2014 was a fine year overall for the Washington Nationals farm system, as the organization overcame a few unfortunate pitcher injuries to watch several Dominican prospects breakout last season. Specifically Wilmer Difo, Reynaldo Lopez and Michael Taylor finally turned their obvious talents into on-field production, while Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole took steps forward in their development toward the major leagues. In addition, general manager Mike Rizzo spent the early part of the winter trading excess parts on the 40-man roster for prospects to add further depth to the farm system.
Washington should expect to graduate prospects Cole and Taylor this year to the major leagues, but with an extra 2nd round pick this June and their full assortment of draft picks and internationals signing dollars, the Nationals should be more than capable of replacing them with other talented prospects. Here is a current snapshot of the Top-10 prospects in Washington’s farm system, with a brief synopsis of the future potential of each player.
10) Pedro Severino Catcher
Signed as a 2010 international free agent, Severino has quickly earned the reputation as one of the best young defensive catchers currently in the minors. Severino has a plus arm, above-average blocking skills, and is a proficient framer, making him truly enjoyable to watch defensively. Only 21-years-old Severino’s offensive production has lagged behind his immense defensive talents, yet he began to show signs of improvement in the 2nd half of last season. Severino has a compact swing with some bat speed, and does not possess any obvious swing flaws, but has struggled to produce much in-game power thus far in his career. Severino profiles currently as an outstanding backup catcher, and if he can develop at all offensively, he projects as a quality 2nd division regular backstop. He should spend most of next season in Double-A and 2015 will be a vital season in Severino’s long-term development as a prospect.
9) Jakson Reetz Catcher
Washington’s 3rd round pick last June, Reetz had numerous supporters (including yours truly) who felt he was the best high school catching prospect in last year’s draft class. An intriguing 2-way catching prospect, Reetz is a quality athlete with a strong throwing arm and solid blocking skills, allowing him to profile as a future above-average defensive catcher. In addition Reetz has potential offensively, as he’s flashes quality bat-to-ball skills and should develop home run power as he matures. There is plenty of developmental risk involving a high school catcher, but Reetz has the ceiling of a first division starter if he reaches his potential.
8) Wilmer Difo 2B/SS
Along with Rafael Bautista and Pedro Severino, Wilmer Difo represents the next wave of international talent in the Nationals system after the Smiley Gonzalez drama a few years ago, which halted much of the expenditures for Washington for several years. The 22-year-old had a breakout season in 2014 for Low-A Hagerstown, hitting .315/.360/.470 with 14 home runs and 49 stolen bases, while splitting time at both shortstop and second base.
Surprisingly for a 22-year-old in Low-A, Difo is an excellent athlete with plus speed and a solid-average arm, making him a better long-term profile at the keystone in the future. He also possesses noteworthy bat speed and the knack for making solid contact, meaning he has the potential to continue to hit atop the lineup in the future. One of the true breakout prospects in the Nationals system in 2014, Difo should begin 2015 at High-A Potomac, and the Nationals should look to push him as aggressively as his results on the field warrant. Difo has a change to be a 1st division regular at second base if he reaches his ceiling, perhaps as soon as late 2016.
7) Erick Fedde RHP
The Nationals 1st round pick last June, 18th overall, Fedde was rumored to be in the mix for the top-5 before undergoing Tommy John surgery just days prior to the June draft. The nearly 22-year-old Fedde possesses a prototypical pitcher’s frame at 6-3 170lbs., with plenty of projection remaining as he matures physically. Fedde possesses an impressive 3-pitch repertoire including a mid-90s fastball, a true plus slider along with a developing changeup. He is unlikely to return to the mound until midsummer, but the Nationals have had excellent results deliberately rehabilitating injured pitchers in recent years. Assuming Fedde recovers and returns to his pre-injury form, Fedde should move relatively quickly through the minor leagues and has the potential to become a #2 or #3 starter in the major leagues.
6) Trea Turner SS
The expected “Player To Be Named Later” in the Steven Souza deal with Tampa Bay, Turner was San Diego’s top pick in the 2014 draft from North Carolina State. A terrific athlete with near “80” speed, Turner is not the typical slap-hitting middle infielder, as he has solid gap power and projects to hit a handful of home runs at his peak.
Defensively he moves well to both sides and charges the ball well, but does not possess the strongest arm and struggles on occasion with the routine play – these weaknesses have some scouts questioning if he is a starter at shortstop in the future. However, Turner is still only 21-years-old and six months out of college, giving him plenty of time to refine his skills in the field. If Turner reaches his ceiling, he projects as an above-average defender at shortstop capable of hitting atop the lineup and utilizing his game-changing speed to impact the create chaos for the opposition.
5) Joe Ross RHP
A 1st round pick, 25th overall in 2011 by San Diego, Ross was also acquired, along with Trea Turner, from Tampa in the Steven Souza trade last month. Ross combines a near ideal pitcher’s frame at 6-4 205lbs., with a strong 3-pitch arsenal featuring a 92-95mph fastball, a mid-80s slider with excellent tilt, and a mid-80s changeup thrown with good arm speed and downward sinking movement.
Ross received a brief cameo at Double-A late in 2014 after an impressive effort early in the year in the California League, a notorious hitters’ league. He should spend the majority of his age-22 season at Double-A Harrisburg, with an ETA of late 2016 for the major leagues. If he can improve his off-speed pitches and refine his overall game, Ross has a ceiling as a future #3 starter.
4) Reynaldo Lopez RHP
THE breakout prospect in the Nationals’ system in 2014, Lopez quickly became the toast of the scouting community this summer, flashing a 94-100mph fastball along with the ability to spin a breaking ball and the makings of a workable changeup. Lopez has a smallish frame at 6-0 180lbs., with a lightning quick arm, leaving scouts to immediately compare him with Kansas City starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. Signed as a Dominican free agent in 2012, the 21-year-old Lopez should begin 2015 in the Potomac Nationals starting rotation. Although the risk is extreme, Lopez possesses #2 starter upside in the major leagues if he can continue to polish his pitching delivery and refine his off-speed offerings.
3) A.J. Cole RHP
A long-time favorite, A.J. Cole possesses a strong 3-pitch repertoire, feature a powerful mid-90s fastball, a plus changeup with downward sinking action, and a promising but inconsistent slider. Still only 22-years old, Cole refined his pitching motion in 2014 and developed his slider, two major hurdles to him reaching his impressive potential. Cole has posted impressive numbers at both the Double-A and Triple-A level, and should spend much of 2015 at Syracuse serving as depth for the Nationals pitching staff while anticipating moving into the starting rotation in 2016. A potential #3 starter in the major leagues, Cole is nearly major league ready with two above-average pitches and an improving breaking ball.
2) Michael Taylor CF
A true premium athlete, Michael Taylor combines his plus or better speed with an above-average arm to project as a future Gold Glove-caliber defensive centerfielder. Furthermore Taylor possesses outstanding bat speed which creates a high number of extra base hits and home run power. Similar to many young hitters, Taylor struggles to make contact with breaking balls, which caused his elevated whiff rates in the minor leagues. He will always struggle with strikeouts but Taylor projects as a plus defender capable of accumulating 55+ extra base hits per season at his peak. He should spend much of 2015 refining his approach at Triple-A, with the expectation he takes over as the everyday centerfielder in Washington beginning in 2016.
1) Lucas Giolito RHP
Arguably the top pitching prospect in minor league baseball, Giolito was Washington’s 1st round selection, 16th overall, in the 2012 MLB Draft. Soon after signing his professional contract, Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery, effectively shutting him down for the 2013 season. Once fully recovered to begin 2014, Giolito carved up Low-A batters with a 93-98mph fastball, a legitimate plus or better mid-80s “hammer” curveball, in addition to a true plus low-80s changeup with arm side sink.
Listed at 6-6 255lbs., Giolito is a decent athlete still growing into his body and learning to streamline his pitching motion. The Nationals have handled Giolito like delivery men are supposed to treat boxes marked “fragile”, but the team should unleash him on the High-A Carolina League in 2015. If everything goes according to plan, Giolito could reach the majors late in 2016 or early 2017.