Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, both 23, were two of the four prospects (along with 25-year-old outfielder Donovan Casey and 23-year-old right-hander Gerardo Carillo) acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deadline deal which sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to LA.
Both the catcher and right-handed starter played in the majors before the trade, and were considered close, if not at the point of being ready to play every day in the big leagues.
“I think they’re big league-ready players,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo said on the night of the deal.
“They’ve proven themselves at the minor league level, we think they’re impactful type of players. I think it — not only did we get a very talented, impactful player [in Ruiz], we got that at a position that we really needed it. It’s one of the key positions in all of baseball, and like when we acquired Wilson Ramos in a trade, you could see what that particular position had, and the impact that position can [have] for a baseball team, and I think that he was a focal point of what we were trying to do at the trade deadline, and we identified him, and he was the main cog that we were trying to get.
“And Jo-Jo Gray is a terrific young prospect, he’s got great stuff and a terrific pitcher and he’s a guy that we should see very soon if not right away in the big leagues. He’s big league ready, he was a starting pitcher on a championship-caliber club with the Dodgers, and I think he’ll come over here and just continue to improve and make himself into one of the elite starting pitchers in the game.”
Gray debuted with the Nationals on July 2nd. Ruiz started at Triple-A but came up for the final month of the season.
In 12 starts and 62 2⁄3 IP for Washington, Gray put up a 5.31 ERA, a 5.71 FIP, 28 walks, 63 Ks, and a .238/.322/.489 line against, providing a glimpse of what the Nats saw when the club scouted him in advance of the deal.
“If you can put my season with the Nats into bunches, you know, the first five [starts] were great, the four after that were not great, and then the last three were awesome,” Gray said after he finished up the year with a strong outing against the Boston Red Sox in the nation’s capital.
“So obviously it’s about closing the gap on the middle starts.”
In those “not great” or “middle” starts he made, Gray put up an 11.42 ERA, an 8.36 FIP, and a .294/.405/.647 line against in 17 1⁄3 IP. In his first five, the righty posted a 2.89 ERA, a 5.78 FIP, and a .223/.286/.485 line against in 28 IP, and he finished up the year with a string of three outings in which he had a 3.12 ERA, a 2.94 FIP, and a .203/.282/.328 line against in 17 1⁄3 IP.
A strong finish meant a lot to the Nationals’ starter.
“It definitely makes a difference,” he said.
“Obviously having the four tough ones is something that I’m really going to think hard about in the offseason, be like, ‘Man, my short stint with the Nats this year could have been a lot different if I managed to give up a few less runs, or walked a few less people, something like that, so yeah, it’s going to eat at me a little bit, but honestly, after that start in Pittsburgh [on September 11th], I just kind of hit a point where I was like, ‘Man, I’m going out there with not the right confidence that I’ve always had.’ And just restoring that, restoring the mental strength was really, really important for me to sort of just build myself back up to where I’m here, I’m going to be the big man on that mound, I’m going to go and get guys out.”
“So just building off the things from each start,” he added, “and really just preparing better and being mentally strong-willed me to want to get better every time, and going out and being better every time.”
“He pitched about as good as I’ve seen him pitch tonight,” manager Davey Martinez said after Gray’s final outing, against the Red Sox, “... and that was awesome to see, against a good team that’s in the playoff hunt, and he held his own and did really well. So, I’m very excited to have him and get him going again here in the spring and see what he can do in a full season, but you saw what he could do in a big moment, and he did well.”
Ruiz put up a .308/.365/.577 line with six doubles and five home runs in 20 games and 85 plate appearances at Triple-A Rochester in the Nationals’ system, then came up and put up a .284/.348/.395 line with three doubles and two home runs in 23 games and 89 PAs for the Nationals, with 13 walks and 10 strikeouts between the minors and majors after coming over from the Dodgers.
He finished the year with a 13-game run over which he was 19 for 48 (.396/.453/.563).
“[Ruiz has] been great,” Martinez said over the final weekend of the season. “He really has. And I’m excited that he’s really accepting his walks in big moments, but like I said, the biggest thing we’ve been working on with him is getting balls in the strike zone, he’s got great bat-to-ball skills, when he starts getting balls in the strike zone he’s going to hit them hard and hit them far, so another great at-bat for him tonight.”
Ruiz told reporters down the stretch that he was working hard and looking to continue to improve on his already-impressive skills.
“I want to keep getting better,” he said. “Keep working hard, and just keep working hard at every at bat, be focused, and hopefully I can have some more results.”
Martinez said that though their numbers weren’t great when they worked together, he liked what he saw from Ruiz and Gray together with the Nationals as well.
“I think they’re going to be really, really good together, I really do, and slowly but surely they have gotten better,” he said.
“You know, specifically along innings-wise, there’s some innings that things got away from them, but they work good together.
“And like I said, I’ve been watching Keibert work diligently with [bench and catching coach] Henry [Blanco] and working on different things, and he’s gotten actually really better.”
“I saw the way he works with pitchers,” the manager added, “... the communication that he has with pitchers, he’s been good, and I know him and Josiah have really been working on the communication, in-game communication, they talk to each other, they sit next to each other, Keibert goes down in the tunnels here at home, and when he’s sitting down I hear them talk about how they want to attack a certain hitter, what they did with previous hitters whether a guy got a hit and what happened in that situation, so it’s been fun watching those guys work together and communicating.
“That’s the big key for a catcher, is being able to communicate with each individual pitcher and getting them to stay honed in on what he needs to do.”
The Future Is Now:
Rizzo, watching closely over the final few months, said he saw growth from Ruiz and Gray.
“I like the way he’s progressed,” he said of the catcher. “Ruiz has shown me things that we didn’t see when we scouted him. His attention to detail in the clubhouse with the pitcher duties that he has and the way he really cares about calling the game has been refreshing.
“Henry [Blanco] has had a really good — been a really good mentor to him, and Ruiz has been a hungry [student]. That’s really impressed me about him.
“As far as offensively, he doesn’t strike out much, even at this level, and he shows that he could be a force offensively — that doesn’t come as a surprise.”
And the GM’s take on Gray?
“Jo-Jo has been great,” Rizzo said. “I like the was he attacks the strike zone, he’s kind of made an adjustment as far as his early starts, and then he struggled for several starts, and he kind of got back to what made him the prospect that he was [when we got him from the Dodgers].
“But that’s not to say they don’t need to improve. They need to get better. Jo-Jo I know is working on a third pitch and Ruiz is working on blocking balls better, and always working on his rapport with his pitchers.”