ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It has been three months since Andrew Stevenson found a crowd of teammates by his locker at the Washington Nationals’ spring training facility. He was tossing gear into a duffel bag. Juan Soto asked what was going on. A few others shook their heads, looking at the carpet to avoid Stevenson’s eyes.
Every March and April, it seems at least one player is cut against the wishes of just about everyone around him. This year was Stevenson’s turn. But after he was designated for assignment, he declined to become a free agent, sticking with the organization that drafted him in the second round in 2015. Stevenson retained his $850,000 salary, earning above the major league minimum. He felt the Nationals might have more use for him down the line.
After all, Stevenson pinch-ran in the 2019 National League wild-card game, scoring on Soto’s memorable single off Josh Hader. From 2018 to 2020, across 170 plate appearances, the outfielder had a .308 batting average, a .385 on-base percentage and a .466 slugging percentage. As a left-handed pinch hitter, his career slash line is .304/.362/.429. He is, in theory, the sort of guy who helps a team win baseball games, even if he’s 28 and has never clicked as an everyday player. Now he’s trying to prove that again with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.
“Getting DFA’d, getting taken off the 40-man roster, was maybe the toughest moment I’ve had,” Stevenson said at Frontier Field last week. “Of course, I’d be happy to be a fourth outfielder in the majors. I would love that. But I also still feel like I can be an everyday player somewhere, whether it’s [with] the Nationals or someone else. I think teams are seeing that.”
In 71 games with the Red Wings, Stevenson has a .308 batting average and an .842 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He has good speed and a solid glove, so his opportunities have hinged — and will hinge — on whether he can hit enough. His lack of minor league options is a factor, too. In past seasons, Stevenson often swung between the majors and minors. Now, the Nationals can’t move him between the levels without putting him on waivers.
Back in April, the club chose to carry Yadiel Hernandez, Lane Thomas, Victor Robles and utility man Dee Strange-Gordon, who moonlit in left and center field before getting DFA’d in June. One could argue Stevenson offers more upside than Hernandez, who is 34, a streaky batter and rough in the field. But if the Nationals deal Nelson Cruz before the trade deadline in early August, Hernandez could become the everyday designated hitter, opening a spot for an extra outfielder.
Donovan Casey and Josh Palacios, both 26, are ahead of Stevenson because they are on the 40-man roster. But with his production in Class AAA, Stevenson could have an outside shot to rejoin the team he played for over parts of the past five seasons.
“I’ve had Andrew a lot in recent years, and what I notice now is that he’s identifying and hitting breaking balls way better,” said Matthew LeCroy, the Red Wings’ manager. “He’s always hit velocity well, which I think is why he was a good pinch hitter up there, hunting those fastballs from the big relievers out of the ’pen. But he got chewed up a bit when they started throwing him slider, curve, slider. He’s done well to address that weakness.”
Stevenson’s slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs in 2021? .508. Against sliders? .098. Against curves? .050. Against change-ups, a pitch he has hit well in small samples? .556, showing not all off-speed pitches are the problem. But if Stevenson can’t see sliders better, major league pitchers can too easily identify and exploit a hole in his swing.
Asked about his success as a pinch hitter, Stevenson described an aggressive approach, looking for something hard to drive at any point of a count. Then asked if he could apply that to all at-bats, Stevenson laughed a bit. Of course, it’s not that easy. Hitting is a constant puzzle. It’s mental gymnastics. It’s making split-second decisions that, in the aggregate, could dictate if you play in Washington or Rochester, where you’re constantly reminded that you’re not in Washington, where you used to live your dream every day.
“Here’s how I look at it: When I was pinch-hitting, I got to the point where I never felt any pressure because no one expects you to do anything, right?” Stevenson said. “I would just think: ‘I’m not supposed to get a hit. The numbers aren’t in my favor. This guy’s throwing 98 or 99 with a plus breaking ball. So I’m just going to relax and try to do something cool, something to help my team.’
“It’s sometimes been a challenge for me to have that approach while starting games. I’m not totally sure why. But an at-bat is an at-bat, no matter the situation or inning. I’ll do my best.”