As we close our first year of operation, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the story lines that emerged from 2010 in the Nationals minors. Baseball, as you very well know, is a paradox: There are patterns and rhythms that are predictable. At least a dozen times a year, I’ll have a “Broadcast News” moment at the ballpark (“I say it up here, it comes out down there”) which impresses the folks sitting near me, but I suspect most, if not all, of our hardcore commenters here have that same experience.
But the number of surprises always outnumbers these premonitions, and that’s why we watch; it’s what unites us. We’re all seamheads, to borrow from one of the folks that frequently make his way here. Thankfully, there are fewer folks here that come here to bitch about the parent club (and savage past drafts) than at our former sister site (let me be clear: my goal was always to complement, not compete) the Nationals Farm Authority. But I also understand that that frustration makes for a niche and raison d‘être (yes, I is edumacated) because the story has been that the farm will supply the next generation of talent.
And that’s what I try to do: Find those stories and tell them because, at its heart, sportswriting (and Journalism) isn’t just reporting. I’m pretty lucky in that I get to “sell” hope because that’s what the minor leagues (affiliated or otherwise) are all about… and always have been. Zuckerman, Goessling, and Kilgore and the other folks that cover the parent club have a much tougher task because, let’s face it: DC folks want a winner and don’t want to wait. It’s what fuels that aforementioned frustration.
So without further ado, let’s look over the ten stories that emerged from the Nationals minors in 2010 (listed, more or less, chronologically).
This was a story two years in the making. In 2008, once it became apparent that the Nats were headed for a 100-loss season, the speculation began. By 2009, everyone and their grandmother knew who the Nats were picking in the First-Year Player draft. This year, it was only a matter of when, not if. Early on, folks thought that Strasburg might debut in Potomac, but by the middle of Spring Training, it was patently obvious that he was ticketed for Harrisburg and that the Nats would take great pains to make sure he mostly pitched at home and away from Virginia and Maryland. For a brief moment, when the parent club was above .500, there was even talk about what might happen if the Nats were still in contention and Strasburg was nearing his innings limit. Well, the end came sooner than expected but for those three months (March-May), Strasburg was the talk of the Nats minors.
Switching sides and speeds, the story of Milone is how he continues to simply get guys out. In 2009, he went 12-5 with a 2.91ERA; In 2010, he went 12-5 with a 2.85ERA. Milone would win the minor-league pitcher of the year award for Washington, but more importantly… he’s starting to earn just a little respect. Witness Aaron Fitt’s answer to our perennial question regarding the lack thereof for Milone:
He can really pitch, he has a very good changeup and uses his fringy curveball well. I think he can be a No. 5 starter in the big leagues, and I ranked him 16th in the system. That’s not bad for an almost-24-year-old soft-tossing lefty.
The secret may be out on Mr. Milone, but I’m still excited to see if he becomes the sleeper I’ve been touting him to be.
Now let me preface this by saying I’m fully aware that Whiting may become a 4A footnote six months from now, but the success of a 26-year-old that had never played a day of AA ball, much less AAA, is something nobody in their right mind could have predicted — never mind while doing it lefthanded for the first time professionally (prior to very late in 2009, Whiting was strictly a RHB). Still, the fastest runner in the organization (until Eury Perez shows me otherwise) got his day in the sun and had a great season, flourishing under a manager that likes to run his players.
Well, not all the stories in 2010 were happy or “feel good.” Six Nationals farmhands were suspended, including four in the month of July. Unfortunately, that’s an increase from four in 2009, after just one in 2008 and none in 2007. That it was a 50/50 split of steroids vs. amphetamines, or North American-born vs. Latin American-born is neither reason to excuse or explain. As Bizofbaseball.com’s Maury Brown put it (my source for these numbers), the need for stronger education of all players in all places is obvious because it’s costing these guys both developmental time and salary, neither of which they have in great supply.
Coming into 2010, Peacock was one of a number of young, hard throwers that struggle with their command. If Milone was the guy that caught my eye in ’09, Peacock was the guy in ’10. Early on, he was strikeout machine but just couldn’t get out past the sixth inning because he would throw so many pitches to get those Ks. But he had a devastating changeup that would fool me from my seat (yes, I’m adjusting for age and distance) so I can only imagine how hard it must be for the batters. Once he got that under control, it was only a matter of time before he’d be like The Jeffersons and movin’ on up, culminating in the best regular-season game on July 6th, a complete-game shutout.
This story has been told a lot, so I’ll spare folks the long version. Moore is what we hope for and we get about once every few years: A kid that suddenly gets it and starts to smack the ball with authority. Often lost in the narrative is the role that Chris Marrero played in this. As one guy asked me in Salem late in the year, “What the hell is this kid still doing here?” The answer was “Because they have a guy that’s younger than he is that’s also hitting the ball well at AA.” Now, like Whiting, it’s possible that we may have seen his career year. But it’s also possible that the pieces have fallen into place and he’s a late bloomer.
The Vermont Collapse
When I visited Burlington in late June, the Lake Monsters were on their way to rolling up an 18-5 record and they looked like a lock to make the playoffs. But then, as we discussed in the season review, the pitching went south and the losing began. Perhaps adding to the agony is that they were still in it until the very end. This was a story that played itself out in the daily news and notes, but we did it see it coming.
The Harrisburg Run
The converse to Vermont was the second-half rally that Harrisburg made, which was hoped for, but not predicted. It was the perfect storm of getting just what was needed, when it was needed. Peacock got the call in late July, along with Josh Johnson. The trade deadline delivered another two starters (Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark) who were lights-out in August. A couple of weeks later, Michael Burgess and Steve Lombardozzi helped beef up the offense and completed a 43-28 second half that propelled the Sens into the playoffs. That they lost there hurts, but only a little because they lost to a team with good prospects and previous playoff experience via the 2009 Carolina League Mills Cup.
Potomac Wins Its Second Championship In Three Years
Early in the season, the Potomac offense was moribund and inconsistent. Either they scored a ton or didn’t score at all. It’s tempting to say that they rode the hot bat of Tyler Moore the whole way in the second half, but that would ignore that others got their bats going at the same time (e.g. Derek Norris, Bill Rhinehart, and Sean Rooney). Simply put: by early August it was apparent that the offensive woes were over and that the two callups from Hagerstown (Trevor Holder and Danny Rosenbaum) might gel with the veterans (Adrian Alaniz and Jimmy Barthmaier). The schedule also helped, as they got a nice 22-game stretch of also-rans and beat out the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a team that edged the P-Nats in ’09 and ’07 as they made second-half pushes. Beating the two best teams in the playoffs only made the run that much sweeter, even if I had my doubts (*ahem*).
Like Strasburg, everybody knew Washington would take Harper… and also like Strasburg, a lot of people were afraid they couldn’t sign him. But Harper was signed and even while limited to just two days a week, he made his presence felt (.343/.410/.629) in the Arizona Fall League, playing in the championship game and driving in a run in a 3-2 win. Where Harper plays in 2011 will be the question du jour in spring training, regardless of how well (or poorly) he plays. The official word is Hagerstown, but I have a hard time believing that he’ll be in Low-A unless he struggles immensely. And I don’t say that because I want to see him start in Potomac instead. If the AFL is said to be between AA and AAA, then one has to contemplate the possibility that he’ll start in Harrisburg, even at the tender age of 18. Like Strasburg, I’m anxious to see him but am not looking forward to the hordes that are likely to invade, either.