Abrams shares close bond with Nationals veteran

July 10th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jessica Camerato’s Nationals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

NEW YORK -- Early one morning in West Palm Beach, Fla., was mic’d up to capture a day in the life at Spring Training. The 23-year-old shortstop sat on a bench next to 32-year-old veteran utility player while they put on their sneakers.

“CJ, I need a favor, please,” Vargas said. “Win me a Gold Glove this year and All-Star, OK?”

“Lo tengo,” Abrams replied with a nod.

“OK?” Vargas said.

“OK,” Abrams confirmed.

On Sunday, Abrams sat next to Vargas during a team meeting in the Nationals' clubhouse as Abrams was announced as a 2024 All-Star by manager Dave Martinez.

“Speech! Speech!” Vargas exclaimed.

It has been Vargas’ words that have been motivating Abrams as their friendship continues to grow in their second full season as teammates.

“[I feed] off the energy,” Abrams said. “It helps me stay positive. Whenever I have a good day, bad day, talking to him, I stay level-headed.”

Their friendship began in 2022. Vargas was promoted from Triple-A Rochester to the Nationals on Aug. 1. The next day, the Nats acquired Abrams in the mega trade that sent Juan Soto to the Padres. Abrams played eight games with Rochester to get acclimated to the organization before he was promoted to the Majors on Aug. 15.

Vargas took on a veteran leadership role playing alongside Abrams at second and third base as well as backing him up at shortstop.

“They’re very close,” Martinez said. “I think CJ looks at Ildemaro as a big brother, kind of more of a mentor, and Vargas really tries to help him every day.”

Abrams and Vargas both speak English and Spanish, enhancing their communication -- “One of the benefits to knowing Spanish, for sure,” Abrams said. Their conversations flow from small talk in the clubhouse to in-depth conversations on the field and in the dugout.

“They talk a lot during games,” said Martinez. “Whenever something goes differently than [how] Vargas thinks it should go, they’ll have a conversation about it. But Vargas is pretty good about listening to CJ and letting him speak. I think CJ really likes that a lot.

“Instead of dictating everything to him, he wants to hear how CJ felt on a particular play. Vargas will give him, ‘This is what I saw, this is what I thought you could have done,’ and CJ really, really accepts it really well. Then they have their moments where they’re just fooling around like two little kids. It’s been fun to watch those two guys.”

Vargas’ mantra “Today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow” is displayed on a sign next to his locker this season, but he has been emphasizing it for much longer. That outlook has helped Abrams stay focused in the early stages of his career.

“I agree,” Abrams said. “Being present is big in baseball. You can’t let yesterday affect today, and you can’t let today affect tomorrow.”

Vargas has seen that translate onto the field. Abrams batted .305 in April and .205 in May, and then his production skyrocketed in June, when he hit .373. Abrams’ 1.051 OPS since June 6 ranks second in the National League behind only Shohei Ohtani (1.140).

“0-for-4, 4-for-4, 0-for-2, he’s the same person,” Vargas said. He then added in Spanish: “It doesn't matter what day it is, it's always the same person, and I like that in a person. He is a good man.”

As for that pep talk in Spring Training, Vargas said it was important to him to reiterate the star power he recognized in Abrams. Those conversations of encouragement are a frequent part of their friendship.

“It just motivates me every day,” Abrams said. “He tells me that I can do it. I believe in it, and I believe in myself as well just as much as he does.”