Sep 142012
 

As suggested in the comments, it does appear that the Washington Nationals minor-league system is about to enter a new phase. Take a look at a lineup from earlier this week:

Werth, RF
Harper, CF
Zimmerman, 3B
LaRoche, 1B
Morse, LF
Desmond, SS
Espinosa, 2B
Suzuki, C
Gonzalez, P

Four of those nine were directly developed by Washington, two more were acquired by trades of minor leaguers — all of those six are 29 or younger. We could go up and down the roster, but I’ll cut to the chase: The D.C. nine are young, homegrown, and appear poised to begin a run for postseason glory for the next several seasons. The Nationals are starting to draw comparisons to the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of the 1990s, which, in terms of the minors’ goal of developing major leaguers, is a pretty high compliment — never mind the simplistic, talk-radio retort of reducing that success to the number of rings won.

But enough about the top of the pyramid. You’ll get plenty more of this from the mainstream media (at least on the four days between the day before, of, and after the local NFL team plays) and the national media, which is giving the Nationals the flavor-of-the-week treatment with the Atlanta series with broadcasts on MLB Network, Fox and ESPN tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday.

There’s a lot of talk about Washington entering Phase Two, which really applies to the parent club more than the minors, in my opinion. I tend to look at the minors progression like this:

1) The Nationals go all-in on H.S. picks, start to clear out the system that had been put on autopilot in 2002
2) College picks are used heavily to fortify the ranks while the Nationals use their first-round picks to get generational talents
3) The Nationals spend heavily on the final draft before the new CBA kicks in, cash in on some of the returns of #1 and #2 for a SP
4) ???

I started to attach dates to those numbers, but there’s obviously some overlap and as you can see with #4, it’s not necessarily clear what the next progression is. I’d like to think that it means more American-born high schoolers are infused into the system, especially with the large group of 22-24-year-olds in the system, but I’ve yet to see a thoughtful analysis of how the new CBA is really affecting the HS pipeline. I doubt the knee-jerk reaction of “all the elite talent will go to college instead” will turn out to be true or even mostly true. But if the Nationals can continue their post-Smiley success with the likes of Wander Ramos and Estarlin Martinez, that might not be as big a problem as some folks fear.

What people think has been on my mind, too. The success of the parent club hasn’t engendered the kind of patience that I’ve been hoping for (and preaching). When I first stumbled upon Brian Oliver’s Nationals Farm Authority, there was a significant (and rather annoying) group of folks that were there only to advocate for the replacements of the 100-loss editions of the Washington Nationals. Thankfully they have largely gone away from sites like this, but the impatience, while muted compared to that cacophony, still echoes.

I’ve been hinting at it for some time now, but the next few years are going to be a test for fans of Washington minors. There’s been a lot of excitement because there has been a run of top-rated picks that were on their way to Washington. That flow is going to slow because there just isn’t the room at the top anymore. It doesn’t mean that the machine stops, but it should mean that expectations should be adjusted. Yes, that means more patience, but it also means a realization that some of the guys won’t make it to The Show wearing a Curly “W” — two of my favorites since this site launched, for example, now wear a Gothic “A.”

I’d like to think the organization is headed towards a mode where they continue to draft and develop talent regardless of current need. For example, Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole appear “blocked” by Ryan Zimmerman. But third base has been “taken” since 2006 and could be unavailable until 2019. But it’s foolish to assume that will happen. Players get hurt, their skills diminish, etc. The Boston Red Sox had a comparable situation 25 years ago at third base with Wade Boggs, but over the next five years his eventual replacement (Scott Cooper) and three others (John Valentin, Tim Naehring, and Jeff Bagwell) were drafted and came up to the majors, three for Boston and one for Houston in a trade that gets brought up nearly every July, and usually without mentioning all four left-side infielders.

In my opinion, a situation like that is true success in the minors — generating a steady stream of players that can play in the majors. It might not be all for the parent club, but if an organization creates depth it can keep the players it needs, and deal the ones it doesn’t. Plus, as we’ve seen all year long, doing this enables a team to withstand some injuries and build a bench that can fill in and push the starters.

What remains to be seen is whether the Nationals can do this without the benefit of top draft picks, which was a sneer about Tampa Bay when the Rays made a similar, sudden ascent in 2008. It wasn’t true then and the success since has further proven that knock wrong.

Without spoiling too much of the forthcoming season reviews, it does seem that organization’s strength has shifted from developing pitchers to developing position players. In that respect, the comparison to the Braves falls woefully short. But it’s also not uncommon — a lot of organizations have this dilemma.
As Earl Weaver famously said: “Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same — pitching.”

The trick, of course, is to figure out how to get the mojo back on producing arms while continuing to produce the bats. I suspect that’s what we’ll be discussing a lot over the winter.

  19 Responses to “The State of the Nationals Farm”

  1. What remains to be seen is whether the Nationals can do this without the benefit of top draft picks, which was a sneer about Tampa Bay when the Rays made a similar, sudden ascent in 2008.

    I strongly suspect that we will see a winning team drafting towards the end of the first round go ahead and forfeit future first rounders if a premium talent falls into their laps.
    The reasoning would be “X is better than what we can reasonably expect to acquire at this place in the draft next year.” If you have confidence in your scouts to select guys in the, say, third through tenth rounds who can contribute to the parent team, this is the kind of gamble I can Rizzo taking.

  2. Seedlings to stars reports that Rendon is being tried at 2nd base. If true, we could see him at 2nd in the AFL, and in the majors. He is down in Viera now, and if he is learning a new position, we may soon know:

    http://seedlingstostars.com/2012/09/11/2012-arizona-fall-league-delegates-washington-nationals/

    • Unless this guy is cribbing from me, I’m glad to see some of my observations repeated/reflected in that article. Do I get to root for Rendon shifting to 2B for “I told you so” purposes?

      • “Do I get to root for Rendon shifting to 2B for “I told you so” purposes?”

        I am. One of the write-ups that confirmed my own opinion on Rendon was your assessment of him after he spent just a few days in Potomac. They have been fast-tracking him ever since he was healthy enough to take the field, again. I have been wondering why they did not bring him up in September. Teaching him to play 2nd in Viera would explain that.

        Do you have any predicitions on Skole? FWIW, I think they eventually move him to 1b.

        • I’d rather wait until after the AFL is over, but I’ve been on record that I think he’s best suited to the other side of the diamond.

  3. thanks for this Luke, well presented as usual.

    as for the shift toward bats, I think the Giolito pick reflects the organization’s understanding that is all starts with arms. plus with Meyer and to a lesser extent Solis and Purke, we are not without talent now. not that you were inferring this.

    • After some of the grief I got regarding the pitchers as starters vs. relievers, I’m thinking of doing RHP, LHP, Had Surgery — any takers?

  4. Excellent write up, Luke.

    I am actually really excited to see that so many players in the minors are ‘blocked’ by strong talent at the major league level. Not only does it mean that there is a watchable product on the field on Half St., but it also means that player development will go on a schedule that is appropriate for the player as the main driver of when they get promoted.

    A big knock that I had on Jim Bowden (and there are many knocks to be had on his tenure in DC) was that he was generally over aggressive promoting players, putting them in over their heads and shooting their confidence early. Granted, he wasn’t working with quite the same talent as the Nats have right now (another knock on Bowden?), but the strategy was based on small sample sizes and a whole lot of optimism. Not a very sustainable way to develop players.

    Rizzo, on the other hand, has been surprisingly deliberate with promotions (except when he is not), making players ‘master’ a level before moving them up. You can see this strategy used very well with guys like Matt Skole this year and Tyler Moore over the last three years. Think about what Jim Bowden would have done with Moore after he blasted 31 HRs in single A. There were big question marks around Moore as a prospect and he needed the extra time in the minors to become a better ball player, even if the power was there all along. Moore now looks like a legit major leaguer, and I think that is a big testament to our developmental philosophy.

    I have faith in this front office to continue draft smart and develop. The nats have found a lot of very good players in the later rounds (Lombo, Moore, Millone, etc.) and I believe that they will continue to do so.

    Onwards and upwards. Go nats.

  5. I think how stocked we view the Nats’ farm system’s arms, based on who is on the books right now, will be based on the health of Solis, Purke and Giolito.

    If those three get healthy, there is suddenly a lot more high-end depth in the system when paired with Karns, Myer, Perry, Rosenbaum, etc…

    If none of them bounce back healthy, things look pretty thin on the pitching front.

  6. I posted my concerns about the state of the Nats farm system earlier this season (http://www.nationalsarmrace.com/?p=4271), which led to a spirited conversation in the comments section itself. My short opinion; we’ve drafted too many expensive high-level injury risks lately at the expense of rising depth, so we’re thin. But, we’re thin at a time where we don’t NEED the depth, so its ok.

    Where “should” the Nats drafting go? I can’t see any reason for the team to continue its path of “best player available” and continuing to load up on college arms and bats. Clearly this organization doesn’t rate HS players, rarely taking them in the past few seasons. This leads to very “old” low-A and GCL teams but definitely gives the team lots of options to evaluate for promotion and eventual bullpen replacement.

    Btw, you can’t really say that Rendon and especially Skole are “blocked” by a guy in the majors. When Rendon can stay healthy for a full season, then we can start to talk about what to do with him IF he makes the majors. Skole was in LOW-A all year; that’s like saying that your #4 starter in Hagerstown is being blocked by Jordan Zimmermann. There are so, so many things that can happen between now and the day that these guys may possibly be ready to play in the majors. Rendon is a good athlete; a plus 3rd baseman can easily play 2nd, 1st or LF with very little spring training work. Or, the team may finally get sick of watching Zimmerman air-mail unpressured simple throws across the diamond and might switch him to 1B. Maybe we trade somebody to make room. Maybe someone gets hit by a truck. The point is; a prospect in the minors is just that; a prospect. They’re not a sure thing til they arrive, show they can produce at the MLB level and force a decision.

    • All very good points, sir. In my defense, I used quotes on blocked to indicate sarcasm, especially in light of the drumbeat to promote Skole. And I know you know this because you echoed a lot of my thoughts (I prefer “hit by a bus”).

    • “When Rendon can stay healthy for a full season, then we can start to talk about what to do with him IF he makes the majors.”

      According to “seedlings to stars” the Nats are already talking about bringing him up right out of spring training:

      “…he’s an extremely talented player who could be ready to make a significant impact in Washington as soon as next season. The Nationals hope to see him rip up AFL pitching and challenge for a big league spot as soon as Spring Training 2013.”

      Rendon has more experience than Harper vs. college opposition, and the Nats started out Rendon at a higher MiL level than Harper right out of the box. They brought Harp up at 19. Rendon is 23 and more fully developed as a hitter than Harper was when the Nats brought him up this year. Harper was actually stumbling in AAA when they brought him up, because they had a need.

      Unless he gets hurt, Rendon has a chance to be in the lineup as early as next year. If Espinoza stumbles out of the gate as badly as he did this year, and Rendon plays up to his abilities in ST, you could see a new 2b on opening day. It’s not as if Espinoza has shown that he has the job locked up. He has not, otherwise the Nats would not be moving Rendon to 2b.

      Harper is a special talent, but so is Rendon. Harper, Machado, Trout – guys like that don’t stay in the MiLs that long.

    • I guess I tend to disagree. The fact that both Skole AND especially Rendon are headed for the AFL appears to indicate that they are soon destined for the majors …

      And if Zimmerman is moved to first base, Rendon could slide into third and you would have the most athletic infield in baseball. That has always been one of Mike Rizzo and his FO’s goals. They tend to favor talent AND athleticism. In that regard players like Adam LaRoche don’t fit the model. And neither does Skole, Morse, and even Tyler Moore for that matter … unfortunately.

      The fact that Strasburg is hitting .277 in 53 at bats makes a statement about the Nat’s pitching rotation’s athleticism as well.

  7. I think the answer to your ??? for phase 4 is pretty obvious, and described well by you. While the Nats did a great job of leveraging their timely high picks, and their ability to “overpay”, the new realities of the CBA and their newfound success at the ML level will force (allow) them to go back to a more traditional approach. I think the 2012 draft (with the exception of Giolito) now looks like it highlights a focus on scouting out “talent regardless of current need”; a more balanced approach across HS, Juco, and college players; and investing in player development up and down the organization. As you show, the youth (and strength) of the ML roster means that they will have time to develop folks gradually and use them wherever it makes sense (Nats, trades, depth). While the combination of the big trades last year and the large number of recent promotions may have temporarily made the farm look “thinner”, I have great hope that for the next few years this site will be more relevant than ever as the Nats are developing exciting future talent across the spectrum …. as you said. “true success in the minors — generating a steady stream of players that can play in the majors”. That is what makes it such fun to watch!

    • as for the 2012 draft, the selection of Giolito made the next 9 rounds a process of drafting players they knew would sign for slot or under slot in order to re-allocate the money to Giolito. If he would not have been available we could have a whole different set of players from those same 10 rounds.

      now that they’ll be drafting in the last few places it will be interesting to see if they take this approach again. the player would have to be a true #1-2 best prospect in the draft as they no doubt rated young Lucas.

  8. They made an uber risky move by drafting a top power pitcher with injury issues first this year? How is that developing arms is taking a back seat?

    Perhaps it seems that way because of the plethora of injuries to top arms this season. However, they did get one back in Nate Karns, and Alex Meyer continues to develop nicely. Mooneyham is looking like a potential sleeper.

    I’m not sure I agree.

  9. […] point, as I touched upon in “The State of the Nationals Farm,” is that the era of sure-fire, fast-rising replacements is coming to an end and the system […]

  10. […] I wrote back in September in discussing the Nationals farm, it’s pretty clear that the organization’s strength has shifted away from developing […]

  11. […] harder to keep the younger talent coming, which is what we hope the farm is transitioning towards: a model of developing major-league players on a regular basis, some of which will play in D.C. while others will […]

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