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Why the Nationals moved prospect Yasel Antuna from shortstop to outfield

Yasel Antuna moved to shortstop during instructional league in October. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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This fall, the Washington Nationals decided to shift Yasel Antuna, one of their key prospects, from shortstop to outfield. On one hand, the timing was curious. The Nationals had recently traded franchise shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Carter Kieboom playing third base and Luis García at second, their pool of remotely-to-somewhat-close-to-major-league-ready shortstops had thinned to Antuna and Jackson Cluff.

But a quick glance at Antuna’s 2021 stats tells a simple story. The 22-year-old made 36 errors in 96 games at shortstop for high Class A Wilmington. And those who saw him out there say it looked as bad as it sounds.

“We think Antuna is going to come fast,” Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, said in early November. “We moved him to the outfield so he could focus more on his bat, and he had a hell of a second half of the season after not playing for two years.”

The Nationals’ deadline fire sale unfolded in a matter of days. But it was years in the making.

That requires a bit of reading between the lines. The Nationals care about Antuna’s development — mainly because they see him as a potential impact bat — and don’t want it hindered by poor defense. So after he really struggled at shortstop, they felt the best path for his offense was through a less demanding (and less consequential) position.

Antuna is listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds. He signed for $3.9 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2016, a club-record bonus that was only matched by shortstop Armando Cruz last winter. In October 2020, the Nationals protected him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft by adding him to their 40-man roster. They are certainly invested in his success.

Putting defense aside, his statistics were a mixed bag this summer: 12 home runs and 26 doubles in 405 at-bats, flashing his power. But also: 100 strikeouts, dashing more than a fifth of his plate appearances, compared to 46 walks while switch-hitting. His final batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line was .227/.307/.385.

“He’s got the quickness and speed to play toward the middle, but I think he’s going to have the bat to play the corners,” Rizzo said. “He’s gotten a lot bigger. He embraced the change. I think he was ready for it.”

Beyond Juan Soto, the Nationals’ internal outfield options are to be determined. Lane Thomas arrived at the trade deadline in July and eventually replaced struggling Victor Robles, who finished the season with Class AAA Rochester. But Robles, still only 24, will compete with Thomas in spring training, according to Rizzo, making it easy to see them both cracking the Opening Day roster. From there, though, the depth thins considerably.

Andrew Stevenson has been on the cusp since 2018. At 27, he will be out of minor league options next season, hurting his chances to remain in the mix. Yadiel Hernandez, 34, best figures into the short-term plans as a left-handed designated hitter (if that role comes to the National League). After those two, who were up for all of August and September, Donovan Casey should be nearing a chance. The Nationals added him to their 40-man roster in November, making it so other teams couldn’t swipe him in the Rule 5 draft. They believe Casey can fill any of the three outfield positions — and he played some center, the hardest spot, in the Arizona Fall League. He is one of the four prospects acquired from the Dodgers for Turner and Max Scherzer.

After Soto, Stevenson, Casey, Hernandez and the Thomas-Robles conundrum, Antuna has a window. There are no other outfielders on the 40-man roster, and another young one from the organization would need to be put on it before appearing in the majors. Washington, of course, could add from the outside, even if it is unlikely to make any big splashes via the trade or free agent markets this offseason. And Antuna, of course, does not have an at-bat above high Class A.

But rebuilds are about opportunity and taking stock of what’s in the system. Antuna just has to fully take to a position switch before getting his.