July 22, 2023 at 8:04 p.m. EDT
The yells from fans crammed in the first row of the section nearest the Washington Nationals’ dugout were enough of an indicator of the noteworthiness of the moment. If that wasn’t enough, the fact that the front-office members stationed along the dugout railing and on the dirt were dressed in suits was a dead giveaway.
Dylan Crews emerged from the home dugout at Nationals Park with hitting coach Darnell Coles and headed to the batting cage to take his first hacks as a National. Behind him Saturday afternoon were kids screaming his name and adults on their tiptoes, trying to get a photo as, for the first time, they saw a player they hope will be a franchise-altering talent.
Crews officially joined the Nationals organization Saturday, agreeing to a contract after being drafted second overall less than two weeks ago. The outfielder out of LSU landed a $9 million signing bonus. That’s the second richest in MLB draft history, behind only the $9.2 million that Paul Skenes, a right-hander and his college teammate drafted No. 1, just got from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I’m ready to go,” Crews said. “Looking back, 10 years [ago], I really wouldn’t think I’d be in this position right now. I think it all starts with surrounding myself with the right people. I’m just ready to get going, and I couldn’t be happier right now. I’m looking forward to the future. It’s going to be awesome.”
The latest piece of the Nationals’ push to return to contention is now in the fold, adding to a revamped farm system that looks significantly stronger than it did a year ago.
The Nationals had an excess of outfield talent in their farm system even before drafting Crews. James Wood and Robert Hassell III, acquired in last year’s Juan Soto trade, are at Class AA Harrisburg. Elijah Green, Washington’s first-round pick in 2022, has reached low Class A Fredericksburg, but he’s away from the team while rehabbing a wrist injury. And then there are Cristhian Vaquero, whom the Nationals spent $4.925 million to land during the 2022 international signing period, and Daylen Lile, a second-round pick in 2021.
But in Crews, the Nationals added a college bat who also is strong defensively. He won the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s best amateur player. He was a first-team all-American and the SEC player of the year — and those are just this year’s accomplishments.
“It’s always great to add a keystone type of player in the organization,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said ahead of the Nationals’ 10-1 win over the San Francisco Giants. “… We’ve been here before.”
Rizzo said Crews will go to the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., to get acclimated to the organization before heading to a Class A affiliate — Fredericksburg or Wilmington.
From there, he will try to join elite company. Crews was the Nationals’ highest draft pick since Bryce Harper was selected first in 2010. Stephen Strasburg was taken No. 1 the year before. Harper played seven seasons with Washington, was the National League rookie of the year in 2012, won the NL MVP award in 2015 and made six all-star appearances. Strasburg was the World Series MVP in 2019 and has received three all-star nods.
Having played in the country’s most challenging college conference for a team that expects to win every year, Crews is no stranger to lofty expectations. Over three seasons in Baton Rouge, he hit .380 with a .498 on-base percentage and a .689 slugging percentage. In 196 games, he mashed 43 doubles, eight triples and 58 homers — and he helped LSU take home the national title this season.
“He handled elite pitching well, and I think that’s why he separated himself as the top hitter in maybe not this draft but in several years,” LSU Coach Jay Johnson said. “He could step into the box and handle major league pitching right now in terms of controlling the strike zone, the bat speed. The combination of vision, recognition skills, managing the zone, hitting the ball hard on a line to all parts of the field — he was great at all of it.”
Such skills will test the Nationals’ ability to be patient. Manager Dave Martinez, who has had his patience tested many times during another rebuilding season, said he looks forward to the day when Crews can help at the major league level.
So on Saturday, Martinez and the fans in the stands could hold on to batting practice, at least. Toward the end of his session, Crews put a pitch over the fence for the first time, drawing a few extra cheers. He followed with another homer, and the screams got louder.
“I’m just going to go out there — doesn’t matter what day it is — give it all I got and leave it out on the field,” he said. “All I want to do is win, really. I hope to bring that to this organization and hope to bring other guys along with my game and hope to impact others as well.”