“As minor league baseball players, we all just want to make the majors,” Cluff said in a recent interview. “So when you have a year that you really feel like you didn’t perform in, it does leave a bad taste in your mouth. It eats at you a lot.”
Then here’s what happened in Arizona: Cluff, 24, not only hit well, finishing the five-week showcase with a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .342./432/.456 in 79 at-bats. He also stood out as a shortstop, earning the Fall League’s defensive player of the year award.
This would bode well for any prospect. But for Cluff, an infielder in the Washington Nationals’ system, it is a particularly interesting honor. In recent years, the Nationals have shifted Carter Kieboom to third base and Luis García to second. At the end of this past season, they moved Yasel Antuna, once a budding infielder who has yet to debut, to the corner outfield. That made Cluff the closest shortstop to the majors, with a big gap between him and Brady House (18 and a first-round pick in 2021), Sammy Infante (20 and a second-round pick in 2020) and Armando Cruz (17 and the Nationals’ top addition in the most recent international signing period).
Because the Nationals like to fill various needs from a pool of shortstops, Cluff could eventually land at another position. But with the franchise in a rebuild and with Alcides Escobar expected to play a lot next season, Cluff is angling toward a chance at his natural spot. He just has to keep pointing in the right direction.
Cluff, on his defensive preferences: “I’d rather help the team win in different areas than simply say I want to be a shortstop. I enjoy playing second, I enjoy playing third, and I want to show the Nationals I can do so at a high level, too. But I do love shortstop, so mostly want to prove that I can stick there.”
Mark Scialabba, an assistant general manager for the Nationals, before an Arizona Fall League game in early November: “He plays a fundamentally sound shortstop. He ranges well to balls, finishes plays, has a solid-average to above-average arm, and he’s someone that’s dependable. He’s got a good internal clock, and you can win games with him at that position. I know we want to continue to develop him there and see where this ends up.”
And Mike Rizzo, Washington’s general manager, on whether he envisions Cluff as a future shortstop: “We see him as a capable player in some role in the big leagues. He could be an everyday player at short, at second, or he could be a super-utility player. But we do see him as a major leaguer.”
To fix his offense in Arizona, where he faced some of baseball’s top prospects, Cluff focused on hunting early-count fastballs. A pair of injuries in 2021 — a broken thumb in May, then a broken hamate bone in August — offered time to analyze his swing approach. He realized he was in far too many two-strike counts, so he made the simple adjustment of trying to avoid them altogether.
On defense, Cluff wants to polish his throwing accuracy. But he then explained how throwing problems are often footwork problems, sounding a lot like Nationals bench coach Tim Bogar. Antuna, 22, finished with 36 errors in 96 games at shortstop last season, precipitating his move to the outfield. García, 21, made 11 errors in 28 games at shortstop with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, solidifying his move to second. Cluff made six errors in 23 games at shortstop and zero in 12 games at second.
Errors, it should be noted, are not always a sound measure of defensive ability. They are subjectively decided on by the official scorer, and the criteria are flimsy. In Antuna’s case, though, such a big number was alarming. In García’s, the errors underscored concerns about his focus. In Cluff’s, in a similarly small sample as García’s stint in Rochester, the miscues offered a road map for the coming year.
“A lot of it has to do with how you attack the groundball and making sure you’re in the right position to transition to a throw,” Cluff explained. “Maybe you field the ball cleanly and you’re in a good position, but you look up and the runner is farther down the line than you thought, so you have to rush. So if you made a good throw he would have been out, but because you had to rush things or you weren’t in the best position you could have been, the throw isn’t where it needs to be.
“Whether that’s an error or not, it’s not good enough. And I know I can limit that.”