THE 2015 Washington Nationals Top-10 Prospects

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

Pedro Severino
Pedro Severino

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

Trea Turner

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

RHP AJ Cole

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

Nationals CF Michael Taylor
Nationals CF Michael Taylor

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

Lucas Giolito
Lucas Giolito

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.

L-Giolito 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.

Michael Taylor Prospect Spotlight

Michael Taylor

7-Word Scouting Report: Elite Athlete, Four Above-Average Tools, Developing Hitter

Much like a professional wrestler who goes by only 1-name, Michael Taylor shall forever be nicknamed “Toolshed” in NatsTown, as his raw athleticism and physicality would intimidate even Dan Cortese circa 1993.

Taylor was selected in the 6th round of the 2009 draft as an athletic but raw shortstop from a Florida high school. Taylor spent three years in A-ball struggling offensively before finally turning his enormous raw talent into production on the field in 2014 – last season Taylor slugged .304/.390/.526 with 23 home runs and 37 stolen bases across Double-A and Triple-A. This production, coupled with multiple injuries to outfielders at the big league level, allowed Taylor to receive a 17 game cameo in Washington last year, hitting a home run and flashing exciting defensive ability in the outfield.

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The scouting report on Michael Taylor is truly impressive, as he possesses plus speed and an above-average throwing arm, which allows him to project as a future plus defensive centerfielder. Offensively, the almost 24-year-oldTaylor owns outstanding bat speed, and is one of the few hitters who when he makes contact, the ball “sounds different off his bat”, eerily resembling a shotgun blast.

Like many young hitters, Taylor still struggles against off-speed pitches, which caused him to strikeout 144 times in 110 games last season. This is the major question in his profile, as scouts acknowledge Taylor will always struggle with contact, but his ability to avoid whiffs will ultimately determine his career in the majors. Nonetheless, few prospects have the realistic potential like Taylor to be a plus defensive outfielder with 55+ extra base hits a season at his peak.

Nationals CF Michael Taylor

Entering spring training Taylor projects to spend the majority of 2015 in the minor leagues, though depending on the health of veteran outfielders Jayson Werth and Nate McLouth, he could be in Washington on opening day. However, assuming a relatively healthy season from those above him on the depth chart, Taylor should spend the year at Triple-A, gaining more experience in the outfield while focusing on making more contact at the plate. In the best case scenario, “Toolshed” receives another extended audition for Washington late in 2015 before taking over for Denard Span in center field next season.

A.J. Cole Prospect Spotlight

RHP AJ Cole

7-Word Scouting Report: Still Raw Prospect with Mid-Rotation Starter Ceiling

Drafted in the 4th round of the 2010 MLB draft, the Washington Nationals signed A.J. Cole to a contract with a well over-slot $2 million dollar signing bonus shortly before the signing deadline. After signing, Cole quickly emerged as one of the top prospects in the Nationals farm system and found himself as a key piece in the Gio Gonzalez  acquisition in December 2011. When the opportunity arrived 13 months later, general manager Mike Rizzo seized the opportunity to reacquire Cole, shipping fan-favorite Mike Morse to Seattle in a 3-team deal also involving the Oakland Athletics.

Cole spent last season splitting time between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, going 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA, 1.343 WHIP and 111 strikeouts against only 32 walks in 134 innings pitched. The 22-year-old Cole possesses an ideal pitchers’ frame with a tall, lean, athletic body at 6-5 200lbs. with room to add another 10-15 pounds as he matures. Cole has an impressive 3-pitch repertoire, consisting of a blazing 91-96mph fastball, an inconsistent but impressive mid-80s biting slider, and an above-average to plus 75-79mph changeup with true downward movement.

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Cole has a relatively quiet, clean delivery from his windup, though his arm seems to lag behind his body early in his motion.  This “flaw” highlights his outstanding arm speed but occasionally makes it difficult for him to find and repeat his arm slot. Cole still needs minor league seasoning to work on correcting this, along with improving the consistency of his slider.  That said, his impressive arsenal, proximity to the majors, and power fastball make him one of the better pitching prospects currently in the minor leagues.

Possessing two above-average quality pitches in his fastball and changeup, if Cole is unable to improve his slider consistency, he still has the floor of a late-inning reliever.  However, if he is able to better command his slider in the future, Cole has a ceiling of a #3 major league starting pitcher.

Considering the depth of the Washington Nationals starting rotation, Cole is expected to begin the 2015 season as a member of Triple-A Syracuse.  Cole will use this development time to focus on pitching deeper into his outings and refining his breaking ball.  Ideally Cole would arrive in the major leagues late this season working in long-relief to ease the adjustment to major league batters, with the expectation he becomes a mainstay in the rotation beginning in 2016.

 

THE 2015 Washington Nationals Breakout Minor League Prospects

Pfitzner Stadium

Identifying a breakout prospect in baseball is similar to trying to pinpoint the next great penny stock, in that both are valued lightly today but have the potential to payoff big in the future. But similar to those purchasing shares in a company like Twitter, pre-IPO, very few people were buying stock in Reynaldo Lopez or Wilmer Difo this time last year as future household prospects in the Nationals’ farm system.

Next week I will publish my 2015 Washington Nationals Top-25 prospects list, but today I highlight four names outside my Top-10 list with a chance to see their stock skyrocket like shares of Apple.

Rafael Bautista CF

An outstanding pure athlete with plus to plus-plus speed, Bautista was one of the many stars for Hagerstown last year, hitting .290 with 60 stolen bases for the Suns in 2014. Only 21-year-old, Bautista projects as an above-average to plus defender in center field due to his impressive 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 his slender 6-2 165lbs. frame matures physically, Bautista could develop into a second-division starter.

Brian Goodwin CF

Washington’s third selection in the 2011 draft, 34th overall, Goodwin has lost his prospect luster the past two seasons, struggling at Harrisburg in 2013 and stubbing his toe at Triple-A in 2014, hitting a disappointing .219/342/.318 with only 4 home runs and 6 stolen bases. Still only 24-year-old, Goodwin is currently suffering from a terrible case of prospect fatigue, as he is still a quality athlete who flashes five average or better tools, yet struggles to convert his talent into on-field production.

After two consecutive subpar seasons, Goodwin has rightfully fallen off the prospect lists, but I am still willing to gamble that the “light turns on” in 2015. Goodwin has far too much natural ability to give up on, and the Nationals have done well in recent years with late blooming outfielders. Goodwin is my “pick to click” in 2015.

Nick Pivetta RHP

Washington’s 4th round pick in 2013, Pivetta was selected as an extremely raw junior college pitcher after spending his early years with the Canadian Junior National team. A massive man listed at 6-5 220lbs., Pivetta can flash three average or better pitches, highlighted by a powerful mid-90s fastball. The 22-year-old Pivetta held his own at Low-A in 2014, posting a 4.22 ERA with 98 strikeouts over 132.1 innings pitched. Certainly Pivetta has plenty of “boom or bust” potential as a prospect, but his talent will be difficult to overlook even in the loaded 2015 Potomac rotation. If things come together for Pivetta, he has the potential to be a good #4 or #5 starter in the major leagues.

Jefry Rodriguez RHP

Signed by Washington as a non-drafted free agent back in 2012, Rodriguez is a former shortstop who was immediately converted to pitching. Although extremely raw on the mound, Rodriguez has shown promise with an explosive mid-90s fastball and the ability to spin a hard mid-80s curveball. The Nationals tried to aggressively promote him to Low-A last season, but he struggled with the assignment, allowing 27 hits in only 17 innings pitched before succumbing to an injury. Only 21-year-old, Rodriguez should make a return to Hagerstown this season. Rodriguez is the biggest sleeper in the organization and has the upside of a #4 starter or late-inning reliever in the majors.