Dec 302012
 

12 from '12Thanks to our handy-dandy multiplication table, you can see that the finish of Year Three equals 36 months of NationalsProspects.com. It’s time for the annual look at the year that was, a staple of news during the end of the year no matter what the medium.

Last year in this piece, I remarked about how the system was in a state of transition, away from the outsized hopes of “The Coming Thing” and towards the more practical promise of steady player development, where the bets are hedged and the risks spread more evenly. Don’t get me wrong… there’s still some big names — Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin, Lucas Giolito — but the expectations are lower* than they were for Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper.
*Before you disagree, ask yourself if you’re depending on any of those guys to be playing in D.C. before next September.

Nope, things have changed when it comes to the pressure for the “baby Nats” to become “Big Nats.” Winning nearly a hundred games instead of losing more than a hundred will do that.

Speaking for myself, I’m more interested in the journey than the destination. I’d be lying if I claimed that I paid as close attention to the big boys as I do the kids… especially when all seven affiliates are in action. But it makes writing pieces like this easier to do, too.

With that, let’s delve into twelve (hey, that rhymes!) stories from the 2012 season in the Nationals minors.

Bryce Harper Comes to D.C.
There was never a question of whether — only when — Harper would get the call. The Lt. Dans (nee The Lerners Are Cheap) were sure that the Nats would wait until June to avoid “Super Two,” but were once again proven to have no legs to stand on when the promotion came in late April instead of late May or early June. Still late enough to ensure team control through 2018, mind you. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure if this was the plan all along or if injuries were indeed the reason for the early summons.

Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore, too
In keeping with the theme of transition, it would seem that 2011 — when Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos made the club out of spring training as starters — was an exception. In 2012, the drama was whether or not a rookie could make the club as a bench player. Lombardozzi did just that, “proving” the narrative that versatility and fundamentals can be more valuable than the sum of the rest of his game. Unlike Harper, injuries were most definitely a factor in helping Moore make it after all. Of course, it helps to have a knack for getting the big hit off bench, too.

Sandy Leon Injured in MLB Debut
The Nats’ ballyhooed catching depth was put to the test in 2012. Not one but two injuries paved the way for Sandy Leon, who got hurt in the fourth inning of his major-league debut — two days after Wilson Ramos went down for the season and about three weeks after Jhonatan Solano went out with what turned out to be a neck injury. Thankfully, the chain of injuries stopped with Carlos Maldonado. The Nats would dip into that depth again in August, trading David Freitas to the Oakland A’s to get Kurt Suzuki.

Four Nats Nailed for Drug Violations
Perhaps it’s some small comfort that these were merely “drugs of abuse” instead of steroids, but the Nats have yet to go a year without a minor-leaguer being suspended. Zech Zinicola was suspended in January, Josh Wilkie in June, along with Josh Johnson and Rafael Martin, who were merely “disciplined.” The suspension ultimately “earned” Wilkie his release while Zinicola, who had spent 2011 in Syracuse, spent an abbreviated 2012 in Harrisburg.

Gambling On Injuries, Part One
The Nats were — and as we saw last week, still — praised heavily for spending big and gambling on talented players with health questions in the 2011 draft. Unfortunately, neither Matt Purke nor Anthony Rendon were able to have the kind of season that would silence the doubters. Rendon would go down in April with an incomplete (read: not partial; there is no such thing) fracture in his left ankle, which he hadn’t hurt previously. Purke was held in XST until late May and made just three starts, only one at home (during the day) before disappearing. Rendon would eventually come back and play for both Potomac and Harrisburg and in the AFL, but Purke would be shrouded in mystery until October, when it was revealed he had indeed had shoulder surgery as feared and/or rumored.

Gambling On Injuries, Part Two
Despite the new CBA, teams still spent heavily on first-round picks. Picking 16th, the Nats spent $2.125M on HS pitcher Lucas Giolito despite what turned out to be the case some two months later: The 18-year-old would undergo elbow surgery and miss the rest of 2012 and most of 2013. Two anomalies: (1) Unlike Purke, the Nats did not wait months until admitting the obvious (2) Nats fans expressed dismay more than disappointment, which again is fodder for my argument that things have changes when it comes to the Nats fans and the farm.

The Fast and The Furious: Promotions
The new world order is a level per year, with some exceptions. Bryce Harper was one. Brian Goodwin turned out to be another. Both outfielders were jumped from from Low-A to AA, which prompted accusations of punishment for Potomac in 2011 due its field issues. With a brand-new field, the stagnation of Michael Taylor was the more plausible explanation in 2012. Meanwhile, Matt Skole was beating on Sally League pitchers like John Henry with a nine-pound hammer but was left behind until mid-August while several teammates moved up, which of course, made fans, followers, and commenters, well, furious.

Nathan Karns
For the first 18 months of this site’s operation, Karns was akin to something that went bump in the night: heard in the comments, but otherwise unseen. When he finally emerged in June 2011, he would blow away the GCL with 26K’s and two hits allowed in 18⅔ innings. He fell back to earth in Auburn (3.44 ERA, 6.63 BB/9), but made the 2012 Watchlist. After working out of the bullpen in April, the big, ol’ Texan finished the month of May with three straight quality starts and was bumped up to Potomac in June. After a couple of shaky starts against Frederick and Salem, Karns got into a groove — striking out 32 over a three-start stretch and eight QS in his last 11 appearances. He would lead the farm in ERA, WHIP, SO, and OBA.

Christian Garcia
Had he not been a former Yankees 3rd-round pick, Garcia’s signing in late July 2011 would not have warranted much more than a line item in a transactions post. Within three weeks, however, he made the GBI and had the category existed, would have probably made the 2012 watchlist as a “Notable Pitcher.” Fifteen months later, the 27-y.o. was pitching in the postseason and there’s talk (though unrepeated besides beat reporters, Nats bloggers, and the Washington front office) of Garcia joining the Nats rotation. While that still seems unlikely, the observation that the Nats were trying to catch lightning in a bottle seems apt (pat, pat ;-)

Multiple Affiliates Make Playoff Runs
While there’s only been one league championship during our tenure, we’ve been fortunate to have pennant chases from multiple affiliates in all three seasons. Some will snort that this is a natural byproduct of the lean towards collegiate players — and that’s fair criticism — but it’s fun nevertheless. The Auburn Doubledays held off a furious charge from the Batavia Muckdogs (winners of 19 of 21 in in late Aug./early Sept.), while the Potomac Nationals couldn’t replicate the run they made in 2011 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009, thanks in no small part to an abysmal 22-47 mark on the road. The Hagerstown Suns fell 3½ games short in the first half despite a 42-27 record, but did nearly as well (40-28) in the second half and took the Sally North by three games. Both the Suns and Doubledays were bounced in the first round, with Hagerstown getting swept and Auburn falling hard (16-7) in the deciding Game Three.

Rizzo Finally Gets His Span
One of the more troubling aspects of following prospects is getting used to the idea that they may get traded. Now that the Nats are contenders, that means prospects tend to be going in exchange for major-leaguers instead of vice-versa. It happened again last month as top pitching prospect RHP Alex Meyer was traded for long-coveted OF Denard Span. For as long as the Nats have been in Washington (and even years before that), center field has been a soft spot in the lineup, enough that the Nationals were willing to put a 19-year-old rookie there. With that problem ostensibly “solved,” one or more the current crop of centerfielders (yes, even Goodwin) could be next if the right deal comes along to improve the parent club. (See “surplus of catchers,” 2010-2011)

Rosenbaum, Kobernus “Lost” To The Rule 5 Draft
The final reminder in the motif “we’re contenders, get used to this” was the removal of four farmhands earlier this month. In the “dark time” of 2008-2009, following 100+ loss seasons, there was (now, in retrospect) an almost-perverse delight in picking first in the Rule 5 draft, despite rule changes that have diluted it. Fast-forward three years and now it’s the wondering of who will leave, not who will arrive. It’s quotes on the subhead verb because the two players taken in the major-league phase — Danny Rosenbaum (Colorado) and Jeff Kobernus (Boston, flipped to Detroit) — have to stay on the 25-man rosters throughout 2013 and, historically, a significant percentage of draftees are returned.

Dec 292012
 

minor leagues signs 2The estimable Bill “The Rocket” Ladson has passed along news that the Nationals have signed two more minor-league free agents.

Both are of the veteran variety, likely to fill out the Syracuse roster.

Mike “Don’t Call Me George” Constanzo is a corner infielder who was originally drafted by the Phillies in the second round of the 2005 draft. He has also spent time in the Baltimore and Cincinnati organizations, making his MLB debut last May with the Reds but was an abysmal 1-for-18 in 17 games. For his career, the 29-year-old has a .258/.349/.430 line and has played 682 of his 848 minor-league games at 3B, compiling a .928 fielding percentage.

Matt Torra is a RHSP who was originally taken by Arizona (*shock!*) in the supplemental round of the ’05 draft out of UMass, where he posted a 1.14 ERA in his senior season (albeit in the A-10). Shoulder woes (*another shock!*) delayed his full-season debut until 2007, where he struggled to a 6.01 ERA albeit in the Nintendo California League. Torra split time between AA and AAA from ’08 to ’10 before the Diamondbacks released him after 15 starts in 2011. He was picked up by the Rays and finished the ’11 season and pitched all of 2012 with Durham, going 16-9 with a 3.97 ERA in 34 starts.

The 28-year-old Torra features a high-80s sinker (previously low-90s, touching 95), an 11-5 curveball and a changeup but fits the moniker of “pitching to contact” with career marks of 10.3 H/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 5.6 K/9. While he’s improved since this article was written, the conclusion is still apt.

Dec 282012
 

Late yesterday afternoon, John Sickels released his Top 20 list for the Washington Nationals. Here’s a look at how it breaks down by grade:

B+ Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin
B Lucas Giolito, Matt Skole
B- Nathan Karns, Christian Garcia, Sammy Solis
C+ Matt Purke, Eury Perez, Tony Renda, Zach Walters, Destin Hood, Steven Souza, Brett Mooneyham, Estarlin Martinez, Carlos Rivero
C Sandy Leon, Michael Taylor, Brandon Miller, Corey Brown

Left to right is by number, i.e. Rendon is #1, Goodwin is #2… Miller is #19, Brown is #20. In bold are last year’s Top 20 guys, red = they ranked higher, blue = they ranked lower. Italics = played their way onto the list.

The good news and bad news are both two-fold. For the second straight year, eight guys played their way onto the list… and nine of the 20 are C+ guys, meaning they’re a notch above the average so-called prospect (remember Sickels is a tough grader). Unfortunately, after having a baker’s dozen guys rated B- or better last year it’s just seven this year… and five of the eight repeats fell in their letter grade.

I think it’s important to repeat what Sickels wrote about the Nationals system as a whole:

The system has thinned out massively, but that’s understandable: much of the major league roster is home-grown, and farm system products were important in key trades. So while the current list is not impressive, it should not be taken as an indictment of the farm system…

As I did a year ago, here are few of my thoughts on the list…

…While perhaps true, Sickels may have done Rendon no favors by suggesting he can play 2B because now the drumbeat for Rendon to replace Espinosa will only get louder.

…Like Baseball America, I’m intrigued as to why Solis gets a pass despite having had surgery and not mastering A+ yet. Sickels seems to talking out of both sides of his mouth (and I know how hard that is to do, because I’ve caught myself doing many a time) by dropping Giolito from an A grade to a B grade.

…Thankfully, Sickels is on board with the idea that Skole should be switched to 1B and the jump from a C to a B grade is quite the vote of confidence.

…Interesting to see Hood and Souza ranked back-to-back because Hood’s 2011 was much like Souza’s 2012. The difference, of course, is that they’re roughly a year apart in age (23 vs. 24) but Sickels seems to hinting that Souza could be a sleeper.

…Other sleepers: Erik Davis and Carlos Rivero, though the wording in his blurb (“Could be nice utility guy for someone.”) seems to suggest he’ll be back in Syracuse and groomed as trade bait.

…The list of “others,” akin to an honorable mention, effectively mirrors the 2013 Watchlist with the exceptions of Kylin Turnbull, Robert Benincasa, and Derek Self. But that also includes “old guys” like Davis and Pat Lehman, along with mostly-discussed-just-here guys like Neil Holland and Christian Meza.

Dec 262012
 

This afternoon John Sickels released his preliminary prospect list — the penultimate step before releasing the 2013 Top 20 list.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot of crossover between this list and my Watchlist. Like I did a year ago, it’s easier to list the omissions, of which there are much fewer, thanks in no small part to my decision to delineate the edges of the radar by separating the young, the old, and the hurt from the regular categories:

Joel Barrientos Diomedes Eusebio Kevin Keyes Will Piwinica-Worms
Justin Bloxom Matt Foat Bryan Lippincott Brian Rauh
Paul Demny Matt Grace Craig Manuel Adrian Sanchez
Wilmer Difo Neil Holland Mike McQuillan Pedro Severino
Pedro Encarnacion Will Hudgins Gilberto Mendez Daury Vasquez

Similar pattern as last year: Sickels passed on the players that are a little too old for the level or (now) Dominicans that haven’t made it to full-season ball yet. I can live with both of those because my list is necessarily larger than his — he’s covering roughly the top 15% of 30 organizations; my list is more like the upper third of one.

Stay tuned for a breakdown of the Top 20 when Sickels releases it.

UPDATE
Sickels has a quick follow-up post in which he reveals there will be 39 ranked players with five B- or better and eight at C+ — with the caveat that some of the C’s will get the C+ (and one can reasonably infer vice-versa, since Sickels is a tough grader).

Dec 242012
 

Spike 2011 XmasAs you read this, I wish that you are where you want to be, gone where you need to go, and done all you wanted to do in preparation for the celebration of your holiday of choice.

Enjoy your food, friends, and family and be grateful for what you have for there are those that have only some or none of those things.

And in the immortal words of William Shatner: “Don’t drink and drive — do one or the other.”

Dec 222012
 

reindogs-2012As I take a break from humiliating training the new staff, let me pass along a few small news items while wait out the offseason.

The new ballpark saga in Hagerstown meanders on, despite some rather ominous signs that it’s going to fade away, like most ballpark proposals do.

In upstate New York, the mood is a little different. To borrow from Henny Youngman, it’s take our ballpark… please, as the county government seems eager to rid itself of the maintenance expense, which is typically a battle between governments and teams — especially when things break or degrade unexpectedly.

Finally, minor-league baseball wrapped up its organizational all-stars with Washington, choosing the best at each position (“regardless of age or prospect status”) with few surprises — I might have chosen Jeff Kobernus over Cutter Dykstra, but like the BA awards, we don’t know when the selections were made — as the accolades for the likes of Nathan Karns, Brian Goodwin, and Matt Skole continue.

Dec 202012
 

Accompanying each team’s Top 10 per Baseball America is a chat for subscribers only. As such, I have to paraphrase and condense, which I’ve done per prospect, per ranking. I’ve then cherry-picked some names that came up in the chat. If it’s in brackets, those are my clarifications or amplifications. Otherwise, you’re looking at the opinions of Aaron Fitt.

1) Anthony Rendon — Could force a move of Ryan Zimmerman to 1B, but the Nats haven’t indicated their long-term plan; it’s still wait-and-see.

2) Lucas Giolito — If he were completely healthy, he’d be listed along with the likes of Gerrit Cole, Dylan Bundy, and Archie Bradley in a discussion of the top pitching prospects.

3) Brian Goodwin — [In response to the Jackie Bradley Jr. comp] Bradley is a safer prospect because of his hit tool, plus he’s more advanced on defense but Goodwin has louder raw tools — more power potential, more speed.

4) Matt Skole — There are some similarities to Chris Marrero, being only a year younger and still in A-ball, but his power output and his walk total are two encouraging signs. Skole strikes out plenty, but his strikeout-walk rate is 1.3-1 thus far as a pro [Marrero's is 2.1-1], similar to what it was at Georgia Tech. You have to like power hitters who can offset their strikeouts by drawing lots of walks.

5) Nathan Karns — Has a physical frame and the makings of three quality pitches — a real chance to be a big league starter, though he could also thrive in a late-innings relief role [have a feeling that if he struggles in Harrisburg, they might make this switch sooner rather than later].

6) Christian Garcia — A bullpen guy all the way. He’s got starter stuff— three above-average pitches when he’s on his game — but durability is an issue.

7) Eury Perez — An 80 runner, mentioned in conjunction with discussion of Billy Burns as to the org’s fastest, who got the nod, though Fitt said it was not a unanimous choice, with Jeff Kobernus getting votes, too.

8) Sammy Solis — Not discussed.

9) Matt Purke — The expectation is that he’ll be 100% in ST, but you never know with a shoulder issue, especially one that has lingered for a couple of years now. Still some concern that he peaked as a freshman at TCU.

10) Zach Walters — Not discussed.

Michael Taylor — An outstanding defender in center field, but scouts worry about the length in his swing [266 K's in 278 G].

Chris Marrero — A one-dimensional player who needs to really hit for power to have value but hasn’t slugged .500 since 2007 at Hagerstown.

Destin Hood — For a guy who’s supposed to have raw power, hard to get over just 26 homers in 1600-plus career at-bats; only three last year [Almost precisely what our Hagerstown guy said in 2010].

Sandy Leon — An outstanding defender — a plus receiver with good agility and blocking skills, and a slightly [a misspelling of "significantly"] above-average arm that he really knows how to use. He’s made huge strides offensively, though unlikely to ever be an impact hitter.

Corey Brown — A fourth outfielder [in MLB] with some power, and he’s a good enough athlete with enough arm strength to fill in anywhere in the outfield, but unlikely to hit enough to be a regular.

Ivan Pineyro — [Name a sleeper below High-A] A Dominican righty who just turned 21 this September, whose velocity tops out at 94 and has a changeup that could become a plus pitch.

Brett Mooneyham — Has a great pitcher’s frame, plenty of athleticism and arm strength from the left side, but has a long way to go [in terms of his mechanics].

Aaron Barrett — Stuff is pretty average — fastball (91-92) and a slightly above-average slider that eats up hitters at lower levels — but could eventually become a middle reliever.

Wirkin Estevez — Had TJ surgery this fall [first I've heard of it -- will edit the Watchlist accordingly].

Tony Renda — Similar to Lombardozzi, but not as defensively adept or a switch-hitter [thus endeth the comps to Dustin Pedroia].

Jason Martinson — A player with power potential, athleticism and a shortstop’s skills, but already 24 years old and a long way to go as a hitter.

Dec 192012
 

Only a couple of surprises here, but let’s cut to the chase before we discuss…

1. Anthony Rendon, 3b
2. Lucas Giolito, rhp
3. Brian Goodwin, of
4. Matt Skole, 3b
5. Nathan Karns, rhp
6. Christian Garcia, rhp
7. Eury Perez, of
8. Sammy Solis, lhp
9. Matt Purke, lhp
10. Zach Walters, ss

For me, the surprises are Christian Garcia, Nathan Karns, Matt Skole and Matt Purke. My bad on overlooking Garcia — in my head, he’s already “graduated” and will be a bullpen fixture; clearly I’m getting ahead of myself — which, along with Skole and Karns, is a bit of a departure from the slavish devotion to youth. Of course, that Skole and Karns have been getting so much virtual ink may also have something to do with it.

Purke surprises me for the same reason I was sure that Solis would make the list: His surgery wouldn’t be held against him. Indeed, BA did not deviate from its norms of hyperbole when selecting Lucas Giolito as having the organization’s “Best Fastball” and “Best Curveball” despite his UCL replacement (yes, TJ surgery has a high success rate, but it’s not 100%). Still, it’s a little odd that Purke fell beneath Solis in the rankings despite having a less invasive procedure done.

The free article focuses on the parent club and how the system produced the talent that fueled the unexpected (for the honest, at least) playoff run in 2012. And of course, BA is effusive in its praise for the selections of Strasburg and Harper in ’09 and ’10 as well as Rendon in ’11 and Giolito in ’12 (as for the rest of the 2012 draft, BA was like the lawyers responding to Billy Ray Valentine’s plea for help in the men’s club in “Trading Places”).

The projections for where the 2013 Top 10 will start the year were as follows:
MLB — Garcia
AAA — Perez, Walters
AA — Rendon, Goodwin, Skole, Karns
Lo-A — Purke
XST/Rehab — Giolito, Solis

Again, no big shocks — though the verb for Skole was “reach,” not “start” and they also qualified his placement with “his hands are sure enough to play at either corner,” which I can’t fault them for since everybody outside the organization sees him as a 1B but the Nationals have yet to fully commit to the position switch. Likewise, they projected Solis to start in XST and then head north on a rehab tour. My guess would be that he goes to Hagerstown for the three-inning stints and then moves up to Potomac for when he’s given the five-inning limit, then moved to Harrisburg if/when the coaches like what they see (that’s my CYA if/when he gets the bump despite poor nos.)

Dec 192012
 

Yes, things have slowed to a crawl in the minor-league front. Hence, a post about an upcoming post to keep the site fresh.

As the headline says, Baseball America is expected to release its Top 10 list for 2013. Mark Zuckerman remarks that it’s been roughly a year since the Nats had their on-paper #1 ranking, which vanished with the trade of Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, and Derek Norris for Gio Gonzalez and Rob Gilliam.

We won’t know where the Nats will rank relative to the rest of major-league baseball for another few weeks, but it’s likely going to be a wee bit lower than #1. Probably around 25, if I had to guess. Speaking of which… I’ll take a swag at what that Top 10 list will be while we await the official release:

1. Anthony Rendon
2. Lucas Giolito
3. Brian Goodwin
4. Matt Purke
5. Eury Perez
6. Brett Mooneyham
7. Tony Renda
8. Matt Skole
9. Nathan Karns
10. Sammy Solis

As I’ve written in the comments, there’s likely to be some angst in the general Natmosphere about the drop from 1 to 20-something. Thing is, that’s how the system is supposed to work: also-rans get first crack at the top amateur talent to improve the parent club, contenders have to work 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 not.

Dec 162012
 

RestockingThe latest transactions have been released from Baseball America, and as predicted following the Rule 5 draft, the Washington Nationals have signed three minor-league pitchers:

• LHP Francis Castro

• RHP Tyler Herron

• RHP Paterson Segura

Given the likelihood that 29-year-old Francisco Castro has come out of retirement, the logical deduction is that Castro is an IFA.

Herron, however, appears to have done just that after skipping the 2011 season and pitching 2012 for the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks of the independent American Association, where he compiled a 12-3 record in 23 games (17 starts) with a 3.29 ERA and a WHIP of 1.163.

The 26-year-old was a sandwich pick (46th overall) for St. Louis in the 2005 draft but was released midway through the 2009 season with the Cardinals citing performance issues despite the then-22-year-old’s 2-4, 4.34, 1.533 marks at AA Springfield. He was picked up by the Pittsburgh organization and released following the season. He spent 2010 with the Kalamazoo Kings of the Frontier League, where he was 1-3 with 3 saves in 14 appearances.

I was unable to find any mention of surgery for Herron, only speculation from websites such as Future Redbirds that the specificity of on-field performance was code for off-the-field issues.

The 16-year-old Segura (turns 17 on January 1) was signed last weekend by the Nationals from the Dominican Prospect League. He’s said to feature a FB-CV-CH arsenal with a 88-91 velocity and a high 3/4 arm slot with an unorthodox “pie throwing motion.”

Best guesses: Castro and Segura will be assigned to the DSL while Herron goes to Woodbridge (the AAPBL is roughly equivalent to Low-A).