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The CJ Abrams era begins with the Nats rallying to beat the Cubs

CJ Abrams made his Nationals debut Monday night, going 0-for-5 with an error — while showing strong range at shortstop. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

CJ Abrams didn’t have that moment for Nationals Park to cling to Monday night. Jogging out to shortstop for the first inning, hearing a light ovation before his first at-bat in a Washington uniform, those would have to do. Otherwise, in a debut that followed Abrams landing here in the eight-player trade that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres, Abrams made a strong play and a few routine ones, logged a throwing error and struck out once in four hitless plate appearances.

Mixed results are expected from a 21-year-old. For the last-place Nationals, for this 5-4 win over the Chicago Cubs, Abrams’s presence mattered most. That he recorded the final out wasn’t so bad, either.

Abrams’s promotion to the majors was hastened when 22-year-old Luis García hurt his left groin over the weekend. Ahead of the series opener, García went to the 10-day injured list. Abrams was activated as the shortstop of the present and, ideally, long-term future. The debut of one of the five key players netted for Soto and Bell was eventually overshadowed by Josiah Gray’s 10 strikeouts and Nelson Cruz, who capped a comeback and three-RBI game with his first homer since June 25.

“It’s super exciting," Gray said of Abrams playing behind him. “For me personally, it gives me a little extra edge to go out there and sort of dream on the future. Like, these are the guys that can be your teammates for years to come.”

Before Monday, Abrams had played just 160 professional games since he was drafted sixth overall in 2019. And before that, he was a star shortstop for Blessed Trinity Catholic High in Roswell, Ga., a kid who chose baseball but could have thrived in football or basketball, too.

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Knowing his age, Dave Martinez wants to bring Abrams along slowly. The manager plans to bat him higher in the order — maybe even first — but settled for seventh against the Cubs and starter Marcus Stroman. When Abrams got to Nationals Park, he was joined by José Alguacil, the club’s minor league infield coordinator who grew familiar with Abrams on Class AAA Rochester. Washington is now accustomed to the late-summer arrivals of prospects acquired in blockbuster trades.

First it was Gray debuting for the Nationals at 23 last August. A few weeks later, Keibert Ruiz, Gray’s catcher Monday, was promoted at 23 and took his post. And then here was Abrams, another potential cornerstone up the middle, soft-spoken and fresh-faced and swimming a tad in his No. 5 jersey.

“This is what we talked about moving forward, some of our youth, and now we’re getting to see some of that here,” Martinez said. “And that definitely excites me a lot … watching these guys all play together and grow together. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be some work, a lot of work. But it’s going to be fun.”

Washington (39-78) didn’t deal for Abrams, Gray or Ruiz — or MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell III or James Wood — to win in the final months of a totally lost season. The goal is to have them competing as a core, on a roster fleshed out with free agent signings, in future Septembers and Octobers. The dreams are both fuzzy and big.

Grooming them as a group, then, will be a critical process. One difference with Abrams, though, is that he joined the Nationals with 35 major league starts. Earlier this season, the Padres fast-tracked him to replace the injured Fernando Tatis Jr., tossing Abrams right into the fire. The pressure was high. He posted a .232 batting average, .285 on-base percentage and .320 slugging percentage, flashing promise while leaving more to be desired.

But more, whatever that may be, wouldn’t come with the Padres. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo initially asked for Abrams in talks for Max Scherzer at the 2021 trade deadline. The Padres declined, Scherzer went to the Dodgers, and Abrams was still around for the six-player package that materialized for Soto and Bell on Aug. 2.

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Unpacking the trade that afternoon, Rizzo described his blueprint of building through the middle of the field: Gore on the mound, Abrams at shortstop, Hassell in center with Wood on either side of him. Martinez has already told García that, when he returns from the IL, he’ll slide to second and be Abrams’s double play partner. Ruiz could be a cornerstone behind the plate. The hope is for Gray to be a rotation staple, even if Ian Happ’s two homers upped his season total to 31 allowed, the most in the majors.

If that vision turns into reality — if that’s in 2024, in 2025, if it happens at all — Abrams’s defense at a premier position will be crucial. In the first inning Monday, Cubs leadoff batter Nick Madrigal rolled a grounder to Abrams’s left, forcing him to make a full-effort throw for the out. But in the fourth, Abrams’s defense turned into an adventure. He fielded a chopper on the run and airmailed a throw to first, putting Franmil Reyes on second with a two-base error. To retire the next batter, Nico Hoerner, Abrams’s off-target throw required a long stretch from first baseman Luke Voit. Abrams then later helped Hunter Harvey out of a seventh-inning jam by ranging into shallow center and flicking a cross-body throw to Voit, showing his potential and probably preventing the tying run from scoring.

Since they traded Trea Turner a year ago, the Nationals have had a massive void at shortstop, one García was never primed to fill. And though it will take much more than nine innings to see if Abrams is the answer, nine innings were a necessary start.

“I mean, everybody cares about me,” Abrams said Monday afternoon when asked for impressions of his new organization. So add understatements to the scouting report.