The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With a young team in a rebuild, Nats coaches focus on development

Darnell Coles, the Nationals' hitting coach, has a big task ahead with a number of young and talented players on the roster. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

After Darnell Coles was hired as the Washington Nationals’ hitting coach last fall, he jotted down notes for his first interview with reporters. The points he wanted to make — that teaching is key and that contenders are built on homegrown talent — were front of mind because he was watching the playoffs from his couch. So in mid-October, he listed the final four teams and a few of their cornerstones.

The Atlanta Braves: Austin Riley, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies.

The Los Angeles Dodgers: Corey Seager, Will Smith, Cody Bellinger.

The Houston Astros: Carlos Correa, José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel.

The Boston Red Sox: Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts.

“At the end of the day, there is a developmental plan that you have to have in place for the individual player so that, once you get to the big leagues, you’re able to compete on a regular [basis],” Coles said then, back when the Nationals employed Juan Soto and were a slightly older version of the rebuilding club that faces the Oakland Athletics this week.

“It’s not like you’re giving at-bats away or giving pitches away. Because at the major league level and especially with this team, you’re trying to win. Your objective is to win. So we have to have these guys ready from day one.”

That objective, once a core philosophy for the Nationals, has looked different in the past two years. But in Coles’s offseason message was a clear challenge for himself and the club’s other coaches. As Washington has slid down the standings and as it slogs toward a third consecutive last-place finish, much has been made about its shortcomings in player development at the minor league level. In the majors, though, there’s an impressionable core that needs critical guidance from Manager Dave Martinez and his staff.

The group includes 21-year-old shortstop CJ Abrams, 22-year-old second baseman Luis García, 24-year-old catcher Keibert Ruiz, 23-year-old lefty MacKenzie Gore and 24-year-old righties Josiah Gray and Cade Cavalli, who was shut down for at least two weeks Tuesday because of shoulder inflammation. Down the line, if the Juan Soto trade shakes out well, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood could join the picture. Depending on health and progress on the field, prospects Brady House, Elijah Green and Cole Henry could be in the mix, too, among others.

Elijah Green is 18 and at the dawn of his Nats career. Here’s how he got there.

The future is uncertain for any of the Nationals’ coaches. Baseball lifers are used to that. The Lerner family is exploring a sale, meaning leadership could change at any point. Martinez, the manager who hired them, had his option for 2023 picked up in July, then mentioned that each of his coaches received a two-year deal before the season. He wanted them to see at least the start of the rebuild through, letting their work eventually speak when bigger decisions are made. And now they have the talent to put them on the clock.

“The days of developing in the minor leagues are almost gone,” said third base coach Gary DiSarcina, adding how, more and more, it seems as if players are debuting with raw tools in their early 20s. “So we have to almost channel our player development skills and use them up here.”

The ‘absolute rush’ and unending pressure of being a third base coach

Beyond his front-facing job, DiSarcina is in charge of molding the Nationals’ young infielders. Earlier this season, that meant daily throwing and footwork drills with García, who will be much more comfortable after sliding back to second. More recently, DiSarcina has had Abrams and García, a double play pairing Washington wants to grow together.

DiSarcina’s track record includes Devers, Bogaerts and José Iglesias, all of whom debuted for the Red Sox. As a player, DiSarcina was called up by the Los Angeles Angels at 21, appeared in two games, then bounced between the majors and minors for two more years before establishing himself.

Tim Bogar, the Nationals’ bench coach, also specializes with infielders and was recently training Luke Voit at first base. When Abrams was promoted in mid-August, the team put his locker next to García’s, hoping they would bond through their similar ages and the pressure on their shoulders. While on a road trip in San Diego, the whole staff arrived early so Abrams and García could take close to an hour of on-field batting practice with Coles, with no other players in the cage.

“Watching those two guys was so exciting,” Coles said a day later, rubbing his hands in front of his face. “I mean, that’s a big part of our future right there. That’s it.”

Their personalities are very different. At Petco Park, for example, García took a guitar in the visitors’ clubhouse and recklessly strummed, sticking his tongue out like a rocker. Abrams then asked for the instrument and lightly picked at the strings, his fingers barely touching them. Through DiSarcina’s eyes, they’re an unlikely pair that could complement each other well. Abrams, quiet and soft-spoken, possesses an earnestness García can learn from. García plays and practices loose, a good influence for Abrams, who entered the week with just six hits in 45 plate appearances for Washington.

Before and during games, DiSarcina, Bogar, Coles, first base coach Eric Young Jr. and assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler — plus the video and analytics staff — will share pointers and data with the budding position players. Pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Ricky Bones will do so with the pitchers. Henry Blanco, the catching and strategy coach, is never far from Ruiz or backup catcher Riley Adams.

From the archives: Keibert Ruiz sees a teacher in Henry Blanco. Henry Blanco sees a star in Keibert Ruiz.

Most of them have experience coaching in the minor leagues, with Coles even starting out as a roving hitting instructor for the Nationals. The staff’s general goal is to guide these players and use their inevitable mistakes as a tool.

“I had a lot of coaches that taught me what not to do. I grew up in a time when you got yelled at, you got benched, you got sent down. If I was hitting .220 and not making plays, I was gone,” DiSarcina said, later unpacking how his relationship with his 23-year-old son helps him relate to Abrams and García.

“So I put myself in a father-son dynamic, and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to yell at him; I’m not going to scream at him; I’m not going to be disappointed in him,’ ” the coach continued. “I say, ‘Hey, let’s go; let’s come out tomorrow, and we’ll work on this or work on that.’ Or … ‘Talk to me about this.’ I think the biggest thing you have to have nowadays is engagement and collaboration with a player.”