Nationals top prospects get spotlight early on in spring training.jpgw1440

Nationals’ top prospects get spotlight early on in spring training

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — At one point Saturday afternoon, James Wood, Elijah Green and Brady House all completed batting practice simultaneously, their shots reaching nearly unanimous.

Wood, a 20-year-old outfielder and consensus top Washington Nationals prospect, pulled Liner into the right-center gap. Green, a 19-year-old fielder and the fifth pick in last summer’s draft, shot a few over the fence. House, 19 and the 11th choice two summers ago, was swinging at full force, an important step after missing most of 2022 with lower back problems.

A few members of the front office lined up to watch each player bat. It was hard to blame them.

“This is the best group of upside players we’ve ever had here,” general manager Mike Rizzo said a day earlier. “I’ve been here since day one. I’ve never seen it like that.”

Sure, part of Rizzo’s job is to instill an optimistic view of the team’s future — especially after it followed a third straight finish with limited spend in free hands. And yes, the vast improvement in the farm system was fueled by trading with Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Max Scherzer, among others, within three years of winning the World Series. But Wood, Green and House are fascinating young players, as are outfield players Robert Hassell III and Cuban-born Cristhian Vaquero. Most of them are also very large.

A club official dubbed Green “The Monster” after sending a homer well over the net behind a field. Another said, “We’ve got some tight ends outfield.” Green is listed at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds. Wood stands 6-7. House, who recently switched from shortstop to third base, is 6-4. Vaquero, 18, playing for the USA for the first time, is the wiriest of the group with a 6-3. Hassell is at 6-2 and has returned to full strength after offseason surgery for a broken hamate bone in his right hand.

When Rizzo first saw reporters Thursday, he congratulated his newborn son — Santino “Sonny” Rizzo — and then suggested everyone “spread out” in the afternoon and watch as many minor leagues as possible. It’s true that what happens in the afternoons these days is far more consequential than what happens in the mornings when the Nationals are holding major league camp. This is how it should be in general for a reconstruction club.

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These minor league workouts are part of an expanded early camp that compensated for the September apprentice league game being cut short due to the weather. All pitchers and catchers are due to report by March 1st, with the rest of the system by March 7th.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Wood said of the possibility of one day making the majors with Hassell, Green and CJ Abrams, who was Washington’s shortstop for the final six weeks of last season. “I just want to get up and keep doing my thing. Hopefully that will become a reality soon.”

Here’s what else you should know from the first week of Nationals spring training:

Hassell doesn’t feel like surgery slowed him down much. “Maybe about a month,” he said on Sunday. “But once I got back into the groove of things, it didn’t take long. … The hand felt good since they told me I could swing. I took it easy at first. It delayed me a bit, but I don’t feel like I missed anything [developmental] Steps.”

Abrams arrived on Sunday and did live batting practice against Cade Cavalli. Abrams, 22, is entering his first full season in the majors (and has played just 204 professional games since his high school release in 2019). After joining the Nationals as part of the package for Soto and Josh Bell, he appeared in 44 games and finished with a .603 OPS.

The mood at Nationals Camp? Consider it work in progress.

Drew Millas has a small black sponge in his catcher’s mitt for a little extra protection. That’s a good thing, too, because left-hander Jose Ferrer pumped fastballs at 97 mph during a live batting practice on Saturday. Afterwards, Millas’ left index finger was red and swollen to about three times its usual size. The sponge was a suggestion – no, a requirement – from his mother.

“She said, ‘Your finger will be amputated if you don’t put anything else in it,'” Millas said. “This is a mother for you. She knows best.”

The 25-year-old is trying to push his way into the Nationals catch-up. In Milla’s second big league camp with Washington, he trails behind Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams and Israel Pineda, who is younger but is on the 40-man list.

Millas came into the trade between Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison from the Oakland Athletics as of Deadline 2021. He battled an oblique strain last spring before his strikeouts reached a peak (53 in 86 games in 2021; 86 in 88 games in 2022). That winter, Millas trained in St. Louis, Houston and New Jersey, meeting current and former teammates in the latter two cities. Tres Barrera, now with the St. Louis Cardinals, was a hitting partner in Houston. Jake Alu, currently fighting for his own roster spot, hosted Millas in New Jersey. Milla’s main goal offseason was to improve against high fastballs with a good vertical break. Behind the plate, he wanted to get better at blocking sliders while moving left.

Ferrer staggered a slider during live BP, and Millas vaulted to the right-handed batter’s box and lifted it cleanly out of the dirt. He saw that as a small victory.