The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz bring the Nats back to the days of discovery

Josiah Gray came to the Nationals in their blockbuster 2021 trade with the Dodgers. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Keep this in mind when watching Josiah Gray: When Max Scherzer was 24, he was in his first full year in the rotation of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He lost more than he won. He gave up nine runs in one start and eight in two others. He flashed the brilliance to come. He didn’t bring it consistently.

Keep this in mind when watching Keibert Ruiz: When Trea Turner was 23, he was stuck in Class AAA because the Washington Nationals were leading the division, Danny Espinosa was playing a steady shortstop and there was no need to force a rookie onto such a stage. Preach patience, because it applies all around.

Gray is not Scherzer. Ruiz is not Turner. But when stars are traded for prospects — as Scherzer and Turner were last summer, for a four-player package that included Gray and Ruiz — the natural inclination for everyone from owner to bleacher bum is to ask, “Okay, what did we get?” Followed quickly by, “How does that compare to the mainstays we gave up?”

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“I don’t think of it as pressure,” Gray said. “But I would say it always comes with the added: ‘Hey, here’s Keibert Ruiz. Here’s Josiah Gray. They were traded for so-and-so.’ It’s always added into the conversation — which is a good thing. It’s a testament to how the organization evaluated us and traded us for some top-tier talent, $300 million players. You definitely take some pride in it. You say, ‘Okay, now we’re here to start it up new and kind of be that backbone for the organization now.’ ”

The “so-and-so” Gray speaks of formed something of a backbone for the Nationals’ 2019 World Series champions, a speedy all-star and leadoff man in Turner and a stomping-and-strutting three-time Cy Young Award winner in Scherzer. Their departures were the most painful pieces in last summer’s overhaul.

Because that trade represented such a titanic shift, the success of the reboot becomes tied to the players Ruiz and Gray become. That evaluation couldn’t be completed over the final two months of last season, when both were spotty at best. It can’t be completed this spring, while both are assimilating to their new surroundings. Gray is 24. Ruiz is 23. Neither Scherzer nor Turner became an all-star before turning 28. Deep breaths. There’s time.

Their presence here, though, is a constant reminder of both the process and the goal. The Nats stripped down to build up. It was smart in theory. It has to play out in reality.

More than anything, that’s what the 2022 season is about: finding out what the Nationals have in the present that can help in the future. Part of that process is for Gray and Ruiz to shed whatever weight they felt from being dealt for such high-profile linchpins. It was there. Gray went through one four-start stretch in which he gave up at least five runs per game and posted an 11.42 ERA. In his first 10 games with his new team, Ruiz hit .121 with an anemic .346 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

“I think it was more of me trying to prove myself and overdo, try to do more than I was capable of,” Ruiz said through an interpreter. “But, you know, it’s a learning process, and I’ve learned from it.”

The fans must learn, too — or relearn. For a decade, Washington’s mantra was reload rather than rebuild. The Nats really haven’t been in this position since 2010 and 2011. Back then, General Manager Mike Rizzo built a perennial contender by pulling off lesser versions of the Max-and-Trea-to-the-Dodgers blockbuster. In 2010, the Nats’ closer was Matt Capps, a free agent who became an all-star and — more importantly — turned into Wilson Ramos. If Rizzo could trade a closer for half a season into the team’s starting catcher for the following six years, it would make sense that he could turn Scherzer and Turner into cornerstones for years to come.

That’s what the Nationals offer at the moment: an opportunity. Gray and Ruiz saw time in the majors with Los Angeles, but it was minimal — Gray made two appearances last summer before the trade, Ruiz played in two games in 2020 and six in 2021. The Dodgers’ financial might helps put them in position to contend annually without the kind of reboot the Nationals are enduring now. But that also can block prospects.

Will Smith caught 130 games for the Dodgers a year ago, is only 27 and isn’t a free agent until 2026. The rotation has mainstays Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías to go with a seemingly never-ending pipeline of young flamethrowers. By comparison, Washington has … well …

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“There’s an opening here,” Gray said. “There’s some openings in the rotation. It’s upon me to go and take advantage of those openings. With the Dodgers, those opportunities probably weren’t readily available because of their situation. That’s okay. But over here, there’s more opportunity early. That’s what you pitch for. That’s what you want.”

The returns aren’t in yet, nor will they be even by the end of this season. The Nationals want Gray to better control his fastball in the strike zone and sharpen his curveball. They want Ruiz to become a better receiver of pitches and caller of games. But they also want Gray to make upward of 30 starts and for Ruiz to catch somewhere between 120 and 130 games.

Gray’s season-ending stats from last summer show he went 2-2 with a 5.48 ERA and 1.358 walks and hits per inning pitched over 70⅔ innings with the Dodgers and Nats. Ruiz hit .273 with a .742 OPS with three homers in 29 games between Los Angeles and Washington. But there’s something to the way they finished: Gray buckled down for his final three starts, holding hitters to a .203 average and posting a 3.12 ERA. In his final 13 games, Ruiz hit .396 with a 1.015 OPS, two homers and 10 RBI.

They needed time to get over no longer being Dodgers. This season, they are Nationals — of the present and the future.

“I feel like that pressure, that happened last season,” Ruiz said. “I feel like I’m over that. That was last year. This is a new year.”

A new year with a new feel. That vibe hasn’t permeated this franchise for more than a decade. Remember the fun in discovering what you got for Christmas? Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz will remind you.

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