Nationals’ infield duo CJ Abrams, Luis García brings stability up the middle

Nats’ infield duo Abrams, García brings stability up the middle originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — The Nationals’ infield defense is showing signs of improvement, and it’s easy to see why.

For much of this season, Washington trotted out an infield made up of Maikel Franco at third base, Alcides Escobar or Luis García playing shortstop, César Hernández at second and Josh Bell holding down first. That group has seen some significant turnover over the last six weeks following a slew of roster moves and their infield looks completely different.

Luke Voit took over for Bell at first when the blockbuster trade centered around Juan Soto resulted in them swapping teams. García has shifted over to second base to make room for CJ Abrams, another key piece in the Soto deal. At third, journeyman Ildemaro Vargas has earned himself an extended look with strong play both at the plate and in the field.

Since Abrams joined the Nationals’ big-league club on August 15, Washington has allowed a .222 batting average on groundballs — seventh best in baseball. Prior to that date, their .282 average on such plays was tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the worst in the sport. Abrams, a top prospect entering the year, has garnered national attention for his impressive play at short.

“He’s been really good,” manager Davey Martinez said in his pregame press conference Tuesday. “I’m watching him make plays that I haven’t seen made in quite a while. So, with that being said, there’s still some room for growth but the biggest thing I talk about is his preparation, his first step to the baseball. He’s been really, really good and really quick.

“He’s only gonna get better too and I love watching him play. He makes our defense and he makes our pitching staff a lot better when he’s out there.”

He’s not the only one, though. García struggled mightily at shortstop, racking up -17 Defensive Runs Saved in just over 500 innings. In 123 2/3 innings at second heading into play Wednesday, he sat at +2 DRS with only two errors compared to 13 at short. His improved play in the field coupled with Abrams’s arrival is a combination the Nationals hope to see for a long time.

Both Abrams, 21, and García, 22, are under contract through at least the 2027 season. The Nationals have invested heavily into each of them; Abrams arrived at the expense of a generational player and García received one of the largest international signing bonuses in team history.

Knowing they may be tied together for the next half decade, the locker mates have already started to forge a bond between them.

“It’s a great relationship,” García said through a team interpreter. “Right from the get-go, we’ve hit it off and then done well on the field as well as off. The fact that we’re the same age helps out and we are just joking around, talking. Me and him, we have a real great relationship as well off the field so it’s going very well.”

They each praised the other for the energy they bring to the ballpark. Martinez’s coaching staff has spent extra time working on infield drills with them before games and it’s allowed them to build the rapport required for double-play partners to anticipate each other’s movements.

“It’s been cool,” Abrams said. “We go out there and work every day, pretty much every day we do early work, get some double plays in. Just build chemistry.

“Just on a personal level, he’s a cool guy. We joke around a lot, have fun playing. That’s the most important thing. Just go out there and have fun with each other, get outs.”

Of course, both players will have to establish themselves as capable hitters if they want to stick around long term. García has shown strong contact skills with flashes of power this season, hitting .290 with six home runs and a .729 OPS in 74 games. Abrams got off to a slow start to his rookie year but has turned it on as of late with 16 hits in his last 13 games (.340 average).

As the Nationals prepare for an offseason with more questions than answers about their roster, shortstop and second base are two positions that will have very little drama. Barring injury, the pair of young infielders can already be penciled into their 2023 Opening Day lineup.

“We’ve talked about that, the fact that we could possibly be together for an extended period of time and it feels great knowing that he’ll be my partner out there for the future,” García said. “So, like I said, we’ve talked about it and it’s a great feeling.”