stolen base. Center fielder Jacob Young ranks fifth in the majors with 12 steals – he began his career 25-for-25 – and his .357 OBP prompted Martinez to lead him off, sliding Abrams to the No. 2 hole.


“There’s something really special happening in the middle of the diamond here, between CJ, JY and Luis,” says veteran outfielder Jesse Winker. “So cool to see. So cool to just watch them put the work in every day, and not get knocked off the road they’re on.


“Because they all have such bright futures, they all play this game really hard, they play it the right way.”


Washington Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams (5) is greeted at the dugout by second baseman Luis García Jr. (2) after Garcia hits a home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 17, 2024.


‘It’s night and day’


Tuesday, the Nationals will welcome Henderson and the Orioles for a two-game series. For Abrams, it will revive memories of 2018, when he shared a field with Henderson, Witt and Volpe at the Under Armour All-American Game.


A year later, the quartet heard their names called very early in the draft process, and to this day recall their high school years when they meet up in competition.


“2019’s got some good ballplayers,” Abrams modestly notes. “And we’re gonna put on, for sure. Every time we’re out on the field, we have a good time together.”


And now, Abrams can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his peers. His 18 extra-base hits trail only Witt (19) and Shohei Ohtani (25) in the major leagues. He and the Nationals eagerly await the arrivals of more Soto trade assets, such as slugging outfielder James Wood, who could form a dynamic combo with No. 2 overall pick Dylan Crews.


Yet the foundation is settling. Abrams’ regard in the clubhouse is growing along with his slugging percentage, his voice and his bat getting louder, with room to turn the knob further up.


“It’s night and day,” says Gray. “When he got here you could see the talent and see what it all could be, full picture.


“I think he’s just touching that surface now. He put in the right work in the off-season, defensively and offensively. He came back and was lighting the world on fire.”

Nash Sanderson