Now that the July 31st MLB Trade Deadline is in our rearview mirror and the minor league season rapidly heading toward its conclusion on Labor Day, this felt like an opportune time to update my Washington Nationals Top-20 Prospect List. As Mrs. NatsGM can attest to, I have spent significant time in minor league parks this season scouting National’s prospects, so I feel very confident in the quality of this list.
Overall the National’s farm system is steadily improving, as this list feels significantly stronger than a year ago, after the graduations of Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon had depleted what was once considered the top system in baseball a few short years ago. While the middle of this list feels slightly underwhelming, the Nationals can boast perhaps the top pitching prospect in baseball, Lucas Giolito, plus several players nearly ready to contribute at the major league level. The pundits, and myself, generally rated the National’s system toward the bottom third in baseball this past offseason, but with a solid 2014 draft and the development of several other players, this system should rank closer to middle-of-the-pack this winter.
My criterion for this list prioritizes, in order, the prospect’s possible ceiling, their likelihood to fulfill their potential, their positional value, and finally, how far they are from reaching the major leagues. In order to be on this list, the arbitrary cutoffs I used were 50+ major league innings for pitchers and more than 125 big league at-bats. With this in mind, here are my current #20-#11 National’s prospects.
Others Receiving Consideration:
Robert Benincasa, Anderson Franco, Taylor Hill, Destin Hood, Reynaldo Lopez, Jeff Kobernus, Eury Perez, Matt Purke, Tony Renda, Felipe Rivero, Hector Silvestre, and Drew Vettleson.
#20 Sammy Solis LHP
An extremely talented left-handed pitcher, Solis made noise during spring training with some quality performances that had him being mentioned for a possible bullpen role. Unfortunately Solis injured himself (again) in May, a recurring theme in his career. Now 26-years-old, this former 2nd round pick has been shut down much of the season with elbow discomfort, not a positive for someone with past Tommy John surgery on his resume. Solis is a major league quality pitcher, but until he can stay on the mound for a few months consecutively, I cannot rank him any higher on this list.
#19 Stephen Perez SS
No one prospect in my recent memory has improved more in one season than Stephen Perez, whom I had labeled as a glove-first prospect lacking enough power or bat speed to reach the majors last year. Last winter the 23-year-old Perez gained 10-15 pounds of pure muscle without losing any athleticism, adding some power to his offensive game and transforming his overall profile. While Perez’s reputation is still as a dynamic defensive shortstop with a strong arm, his improved physicality could allow him to develop into below-average starter or valuable utility infielder at the major league level.
#18 Matt Skole 3B/1B
A powerfully built man, Skole has impressive left-handed home run power and a keen batting eye; unfortunately after a breakout season in A-ball in 2012, he missed all of last season with an injury and has struggled in his return in 2014, hitting only .242/.353/.382 with 9 home runs in 393 at-bats. Skole, now 25-years-old, projects as a reserve corner infielder in the major leagues.
#17 Jake Johansen RHP
The Nationals top pick in the 2013 draft, 68th overall, Johansen is armed with one of the best fastballs in the organization, along with an at times above-average slider – unfortunately thus far in his career he has not been able to turn his raw tools into production. Only 23, there is still time for things to click for Johansen, who has late-inning reliever upside if everything comes together for him.
#16 Rafael Bautista CF
A terrific pure athlete with plus speed, Bautista has been one of the best players for Hagerstown this summer, batting .286 with 60 stolen bases for the Suns. Only 21-year-old, Bautista profiles as an above-average or better defensive centerfielder due to his solid instincts, excellent speed, and fringe-average arm. His defensive skills and game-changing speed should allow him to reach the majors as a backup outfielder, and if he develops physically as he matures, he could profile as a second-division starter.
#15 Drew Ward 3B
Washington’s 3rd round pick last summer, Ward is a well-built 6-4 210lbs athlete with a strong arm and legitimate home run power in his left-handed swing. Only 19-years-old, Ward has done an impressive job more than holding his own at Low-A Hagerstown this season, posting a .272/.345/.426 batting line with 9 home runs in 94 games. Scouts are not sold on his defense at third base, expecting an eventual transition to first base, and are skeptical of his strikeout totals (98 in 357 at-bats this season), but concede his ceiling could be a future starting third baseman. A personal favorite of mine, I am expecting a breakout season from Ward in 2015.
#14 Nick Pivetta RHP
A 2013 4th round pick from a New Mexico junior college by way of the Canadian Junior National team, Pivetta was viewed as a raw pitcher who could flash three average or better pitches with plenty of projection remaining. A massive man at 6-5 220lbs, the 21-year-old Pivetta has held his own in 2014 at Hagerstown, posting a 4.15 ERA, a 1.37 WHIP, 6.91 K/9 ratio, and a 2.93 BB/9 ratio over 110.2 innings pitched. Pivetta has plenty of “boom or bust” as a prospect, but his skills and potential could allow him to develop into a solid #4 or #5 starter in a few years.
#13 Aaron Barrett RHP
Nearly ineligible for this list, Barrett has blossomed from a 9th round pick in 2010 into one of Matt Williams most trusted relief pitchers in 2014. Armed with an above-average fastball and a downright filthy slider, Barrett should be a fixture at the back of the Nationals bullpen for much of the rest of this decade.
#12 Jefry Rodriguez RHP
A converted infielder, Rodriguez has only pitched for two seasons, but has already shown plenty of promise with a mid-90s fastball and an impressive mid-80s curveball with above-average future potential. Rodriguez struggled with his promotion to Low-A Hagerstown earlier this summer, allowing 27 hits in only 17 innings pitched, but the newly 21-year-old has regained his form at short-season Auburn. Jefry has the upside of a potential #4 starter in a few years, and should be a popular name in trade discussions this winter.
#11 Wilmer Difo 2B/SS
Along with Rafael Bautista, Difo has been a dynamic force at the top-of-the-lineup for Hagerstown, hitting .303/.346/.453 with 11 home runs and 41 stolen bases this season while splitting time at both shortstop and second base. The 22-years-old Difo is an excellent athlete with above-average speed and a solid-average arm, making him a better fit at second base or center field long-term. Difo possesses noteworthy bat speed and the knack for barreling the baseball, meaning he has a chance to continue to hit atop the lineup in the future. One of the true breakout prospects in the Nationals system this year, Difo stands an excellent chance to develop into a starting quality player in the future.
* Please return tomorrow, Tuesday 8/12, as I unveil my Nationals #10-#1 Prospects.*