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The screams of the fans crowded in the front row of the section closest to the Washington Nationals dugout were a sufficient indicator of the importance of the moment. As if that wasn’t enough, the fact that the staff stationed at the shelter railing and on the ground were dressed in suits was a clear sign.
Dylan Crews came out of the home bench at Nationals Park with batting coach Darnell Coles and headed to the batting cage to make his first hacks as an international. Behind him on Saturday afternoon, children screamed his name and adults tiptoed trying to snap a picture as they first set eyes on a player they hoped would be a franchise-changing talent.
The crews officially joined the Nationals organization on Saturday and agreed to a contract after being drafted second overall less than two weeks ago. The LSU outfielder received a $9 million contract bonus. That’s the second-highest amount in MLB draft history, behind only the $9.2 million that Paul Skenes, a right-hander and his college teammate who was drafted No. 1, just received from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I’m ready to go,” Crews said. “Looking back: 10 years [ago], I really didn’t think I would be in this position right now. I think it all starts with surrounding myself with the right people. I’m just about ready to get started and I couldn’t be happier right now. I look forward to the future. It will be great.”
The Nationals are a contact-first team. It didn’t always work.
The latest part of the Nationals’ push back into competition is now in effect, contributing to an overhauled farm system that looks significantly stronger than it did a year ago.
The Nationals already had an excess of field talent in their farm system before the teams were formed. James Wood and Robert Hassell III, acquired in last year’s Juan Soto trade, are in Class AA Harrisburg. Elijah Green, Washington’s first-round pick in 2022, has reached low Class A at Fredericksburg but is not on the team because he is recovering from a wrist injury. And then there’s Cristhian Vaquero, who the Nationals spent $4.925 million to sign during the 2022 international signing period, and Daylen Lile, a second-round pick in 2021.
But in the crews, the Nationals added a collegiate hitter that’s also strong defensively. He won the Golden Spikes Award, given to the top amateur player in the country. He was a first-team All-American and SEC Player of the Year — and those are just this year’s accomplishments.
“It’s always great to add a key player type to the organization,” general manager Mike Rizzo said before the Nationals game against the San Francisco Giants. “…We’ve been here before.”
Rizzo said crews would go to the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., to get used to the organization before heading to a Class A affiliate — Fredericksburg or Wilmington.
From there he will try to join elite society. Crews was the Nationals’ highest draft pick since Bryce Harper was picked first in 2010. Stephen Strasburg was voted #1 the year before. Harper played seven seasons for Washington, was the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year, won the 2015 NL MVP award and made six All-Star appearances. Strasburg was the 2019 World Series MVP and received three All-Star nominations.
Having played at the most demanding collegiate conference in the country for a team that expects a win every year, Crews are no stranger to high expectations. In three seasons at Baton Rouge, he averaged .380 with a base percentage of .498 and a slugging percentage of .689. In 196 games, he hit 43 doubles, eight trebles and 58 homers — and helped LSU win the national title that season.
“He did well at elite pitching, and I think that’s why he may not have excelled as a top hitter in this draft, but in several years,” said LSU coach Jay Johnson. “He could go into the box now and handle major league pitching in terms of hitting zone control and racquet speed. The combination of vision, recognition, zone management and hitting the ball hard on a line to all parts of the field – he was great at all of that.”
Skills like that will test the Nationals’ patience. Manager Dave Martinez, whose patience has been tested many times during another rebuilding season, said he looks forward to the day when crews at the major league level can help.
So Martinez and the fans in the stands could at least do their batting practice on Saturday. Towards the end of his training session, Crews threw a pitch over the fence for the first time, drawing a few extra cheers. He followed that up with another home run and the screams got louder.
“I’m just going to go out there — no matter what day it is — give everything I can and leave it on the field,” he said. “Actually, I just want to win. I hope that I can bring that to this organization and I hope that I can inspire other people to play my game and influence others as well.”
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