With MLB Lockout in rearview, Nationals’ Josiah Gray ‘keeping it simple’ in Year 2

With lockout in rearview, Gray ‘keeping it simple’ in Year 2 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

For nearly the entirety of Josiah Gray’s first offseason with the Nationals, he wasn’t allowed to communicate with them.

Major League Baseball spent 99 days this winter mired in a lockout. The MLBPA was looking for big changes in the way money is distributed to players, while owners pushed back citing their bottom lines and fears of competitive imbalance between large- and small-market teams.

In the end, the two sides agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that included a record-increase in minimum salary, a $20 million jump in the Competitive Balance Tax, a new bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, a draft lottery, a universal DH, expanded playoffs and incentives to protect against service-time manipulation. The lockout ended Thursday and players began reporting to spring training complexes over the weekend.

“I think it benefits everyone,” Gray said of the CBA in a phone interview Friday. “You work top-down with the CBT stuff and teams are gonna be not as constrained so they’re gonna spend more on free agents and a lot more teams will be in the ballpark to shoot for guys. Then you have the trickle-down with the pre-arbitration pools for young guys that win awards and things like that and then you have the increased minimums.

“With three of those being increased and becoming at the forefront of the PA’s mind, I think we succeeded in that goal and I’m excited to play beside a lot of guys that are gonna be getting closer to their worth.”

For the last two and a half months, the 24-year-old worked out at the Cressey Sports Performance complex in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He was one of several Nationals preparing for the season there, often running into teammates Patrick Corbin, Josh Bell, Austin Voth, Tres Barrera and Gabe Klobosits. Several of them were in town when Commissioner Rob Manfred first delayed Opening Day and they attended the union’s nearby press conference.

“It was sort of last minute,” Gray said. “Manfred ended up canceling games and we got a text saying, ‘Hey, if you guys can come and support, that support would obviously be appreciated.’ So I wasn’t doing too much, I had dinner reservations later that night but I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll stop by and definitely be there and support the guys,’ and I made my way there.”

Now that a deal is in place, Gray can focus solely on taking a step forward in his second season with the Nationals. After being acquired in a blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline in July, Gray made 12 starts down the stretch and posted a 5.31 ERA with 63 strikeouts and 28 walks. He showed top-of-the-rotation potential in stretches, but trouble keeping the ball in the yard (15 home runs allowed) ballooned his run total.

“It all comes down to command,” Gray said. “As long as you’re establishing pitches in the zone and then expanding off for a flyout, ground out, swing and miss, things like that, you’re going to be in a better spot. So in terms of last year, [my] command wasn’t great. I was bailing myself out a good bit in terms of solo shots but then with guys on base that doesn’t help you.

“Just bettering that command, things like that, staying in the zone a little bit better are simple goals that are gonna lead to a lot more success. Keeping it simple but also being cognizant of it is definitely an approach I’m gonna be going with this year.”

The Nationals have had a relatively quiet offseason from a front-office perspective, though a flurry of moves over the weekend did land them veteran DH Nelson Cruz, among others. Without the star power that helped them reach the playoffs five times between 2012-19, the club isn’t going into the 2022 season with high expectations from the rest of the league.

Instead, the Nationals will be leaning on a young core built around Juan Soto. It’s a group that Gray thinks has a shot to make the expanded 12-team postseason.

“We’re going to go in as optimistic as we are and know that we’re going to go out and win some games and surprise some people,” Gray said. “So I’m really excited for that increased chance to get in the playoffs and I think we’re gonna give some teams a real run for their money and go out there and put our best product on the field. A lot of guys are going to surprise and I’m excited to be a part of that and just win some ballgames.”

After originally setting a goal of reaching 200 innings this year, Gray admitted that number was a bit “lofty” especially now that spring training will be shorter than usual. His new goal is to make every start, a feat he accomplished in his final year at Le Moyne College in Syracuse and his first professional season in 2019. The right-hander missed some time with a shoulder impingement last year but has a clean bill of health heading into the season.

The Nationals have high hopes for Gray, who is a key part of their organization now and for the future. While Washington is still building its roster with the long view in mind and prioritizing the development of its young players, Gray is focused on giving his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound.

“The front office is gonna take care of the stuff that they need to and we’re gonna take care of the stuff that we need to on the field,” Gray said. “Every year, we’re going to be competitive and I’m excited for this year just as I was last year in that two-month span with the Nats…I’m as excited for this year as I am going to be for the future.”

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