With CJ Abrams graduated, experts divided on Nationals’ top prospect

With Abrams graduated, experts divided on Nats’ top prospect originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams officially exceeded rookie limits with his 130th at-bat of the season Tuesday, graduating from prospect status after three years of being ranked among the best minor leaguers in baseball.

Though his time as the Washington Nationals’ top prospect was short — the club only acquired him in the Juan Soto/Josh Bell trade two weeks ago — Abrams will no longer qualify for top 100 rankings even if Washington sends him back down. That leaves an opening for another prospect to take over that mantle.

Among the five major midseason prospect rankings that have been published since the trade deadline, three list outfielder Robert Hassell III as the Nationals’ No. 1 farmhand. The 2020 first-round pick was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg on Tuesday, giving him the chance to face some tougher competition over the final month of the season.

Hassell, 21, brings a patient approach and strong contact skills from the left side of the plate. He has good speed on the basepaths and plays center field, although some scouts project him to eventually shift to one of the corners. Hassell is ranked atop the Nationals’ farm system by Baseball America (25th overall), The Athletic’s Keith Law (18th) and MLB Pipeline (23rd).

RELATED: Abrams collects game-tying RBI single in extras for first Nats hit

Perhaps the safest bet of any Nationals prospect to become an effective major leaguer, Hassell has the tools to hit for average and play solid defense even if he never develops any power. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranks him higher than any of the other outlets, putting him 16th on his midseason top 50. However, Hassell wasn’t the highest National on his list.

McDaniel’s top player in their farm system is fellow outfielder James Wood, who like Hassell and Abrams was acquired in the Soto/Bell trade. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound center fielder is only 19 years old but has done nothing but rake at Single-A this season. While his power potential is obvious given his stature, Wood has also shown some impressive plate discipline early on in his professional career.

“I think James’s skillset is such that he puts the barrel of the bat on the ball very frequently,” Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo said on 106.7 The Fan’s Sports Junkies and simulcast on NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday.

“He’s got a good approach at the plate, he’s got good knowledge of the strike zone, which is important especially when your strike zone is that large, and he’s got some crazy other tools to go along with it.”

Wood’s tools are loud enough to make any talent evaluator do a double take. He may have the highest superstar potential of any player in the Nationals’ system. But like any prospect, Wood carries some risk. Hitters of his size have struggled to adapt to pitching at the higher levels. How his speed holds up as he continues to get stronger will be an important factor as well.

Even so, Wood is ranked within the top 50 of all four of the aforementioned prospect lists. The only major outlet that doesn’t have him that high is FanGraphs, which places him 66th and Hassell at No. 44. FanGraphs’ highest-ranked Nationals prospect is right-handed pitcher Cade Cavalli (20th), who has spent the entire season in Triple-A Rochester.

After getting off to a slow start that knocked him down some other prospect lists, Cavalli settled in to the tune of a 2.12 ERA with 69 strikeouts and 22 walks over his last 12 starts. He’s looked every bit like the pitcher who led the entire minor league in strikeouts a year ago, putting him on the cusp of reaching the majors once the Nationals decide he’s ready.

Washington has resisted calling him up so that he can work on showing better consistency in his mechanics and building out his pitch repertoire. Even though the results have been there for the better part of the last three months, the Nationals have stressed that Cavalli’s lack of experience on the mound in college due to being a two-way player has required them to focus on addressing the finer points of pitching with their prized arm.

Cavalli’s high fastball velocity and strikeout ability have made him the clear-cut top pitcher in the Nationals’ system for the last two years. The biggest knock on his profile has been his control and that will be the determining factor in whether he can live up to his ace potential.

For now, the Nationals have high hopes for his future as well as that of Hassell and Wood. There’s no clear-cut top prospect in their farm system right now, but that’s a distinction the club is happy to have given all the young talent it’s acquired over the last two seasons.

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