Nationals are taking a chance on former top prospects

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On paper and for that matter, on a baseball field — Dominic Smith, Jeter Downs, Derek Hill and Michael Chavis don’t have much in common.

Smith, an outfielder-turned-first-baseman, is trying to rediscover the swing that produced 10 homers and 21 doubles during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Downs, a middle infielder, was part of the return for Mookie Betts before he lost his way with the Boston Red Sox. Hill, a speedy outfielder, is trying to stay healthy enough, then hit well enough, to give his quickness a chance in the majors. Chavis, a utility manhas started at first base (151 times), second (74), in left field (11), at third (10) and in right (once) since debuting in 2019.

But here’s what binds them heading into next season: Each player once entered professional baseball as a first-round pick. And each is about to get at least some amount of opportunity from the building-on-the-cheap Washington Nationals.

“Any time a guy gets a fresh start, it can be an exciting time for him as a player, as a person,” Smith, 27, said on a video call with reporters Wednesday. “It can be an exciting thing for the organization. And for me, I’m excited for the chance to go out there and play every day. That’s all I’ve ever wanted in my career, just to finally be in a position where I can go and compete, prove what I can do.”

Nationals and Dominic Smith agree to a one-year deal

Smith is in a different situation than Downs, Hill and Chavis. After he was designated for assignment by the New York Mets in November, the Nationals signed Smith to a one-year, $2 million major league contract, which can grow to $4 million if he reaches every performance incentive. As Smith tells it, the club expects to play him at first base and perhaps designated hitter, depending on how Joey Meneses is used and whether the club keeps adding. No matter what, Smith has a defined role.

Downs, Hill and Chavis have no such assurance. Since Downs, 24, was claimed off waivers in December, he is on the 40-man roster and has a good shot to appear for the Nationals at some point. Since Hill and Chavis signed minor league deals, they would have to impress in spring training to crack the Opening Day roster, much like veteran Dee Strange-Gordon did last April. Hill’s competition in the outfield includes Alex Call and Stone Garrett, who are each on the 40-man already. If Chavis hopes to contribute as a versatile infielder, Jake Alu, a surprise climber in Washington’s system, could stand in his way.

Hill, 27 and drafted 23rd by the Detroit Tigers in 2o14, was DFA’d by Detroit in August and claimed by the Seattle Mariners. In 254 plate appearances with the Tigers, he posted a .291 on-base percentage, never maximizing his base-stealing ability. Chavis, 27 and drafted 26th by the Red Sox in 2014, appeared in 129 games for the Pirates in 2022. He has a .237 average, .283 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage in 1,090 career plate appearances.

There are sound reasons each player was available in minor league free agency. And there is a sound argument that the Nationals, a team with at-bats and innings to spare, should really be targeting specific tools and profiles, not just banking on these players rebounding to reach past expectations, or get remotely close. One counter, though, is that something — or multiple somethings — made Hill, Chavis, Downs and Smith so sought after in the first place. Another is that, for Washington, for a club responding to a third straight last-place finish by lowering its payroll, it won’t cost much to give them a look.

“Before I talked to Washington, I had marked them as a top, top place I wanted to go if I were able to choose,” Hill said in a recent phone interview. “It just felt right, like there would be a lot of opportunity.”

Nationals claim Jeter Downs, a former top prospect with an uncertain future

With Smith and Hill, there is the possibility of benefiting from Major League Baseball’s latest rule changes. Last season, Smith, a left-handed batter, was one of the sport’s least-productive batters while facing a shift. This year, teams will be required to have two infielders on each side of second base, meaning Smith should have much more room to pull hits through the right side.

“I’m sure a lot of lefties in the league feel this way. I think it’s going to help a lot of guys,” Smith said of the shift ban. ” … Whether the numbers say it did or didn’t affect it, I feel like personally it did … So just having that even playing field where all the defenders are normally where they should be, I think it’ll open up a lot of hits for lefties, especially line drives up the middle, line drives to short right field.

“I can’t wait to see some of our numbers.”

For Hill, bigger bases and a limit on pitcher step-offs could help him capitalize on his speed. With the new pitch clock, pitchers can only stop it twice by stepping off or making a pickoff throw. Once they do, the next step-off is an automatic balk unless a throw results in retiring a runner. So if Hill is in that situation, he expects to take huge leads and be aggressive on the base paths, something most teams have gone away from in recent years.

While nursing a hamstring injury last summer, he watched AAA pitchers struggle to control the run game. He imagined himself at first base, slowly closing the distance to second before he burst into a sprint. Between 2015 and 2019, Hill averaged 29 steals a season in the minors.

That’s the player he wants to be again. Reaching base is an essential first step.

“I definitely think it will play towards my hand, especially now that I’m getting my legs right finally,” Hill said. “In my few stints up with Detroit, teams knew I wanted to run and would just throw over four, five times to burn my legs before they pitched. Now they can’t do that, so the fast guys will have fresh legs and not bang themselves up diving back to the bag 10 times a game.”

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