THE NatsGM Show #91 – Special Guest Nick J. Faleris

THE NatsGM Show returns with Episode #91 and we are proud to welcome back one of our favorite guests, Nick J. Faleris from 2080Baseball.com.

This week Nick and I heavily dissect the Washington Nationals farm system.  Our conversation begins by discussing the Adam Eaton trade and specifically the prospects lost to the White Sox.  Next Nick shares his thoughts on the top picks from the 2016 Draft, namely Carter Kieboom, Sheldon Neuse, Jesus Luzardo and Nick Banks.  Then we change course and discuss Washington’s top prospects Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Wilmer Difo and Erick Fedde.  Finally, I completely change course to ask Nick his “elevator pitch” of the top prospects in this upcoming June draft.

I want to thank Nick for graciously joining us and providing his evaluations on the Nationals’ system.  Thanks for listening!

THE 2017 Washington Nationals Sleepers

Last week while analyzing the Washington Nationals’ farm system, it particularly caught my attention the depth the organization has outside their top-10 prospects.  This is quite a feat, considering they traded away four top prospects this winter and have qualified for smaller draft bonus pools the past few years due to their success at the big league level.  Washington’s front office should be commended for their collection of prospects outside the top-15, especially up-the-middle hitters.

While the term “sleeper” is rather nebulous, for the purposes of this article it will describe someone ranked outside my top-30 prospects that deserve more hype.  These are my three current favorite sleepers in Washington’s farm system.

Daniel Johnson OF

Johnson was Washington’s 5th round pick last summer, agreeing to an above-slot $325,000 bonus after hitting .382 with 12 home runs and 29 stolen bases for New Mexico State.  Johnson owns an intriguing collection of tools, possessing plus-plus speed and a strong throwing arm, allowing him to project well in center field.

Despite his impressive offensive output in college, his offensive skills lag significantly behind his defensive prowess.  Johnson is raw offensively and has not played against high-level competition, leading scouts to question if he will hit professional pitching.  He has shown some barrel skills and raw pull power from his left-handed swing, but the 21-year-old will need significant time in the minor leagues in order to refine his swing mechanics.  He should begin 2017 at Low-A Hagerstown and his package of tools could have scouts buzzing later this year.

Andrew Lee RHP

Chosen in the 11th round in 2015 from the University of Tennessee, Lee was a solid two-way player for the Volunteers before exclusively dedicating himself to pitching as a professional.  Lee is a large man, standing 6-5 225lbs, along with owning an exciting 3-pitch arsenal featuring a low-90s fastball, an above-average curveball with swing-and-miss potential and a reasonable changeup.  There is effort in his delivery, but he does repeat his mechanics fairly well and has command of the strike zone.

Unfortunately the biggest present knock on Lee is his health, as he underwent Tommy John surgery in the past and missed the second half of 2016 with an injury.  The 23-year-old only threw 84.2 innings in college and another 89.2 professional innings the past two seasons, leading to obvious durability questions going forward.  If he can successfully return to the mound, he could generate buzz as a back-end workhorse type starting pitcher.

Jose Sanchez SS

Signed last summer by the Nationals for a $950,000, Sanchez has been overshadowed by fellow international acquisitions Yasel Antuna and Luis Garcia.  But as his signing bonus indicates, Sanchez is a fascinating middle infield prospect in his own right, possessing an above-average arm, average to solid-average speed and outstanding instincts.  Scouts consistently mention his baseball instincts and IQ, as the 16-year-old shows an uncanny ability to maximize his skills on the field.

Offensively his underwhelming size (6-0 165lbs.) has him lacking the present strength to hit for power, but he has loose wrists and shows a compact swing with impressive barrel skills.  He has a good eye and approach at the plate, which helps him pepper line drives across the outfield.  Scouts expect him to hit for average in the future, but the natural question of how much strength he develops holds the key to his power output and thus, overall offensive profile.  He should spend 2017 in the Dominican Summer League and could gain prospect helium if he hits well this season.

Wieters To Victory – Washington Signs Catcher Matt Wieters

Rumors began swirling early Tuesday morning and became official Friday as the Washington Nationals and free agent catcher Matt Wieters agreed to terms on a 2-year deal worth $21 million.  Wieters will earn $10.5 million each year and the pact includes an opt-out for Wieters after this season.  In addition, reportedly Washington can defer $5 million until 2021.  In a related move to create room on the 40-man roster, Washington placed minor league 1B Jose Marmolejos-Diaz on the 60-Day disabled list with a forearm strain.

The almost 31-year-old Wieters made his 4th all-star appearance last season for Baltimore, hitting .243/.302/.409 with 17 home runs and 66 runs batted in over 124 games played.  For his 8-year major league career, Wieters has hit .256/.318/.421 with 117 home runs.  A switch-hitter Wieters has been better during his career against lefties with a .801 OPS verses a .716 against righties.  He has never been able to live up to his early hype as the #5 overall pick and someone compared to “Joe Mauer with power”.  Nonetheless, this collective disappointment aside, Wieters is an above-average hitting catcher with legitimate 15-20 home run power.

Defensively Wieters earns mixed reviews, as he possesses a plus arm and has earned the reputation of “slowing down the running game”, throwing out 33% of career base stealers.  He also gets solid grades for his ability to block pitches in the dirt and pitchers have long commented on his skill at calling games.  Negatively, Wieters has poor marks as a pitch framer and his 6-5 height often works against him getting strikes called low in the zone.  Depending on how strongly you believe in the value of pitch framing and the metrics attempting to value this skill, Wieters is somewhere between a below-average and a solid-average defensive catcher.

This signing is extremely difficult to evaluate in a vacuum, as there is a near certainty Wieters arrival will force the departure of either Derek Norris or Jose Lobaton later this spring.  Lobaton is superior defensively, has experience with the pitching staff and makes less money ($1.575mm), making him the probable option to stay.  However, Norris’s pitch framing skills, ability to punish left-handed pitching and age make him an intriguing bounce-back candidate and platoon-mate for Wieters.  Norris does have minor league options, but it is highly unlikely Washington would option someone earning $4.2 million for any length of time, besides John Lannan.

Nonetheless what is clear is that Wieters is a significantly better player than Lobaton, and is a safer option than Norris.  If Washington goes with the combination of Wieters and Norris, the upgrade from Lobaton cost them approximately $8 million and makes them perhaps 1 win better this season.  This has been the going rate for wins in free agency, but falls well short of what might be considered a bargain.  With Wieters and Lobaton, Washington is spending about $6 million more this season to upgrade less than a win, but gives the Nationals some security if Norris’s bat fails to rebound from 2016.  This is the essential thesis of this deal – Washington increased their payroll $6-$8 million in 2017 to marginally upgrade their catching position with a more consistent and reliable player.

Overall I am not surprised Wieters eventually signed with Washington, as his agent Scott Boras’ relationship with ownership, plus the departure of Wilson Ramos, made this a natural fit.  However, this still strikes me as odd, as Washington has bigger needs on the roster, namely bullpen and backup outfield, yet has acted stingy with adding payroll all winter.  On the surface, signing a league-average catcher for two years and $21 million like Wieters feels like a reasonable signing, as he should play about 110 games each season and post a 1.5-2.0 WAR.  There is a low chance he significantly outperforms his paycheck, but there is also a slim chance he grossly underperforms the terms as well.  This late in the offseason, or technically now during spring training, one expects free agent contracts to be bargains for the team, and this is definitely not a bargain.

And this is my major dilemma with this signing – Washington adds insurance to their lineup and the benefits of helping Boras while sticking it to Baltimore, but the team did not drastically improve compared to the cost.  $10.5 million, minus Norris or Lobaton’s salary, could add another reliever or two, plus a veteran outfielder, improving three positions rather than one.  While the team improves by signing Wieters, I believe it is a poor allocation of resources by the front office.  If Washington decides to go with Wieters & Norris rather than Wieters & Lobaton, I like it much more, but in general, I would have passed on this signing.

NatsGM Overall Grade ->             D

Washington Nationals Top Prospects 30-21

Apparently Washington has a lot of hitting prospect depth… Here is THE 2017 Washington Nationals Top Prospect List, #30 – #21.

#30  Edwin Lora SS/2B

Signed from the Dominican Republic, Edwin Lora scuffled but held his own last season at Low-A, batting .231/.297/.370 with 41 extra base hits and 23 stolen bases in 118 games.  A wiry 6-1 150lbs., Lora is a right-handed hitter with a knack for drawing walks and some doubles power in the gaps, but struggles with strikeouts presently.  His swing is not particularly long and does not have any obvious flaws, but he will need to gain strength in order for pitchers to respect him offensively.  Defensively the 21-year-old Lora has a good arm, quick release and plus speed, allowing him to profile at either middle infield position.  He should start 2017 as the starting shortstop at High-A, and could shoot up these rankings with a solid showing this season.

#29  Osvaldo Abreu SS/2B

Another under-the-radar signing from the Dominican Republic, the 22-year-old Abreu is an impressive defensive middle infielder, possessing a solid-average to above-average arm, good speed and solid athleticism.  He profiles as an average or better defender at either shortstop or second base.  Offensively Abreu struggled at High-A last season, posting a .247/.328/.346 batting line, after hitting .274/.357/.412 the previous year in Low-A.  He has some obvious contact skills and some thump in his bat, but there are concerns he will not hit in the upper minors.  If he can rebound, one can faintly see a future “50” hit / “35” power hitter in the future.  Abreu will likely begin 2017 in Double-A and profiles as a future utility infielder.

#28  Brian Goodwin OF

Goodwin was given a $3 million signing bonus as Washington’s third 1st round pick, 34th overall, in the 2011 draft and has struggled to turn his impressive physical tools into on-field production. The 26-year-old has a career .253/.344/.400 minor league batting line, but was significantly better at Triple-A in 2016, batting .280/.349/.438 with 14 home runs in 119 games.  This success earned him a promotion to Washington, where he played 22 games late in the season.

Goodwin is an outstanding athlete who has flashed five average or better tools in the past.  In addition, he was extremely raw when he was drafted and was expected to need significantly time in the minor leagues.  In the field he is considered a strong defensive outfielder, as his speed and solid-average arm allow him to play all three positions adequately well.  At the plate, the left-handed hitter will show impressive raw pull power and can punch line drives all over the field, though he tends to whiff more than a top-of-the-order hitter ideally should.  This time last year his career looked to be in doubt, but now, it looks like Goodwin should remain in the majors for a few seasons as a backup outfielder.

#27  Rhett Wiseman OF

Washington’s 3rd round pick in 2015 from Vanderbilt, Wiseman had a solid season in 2016 in Low-A, batting .255/.325/.410 with 13 home runs and 43 extra base hits in 134 games played.  The left-handed hitting Wiseman has legitimate bat speed and shows the ability to draw a walk, but struggles with strikeouts, as evidenced by his 104 strikeouts last year.  If he can trim the whiffs, he profiles as a potential “50” hit / “45/50” power type hitter.  Defensively Wiseman uses his solid-average speed, strong instincts, and average arm to play all three outfield positions, though he fits best as a corner outfielder.  Wiseman has a high floor as a prospect with a good chance to reach the majors – his ability to make contact will decide if his role is as a backup or a league-average starter.

#26  Blake Perkins CF

One of Washington’s two 2nd round picks, 69th overall, in 2015, Perkins was selected from an Arizona high school with the reputation as an excellent athlete with terrific speed, but raw baseball skills. His speed, coupled with surprisingly good instincts and strong arm, make him a prototypical centerfielder. The present risk lies with his bat, as the 20-year-old has resumed switch-hitting after abandoning it in high school. The early returns, granted only 112 professional games, have been mixed, as reports from the organization have been positive, yet the on-field results have been lackluster.

Perkins is an interesting prospect due to his terrific athleticism, speed and surefire ability to stay in center field long-term.  The Nationals are hoping his refinement and experience Perkins can develop into a “50/45” hit, “35” power hitter while playing outstanding defense.  The risk is significant but the reward will be outstanding if the production ever matches his tools.

#25  Raudy Read Catcher

Signed by the Nationals as an international free agent in 2011, the 23-year-old Read has earned the reputation as a strong catch-and-throw defender with soft hands and a plus arm. Like most young catchers he still needs to refine his footwork, receiving skills and the finer nuisances of the position, but Read shows the potential to be an average to above-average defender in time.

The major development with Read in 2016 was offensively, where he served as the cleanup hitter for Potomac, hitting .262/.324/.415 with 40 extra base hits in 101 games played.  He has a strong approach at the plate, works counts well and hunts fastballs.  He will work a walk and has some raw pull power due to his muscular physique.  Read should begin 2017 as the starting catcher at Double-A, and profiles as a quality platoon or backup catcher.

#24  Kelvin Gutierrez 3B

Yet another international signing from the Dominican Republic, Gutierrez signed with Washington in April of 2013.  The 22-year-old Gutierrez moved slowly prior to 2016, before watching him punish Low-A pitching, hitting .300/.349/.406 over 96 games before forcing a promotion to High-A.  A right-handed hitter, Gutierrez has plus raw power along with barrel skills, allowing him to pound the baseball.  He is still growing into his 6-3 185lbs body, but he projects to hit for more power in the future.

Defensively he has a powerful throwing arm, which allows him to make up for his mediocre speed and athleticism to play a solid third base.  Gutierrez needs more refinement, both offensively and defensively, than the average 22-year-old in High-A, but if things click, he could develop into a league average starter at the hot corner.  This is an intriguing sleeper bat in the Nats’ system.

#23  Jose Marmolejos-Diaz 1B

The reigning 2-time Nationals Organizational Player of the Year, Marmolejos-Diaz was signed as an international free agent in 2011.  Ever since, he has destroyed minor league pitching with a career .288/.359/.447 batting line and last season across two levels, he hit .289/.370/.475 with 13 home runs and 63 extra base hits.

A left-handed hitter, Marmolejos-Diaz shows excellent barrel skills and a keen eye at the plate, allowing him to punish the baseball.  He hits line drives all over the field and will occasionally pull the ball for a home run.  Standing a physically mature 6-1 185lbs., scouts do not project him to hit for additional future power, but his knack for hitting cannot be ignored.  Defensively he has some reasonable agility, decent speed and a decent arm, which allows him to profile well at first base.  An aside, I do wonder if he could play some left field in the future, as he has the tools to play the position passably.  The production needed from first base and his lack of raw tools hurts his prospect profile, but there is a chance he hits his way to the majors as a backup.

#22 Telmito Agustin OF

A true sleeper in the organization, Agustin is yet another intriguing international free agent signed by Washington in the past several years.  The 20-year-old outfielder has plus speed and a solid throwing arm, allowing him to profile at all three outfield positions.  He has deferred to top prospect Victor Robles the past couple seasons and played left field, but Agustin likely profiles best in center field.

At the plate the left-handed hitting Agustin held his own last season at 19 in Hagerstown, hitting .265/.309/.387 with 5 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 72 games.  He has a compact swing at the plate, with loose wrists and noticeable bat speed.  He does not project to hit for much power in the future, maybe 3-7 per season, but his barrel skills and speed should allow him to collect plenty of doubles and triples.  While he will more likely develop into a reserve, one can certainly envision Agustin as a future league-average starter type in center field.  This is a name to remember in the organization.

#21  Drew Ward 3B/1B

The Washington Nationals 3rd Round pick, 105th overall, in the 2013 MLB Draft, Drew Ward was given a well over-slot signing bonus of $850,000 out of a small Oklahoma high school after entering the draft a year early. Ward is a large man, looking significantly bigger than his listed 6-3 215lbs.  In addition, Ward has two outstanding plus or better tools, his strong arm and raw home run power.  Unfortunately the other three tools (hitting, speed and defense), he struggles with and are below-average.  His lack of agility and athleticism leads scouts to think he is a future first baseman, which puts significant pressure on his offensive output.  Additionally his contact issues hinder his ability to flash his raw power in game action.

Only 22-years-old Ward should return to Double-A to begin the season and this will be a pivotal year in his development toward the major leagues.  If he can make generate more contact and show some improvement defensively, one can still envision a league-average starting third baseman.  However, the most likely outcome sees him as a platoon bat or reserve hitter off the bench.