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Extension Candidate: CJ Abrams

With Spring Training a matter of days away for most clubs (and already underway for the Dodgers and Padres), the time of year during which teams begin to focus on extending their players is nearly upon us. A handful of teams have gotten a head start on extension season already as the Tigers signed top infield prospect Colt Keith to a pre-debut extension, the Astros locked up franchise face Jose Altuve for an additional five seasons, and the Royals committed more than $288MM to Bobby Witt Jr.in recent weeks.

As noted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, one club that has generally eschewed extensions for its players in recent years is the Nationals. Despite a pipeline of stars that included the likes of Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, and Juan Soto over the past decade, the club only managed to extend one player from that era of regular playoff contention: right-hander Stephen Strasburg. With that being said, Zuckerman does point out that the club may be on the verge of changing its reputation for rarely extending players. Catcher Keibert Ruiz signed a $50MM extension with the club last spring that could keep him in D.C. through the 2032 season, and as Washington hopes to take another step towards contention Zuckerman argues the club ought to consider a similar deal for shortstop CJ Abrams.

Abrams, 23, is perhaps best known as the former top Padres prospect who headlined the blockbuster deal that sent Juan Soto from D.C. to San Diego at the 2022 trade deadline. Prior to the 2022 campaign, Abrams was a consensus top 10 prospect in the sport. While the then-21-year-old struggled in his first taste of big league action, slashing just .232/.285/.320 in 46 games in the majors prior to the trade, the youngster’s 80-grade speed, plus hit tool and ability to stick at shortstop were enough (alongside multiple other top prospects) to convince the Nationals to part with a generational hitter entering his prime.

Since donning a Nationals uniform for the first time on August 15 of that year, Abrams has largely held his own but not quite reached the tantalizing potential scouts saw in him during his prospect days. Across 195 games with the club, Abrams has posted a .248/.295/.393 slash line that comes in as a touch below average by measure of wRC+ alongside defense at shortstop that Statcast’s Outs Above Average grades as well below average with a -15 figure, though Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saves paints a slightly rosier picture with a roughly scratch -1 figure.

Difficult as the start to Abrams’s big league career has been, it’s worth noting that he’s steadily improved as his time in the majors has gone on. Over the youngster’s final 88 games last season, Abrams slashed .265/.325/.442 with 33 extra base hits in 381 trips to the plate. That performance at the plate was good for an above-average wRC+ of 105, which when combined with an astonishing 41 stolen bases in 43 attempts over that time span made Abrams a quality offensive contributor out of the leadoff spot for the Nationals. Abrams’s defense at shortstop enjoyed some level of improvement during the 2023 campaign, as well: the 22-year-old posted a +4 DRS last year, a figure that put him in the same conversation as regulars at the position such as Bo Bichette and Javier Baez in terms of glove work.

Given his minimal track record at the big league level, an extension for Abrams comes with plenty of risk. At the same time, Witt’s extension in Kansas City earlier this offseason showcased how pricey even pre-arbitration extensions can become after young talents establish themselves at the big league level. The potential savings in the event that Abrams breaks out and reaches his ceiling is considerable enough to make the prospect of an extension one that’s at least worth considering for Washington. As a young, talented infielder who has shown flashes of success but struggled with consistency over the course of his first service year in the majors, one player in particular stands out as a potential point of reference when considering a hypothetical Abrams extension: Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Hayes, much like Abrams, was a consensus top-10 prospect in the sport when he lost prospect eligibility during the 2021 campaign. After slashing an incredible .376/.442/.682 across his first 95 trips to the plate in the big leagues during the shortened 2020 season, Hayes came back down to Earth in 2021 with a .257/.316/.373 slash line while being limited to just 96 games by wrist issues. That mediocre slash line still left Hayes as a career .280/.340/.432 hitter in the big leagues, however, a slash line good for a solid 106 wRC+ that dwarfs Abrams’s career figure of 84. While the speed Abrams has flashed to this point in his career dwarfs that of Hayes at the time, the latter makes up for that with his elite glove at the hot corner. In 2021, Hayes posted a whopping +12 OAA at third base, good for the 98th percentile among all qualified fielders. Abrams, by contrast, was in the 4th percentile last season with an OAA of -9.

All that’s to say that Abrams appears unlikely to surpass or even match the eight-year, $70MM guarantee that Hayes managed to secure from the Pirates just after the 2022 season began, even as Abrams is two years younger than Hayes was at the time of his deal with the club. Another potential point of comparison for Abrams would be the seven-year, $58MM extension shortstop Andrelton Simmons signed with the Braves back in 2014.

Simmons was coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him earn a Gold Glove award and even some down-ballot NL MVP votes for his superlative defense at shortstop, an area where Abrams’s profile is severely lacking. That being said, Simmons’s career 94 wRC+ at the time of the deal is in the same ballpark as Abrams’s figure, and Abrams is both younger and a far bigger threat on the basepaths than Simmons, who stole fewer bases across his first six seasons in the majors than Abrams did in 2023 alone. Perhaps most importantly, however, Simmons’s deal with Atlanta will be a decade old later this month.

Given these factors, it’s fair to assume that any deal between Abrams and the Nationals would would likely guarantee the youngster at least $60MM, giving him the largest guarantee awarded to a shortstop with between one and two years of service time in the majors. Speculatively speaking, an eight-year deal in the $60-65MM range would appear to be reasonable extension for both sides, likely with a club option or two at the end as has become typical of early-career extensions for players who aren’t already established stars. Such a deal could allow the Nationals to extend their window of control over Abrams, who is currently slated to hit free agency following the 2028 season following his age-27 campaign, through his early thirties.

Of course, it’s fair to wonder if Abrams would be interested in a deal of this sort. After all, players who enter free agency in their mid-to-late twenties tend to have significantly more earning potential than those who hit the open market after their thirtieth birthday. While the additional financial security offered by this sort of deal can certainly be appealing to some players, it’s also worth noting that Abrams, as an early first round pick in the 2019 draft, received a healthy $5.2MM signing bonus from the Padres. What’s more, Abrams appears to be in line to become a Super Two player next winter. Super Two players, defined any player with between two and three years of service time who falls in the top 22% of his service bracket, enjoy the benefit of reaching arbitration a year early, meaning that Abrams is likely in line for a significant pay raise next winter with or without an extension, so long as he avoids being demoted to the minor leagues in 2024.

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