Scouting the Nationals’ Return for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner

“In a game against the aliens for the survival of the species, who are you giving the ball to?”

Some version of that question has been posed to me many times during my FanGraphs tenure. My response has typically been Max Scherzer, while the most popular answer among readers has leaned toward Clayton Kershaw. Well, now the Dodgers have both after trading for Scherzer and Trea Turner on Thursday. In the process, they gave up their top two prospects in right-handed pitcher Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz, as well as potential late-inning reliever Gerardo Carrillo and outfielder Donovan Casey, a former two-way player and hopeful late-bloomer.

Even though Scherzer is a rental, the prospect haul Washington is getting for Mad Max and Turner, who was my pre-season pick to win NL MVP (too cute?), is substantial enough to merit its own piece. As part of the Nationals prospect list this April, I wrote that Washington’s system was so bad that I’d rather take Vanderbilt’s roster and their high school commits than the Nationals’ entire minor league system. The White Sox graduated their handful of top 100 prospects, which sank them below Washington in our rankings; this deal, which includes two top 100 prospects, moves the Nationals from 29th to 24th (our farm system calculations tend to like potential stars more than depth).

Let’s dig into the pieces involved. Josiah Gray, a 55 FV prospect (as in, a number two or three starter on a playoff team) is currently ranked 21st overall in baseball. He’s a major league-ready mid-rotation piece who, while approaching age 24, may develop late polish. A converted shortstop from LeMoyne University in New York, Gray has only been pitching full-time since 2018, and yet he raced to the big leagues and has a remarkable strike-throwing track record for someone so new to pitching. He has never once posted a walk rate above 8.2% at any minor league level.

Gray’s superlative on-mound athleticism helps him maintain and repeat an extreme drop-and-drive delivery. Gray gets so low when he strides home that his right shin is almost flat on the ground upon release. This helps create a really tough, flat, bat-missing angle on his fastball, which sits in the 93-96 mph range and has rise and tail.

Gray’s most-used secondary weapon is a slider, typically in the 85-88 mph range, that features pretty variable shape and quality. When it’s located, it’s plus, and you can run wild projecting on it and Gray’s two other pitches — a curveball and changeup — because he’s so athletic and so new to pitching. This is the area of his development that seems to be the most influential unknown variable. He’d probably be okay if plugged immediately into a big league rotation, but stardom awaits him if Gray and the Nationals can hone his secondary stuff. Raw stuff quality is less of an issue here than feel for consistent execution has been. Gray’s best breaking balls have depth and bite, while his best changeups have action running away from lefty batters that causes them to swing inside the baseball. If that stuff gets tightened up, he’s an All-Star.

The other top 100 prospect in the deal is catcher Keibert Ruiz, and even though he’s currently 43rd overall, he may yet be poised to move up. Ruiz popped onto the scene in 2016 with a loud statistical showing at short-season Ogden. Though his power output was inflated by the elevation of the Pioneer League, he showed advanced feel for contact and soft receiver’s hands immediately, and he continued to do so as he climbed the minor league ladder.

Other aspects of Ruiz’s game have come and gone. His power output fluctuates, and his conditioning and on-field effort have, too. He’s a free-swinger who has historically been bailed out by his incredible feel for contact, and that doesn’t always hold water against big league pitching.

But Ruiz’s feel for contact is incredible. He’s a switch-hitter with a very controlled, smooth, short stroke from both sides. He’s run strikeout rates in the 8 to 12% range during his minor league career and he projects to have a 70-grade hit tool, which is almost unheard of for a catcher. He especially mauls fastballs. Per proprietary xStats sent to me by two different clubs, Ruiz’s xwOBA against all pitches, as well as fastballs over 93 mph, is .458. He is hitting for impact power again this year for the first time since that outlier Pioneer League season a half decade ago. Per Synergy Sports, Ruiz has swung and missed just 11 times against fastballs all year, and he’s almost impossible to beat in the strike zone, typically only swinging over top of breaking balls in the dirt. Ruiz has freaky bat-to-ball ability and it could spearhead an All-Star-laden career at what is a shallow position league-wide.

How much power will there be? I think it’s fair to assume Ruiz’s epicurean approach will at least limit his power output. At catcher, that’s going to be okay. The power output here is the unknown variable that will dictate whether Ruiz is a star or merely quite good. There have also been times during his career when Ruiz has looked aloof or out of shape, and his BABIPs have sometimes been comically low because he was hitting so many soft groundballs that he couldn’t exactly leg out for hits. He’s also pretty cavalier when it comes to blocking balls, greatly preferring to try to backhand pick short-hoppers in the dirt rather than move in front of the ball to block it with his pads. When he picks it clean, it’s really sexy. When he doesn’t, it’s ugly and looks like a mistake that could have been avoided with simple effort.

Overall, Ruiz is a good defensive catcher, ball-blocking aside. He has baby-soft hands, is a good receiver at the bottom of the zone, and has a very accurate arm. The game seems slow and comfortable to Ruiz, appearing to come to him and operate at his pace. This is a unique prospect, one I think will at least be a good everyday catcher but who has a chance to be a star because he’s so difficult to strike out.

The final two pieces in the deal are Donovan Casey and Gerardo Carrillo. I like Casey’s career narrative. He was a two-way player at Boston College and has made some noise on paper as a pro. He has real arm strength (duh), speed, and power, but he’s 25 and is whiffing 25% of the time at Double-A. I think he maxes out as a big league bench piece, but I suppose the two-way late-bloomer consideration also applies here, as it does to Gray.

Carrillo is a 40+ FV prospect (which basically means I think he’s an impact reliever, but not a closer) who has an upper-90s sinker, two good breaking balls (though the curve doesn’t play great because it’s easy for hitters to differentiate from the sinker), and a changeup that looked better the last time I saw him. The violence and effort in his delivery combined with his walk rates the last two years all point to the bullpen, but probably in a high-leverage role, and probably very soon.

How does this package feel for a deal of this magnitude? I think it largely hinges on how great Ruiz becomes, but offhand I think it’s fine. A weak system got two top 100 prospects. Scherzer leaves a World Series and Hall of Fame legacy in his wake, but is a straight up rental here. And while giving up a year of Trea Turner stings, this move doesn’t preclude the Nationals from pursuing one of the free agent shortstops available this winter and having a better roster six months from now.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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2 years ago

Just feel like the Nats should’ve absorbed $$ to get more, especially after the Marlins got Luzardo for Marte.

Even with the likely Gomes/Harrison deals coming up, idk why we haven’t heard more rumors about them flipping Joe Ross

Also, as soon as I saw this trade, immediately thought the nats became the best spot for a Hosmer+ Prospects dump

2 years ago
Reply to  motleycrue84

Eating Hosmer’s contract (on top of the albatross that Corbin has become and Strasburg might be) would be an excellent way of guaranteeing that the Nats rebuild is off the long, drawn-out variety. This Nats fan says “No thanks”

2 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The Strasburg contract has a real possibility of being the worst contract in history. Worse even than Chris Davis.

2 years ago
Reply to  bglick4

Ryan Howard has something to say about this.

2 years ago
Reply to  Daniel

The Mets are STILL paying Bobby Bonilla!

2 years ago
Reply to  bglick4

I think prince fielder still makes 30 million a year.

2 years ago
Reply to  bglick4

I think pretty much every “worst contract” is a mega-contract given to a first baseman. Pujols, Chris Davis, Ryan Howard, Cabrera. Strasburg probably isn’t as bad a contract as Cabrera’s even today.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Ha, I also forgot about Prince Fielder and Hosmer! Kids, do not give a first baseman a monster contract like that. Hopefully the Braves give Freeman a deal that ages more like Votto / Goldschmidt (bad but not inexcusably so) instead of Fielder or Pujols.

Positively Half Stmember
2 years ago
Reply to  bglick4

I think Strasburg needs one or maybe two mostly healthy seasons to be sure that isn’t the case. If he never pitches again, then insurance wil take care of it.

2 years ago
Reply to  motleycrue84

Why would the Dodgers give a crap about the $$$? Of course they weren’t going to toss in more talent in return for some $$$. Why in the world would anybody think they would??

2 years ago
Reply to  Richie

…then you trade to the not-Dodgers.