WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — During batting practice last week at Washington Nationals camp, CJ Abrams stood at second base with teammate Luis García as Gary DiSarcina lectured about secondary leads. Abrams shuffled as the ball left pitcher Joan Adon’s hand. García would follow.
Abrams’s response couldn’t be heard, but after a brief pause, DiSarcina replied, “Fifty?!”
That sort of confident mentality is one that Abrams’s coaches hope he embraces as he strives to meet the demands of being an everyday shortstop in the major leagues.
“That’s a lot of stolen bases, but why not?” DiSarcina said a few days later. “Why not shoot for goals that are high? And lofty expectations? I like that in him. I don’t want to say he’s going to hit 40 home runs and steal 50 bases, but you don’t want to put limitations on these guys.”
Abrams, 22, has just 90 major league games under his belt, all coming last season. But as the Nationals’ rebuild continues, they are likely to give ample opportunities to their young players as they try to prove themselves. A solid season for Abrams could solidify him as a top-of-the-order bat and a reliable glove up the middle.
“No pressure, really,” he said. “... Getting better with the young guys, growing together, having fun, getting wins.”
Abrams’s first month after being acquired from San Diego in the Juan Soto trade was a struggle. He hit 8 for 50 (.160) in 14 August games after being called up to replace an injured García. He struck out 13 times. And though he was an upgrade from García defensively, he wasn’t consistent.
The Nationals hope the Abrams they get this year is the player who ended 2022 by batting .303 and stealing five bases in 30 games in September and October. Abrams credited his improvement to hitting his best pitches instead of the pitchers’ best pitches. But his plate discipline still needs work. Abrams’s chase rate — how often he swung at pitches outside of the strike zone — was 41.2 percent last year; the league average was 28.4. And he had just five walks in 302 plate appearances between the Padres and Nationals.
This offseason, Abrams trained at home with his father, working on his pitch selection and his stride in search of a smoother swing. He participated in speed drills so he could steal more bases. He put on six pounds, which he joked “is pretty good for me.”
His hope was that the “good weight” would let him hit for more power and handle the difficulties of a long season. DiSarcina agreed. A few days ago, hard-throwing right-hander Hunter Harvey threw a live bullpen session, and Abrams was the first hitter. He turned a first-pitch fastball into an opposite-field home run, then casually walked out of the cage.
“He’s going to be a good player. He’s an up-and-comer,” Harvey said. “I told him I ain’t giving him any more first-pitch fastballs, though. So that’s the last one he’s ever going to get.”
Abrams’s glove was ahead of his bat last season, but there were times when he rushed a poor throw after making a diving stop — or caught a chopper behind the mound but didn’t set his feet and airmailed the throw.
Last season, DiSarcina wanted Abrams to stay in his legs more so he could put more power into his throws. This year, he has a simpler suggestion. On the first day of spring training, DiSarcina relayed a phrase to Abrams that he plans to repeat all year: Finish the play.
“If he does anything this camp, I just want him to finish the play,” DiSarcina said. “[On] 4-6-3 double plays, when he comes across that base, I want him to come across with aggression and finish the play. Don’t come across and drop down [your arm] and kind of flip the ball over there, because you’re going to get away with that seven, eight, nine times out of 10. But it’s that time you don’t complete the play, where the double play is not made, that our inning spins out of control.”
Last season was a whirlwind for Abrams, who made his major league debut with the Padres and then had to adjust to a new environment with the Nationals. Abrams said he’s more comfortable this season, and “knowing everybody kind of adds fun to it.” Manager Dave Martinez described him as “quirky” around his teammates. Martinez said Abrams, despite his reserved persona, is not afraid to be vocal when he needs to be. And he certainly doesn’t lack belief in his abilities.
“It’s not that he wasn’t confident last year,” DiSarcina said. “But he’s gone home for the winter after having some success. And being traded over, that’s tough to meet new guys, new coaches, new organization. He’s coming into camp knowing everybody — a little bit more confident, a little bit stronger.”