The Washington Nationals System

While it’s the Braves system that tends to get the most hype of the NL East ballclubs, the Nationals certainly also have their own bunch of attractive prospects. We’ve all heard about Bryce Harper, and other prospects like Derek Norris and Danny Espinosa also garner lots of attention. Obviously, three strong prospects don’t make a system, though–do the Nationals have more in the way of impact talent?

System Overview:

Much like the Mets, Washington’s primary strength on the farm is its hitting. Obviously, Harper, Norris, and Espinosa could all be above-average regulars, and the team has a bunch of slugging first base types and some interesting toolsy outfielders.

However, there’s nobody of note at third base, and while that’s not too big of a deal with Ryan Zimmerman around, it still isn’t good. Overall, the hitting is above-average here, but not one of the elite collections of position players in the game.

I’m not a fan of the Nationals’ pitching. So much of it is completely unproven in pro ball, and I’m really down on Sammy Solis‘ ability to become much. While there’s a good amount of upside in the top two arms in the system, neither has any pro experience, and while there are a couple of upper-minors arms with big league potential, there’s nobody in the system who is both proven and projectable.
Ultimately, this system grades out similarly to that of the Mets, as it’s got plenty of hitting and not that much pitching. The pitching’s in slightly better shape than New York’s, but the hitting isn’t quite as balanced, so the systems rank similarly overall.

I feel like I went fairly conventional with the list, other than perhaps third base and third outfielder. Since I’m low on Solis, I also dropped him lower than most would.

Catcher: Derek Norris. Norris came in at #84 on my Top 100 Prospects, which in retrospect seems a bit low:

Norris hit just .235 last year, but he has tons of qualifiers that diminish that issue.

First, he’s a catcher. Second, he was young for his level. Third, he was recovering from a wrist injury, which is particularly tough to hit with. Fourth, he still slugged .419. Fifth, he walked a whopping 89 times in 94 games to post a .419 OBP despite the dismal average.

Norris’ glovework behind the plate is less than stellar, and his super-patient approach leads to some whiffs, but he’s a catcher with a legitimate shot to post .400 OBPs and .500 SLGs in the bigs. Those are extremely valuable. How well he puts the wrist injury behind him will determine if he can do that or become merely a solid-average offensive catcher.

Upside: 9.1, Downside: 4.9

First base: Chris Marrero. Marrero hit .294/.350/.450 in Double-A, and he doesn’t turn 23 in July, so he definitely has some skills. However, first basemen with .450 SLG and .156 ISO generally don’t turn into plus players, and Marrero doesn’t have the plate discipline or defensive ability to be a Daric Barton-style exception. He’s got to show more power, as the former first-round pick hasn’t slugged .500 since a stint in Low-A in early 2007.

Upside: 7.6, Downside: 5.2

Second base: Steve Lombardozzi. Lombardozzi also had a successful age-21, hitting .293/.370/.409 in High-A and ramping up his power and posting a .295/.373/.524 line in Double-A. With over 50 extra-base hits and a plus approach at the plate, Lombardozzi’s a very interesting prospect. He’s also a plus defensive second baseman with solid speed.

Upside: 8.4, Downside: 5.4

Shortstop: Danny Espinosa. Espinosa plays a passable shortstop and hit 28 homers across three levels last year, which tells you all you need to know about why people are excited. For all the slugging, he only slugged in the .447-.463 at each level, and doesn’t have a very good plate approach, chasing too many curves and changeups out of the zone. That caught up to him in the majors, where he posted a .277 OBP in 28 games. He does project to hit at least .250/.330/.450 once he gets settled in, and that sort of hitter has excellent value as a shortstop, though, and if Espinosa improves his approach at all, the 23-year-old could become an All-Star.

Upside: 8.8, Downside: 6.6

Third base: Roberto Perez. I’m going with the young and unproven Perez over old-for-his-levels Josh Johnson here, although a case could be made for either; Perez does have some solid skills, but he’s so unknown and far from the majors that he’s not much of a prospect yet. He hit .310/.392/.416 in the Gulf Coast League, stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts, while splitting his time between second and third base. An eighth-round pick out of Puerto Rico in 2009, he showed an advanced approach for a 19-year-old, with a 19/13 K/BB in 36 games. He’s a very deep sleeper.

Upside: 6.4, Downside: 1.6

Outfielder #1: Bryce Harper. No need to introduce Harper, who ranked 9th on my Top 100:

I’m taking the slightly conservative route with the much-hyped first overall pick in last year’s draft, waiting to see him crush minor league pitching before elevating him into the top five. There’s little question his raw power is second to none, and Harper should be able to contribute some of everything else. How much non-power-based production he’s able to provide will determine if he’ll be a true MVP-level hitter or just an Adam Dunn-esque masher.

Upside: 9.8, Downside: 5.3

Outfielder #2: Eury Perez. Perez hit .298/.344/.380 in Low-A as a teenager. With plus defense and fantastic speed, he’s got a chance to be a very solid everyday center fielder. Perez stole 64 bases in 77 attempts and generally dazzled with his athleticism, but his approach needs work, as he only walked 23 times in 131 games. Even if he never develops plate discipline, Perez could be a Carlos Gomez-type player.

Upside: 8.7, Downside: 4.3

Outfielder #3: Randolph Oduber. Old for the GCL at 21, Oduber still tore it up, batting .366/.434/.569 and going 18-for-19 on the bases, winning the MVP of the circuit. Like Perez, he’s a speed demon with a poor approach (38/13 K/BB). While Oduber has more pop than Perez, he’s also two years older and two levels below him, so he’ll need to prove he can succeed at more age-appropriate levels before rising up prospect lists. A 2-for-26-with-10-strikeouts cameo in Low-A didn’t help in that regard, not that it means much.

Upside: 8.7, Downside: 2.5

Starting Pitcher #1: A.J. Cole. Cole was signed for seven figures as the Nationals fourth-round pick, and while he only has one professional inning, Cole has very strong upside. The lanky pitcher already sits in the 91-93 mph range and projects to add more velocity, and his slider is on its way to becoming a strong pitch as well. Like most high schoolers, Cole has yet to get much of a changeup, but his good mechanics and feel for pitching give him a good shot to get that up to par. We’ll have to see how the 19-year-old does in his first pro season, but he has excellent potential.

Upside: 9.2, Downside: 2.1

Starting Pitcher #2: Robbie Ray. Another over-slot signee, Ray was the Nats’ 12th-round selection and inked for a $799K bonus. Like Cole, the 19-year-old has just one professional inning to his name, but Ray is very polished for his age, throwing an 88-91 mph fastball with two solid offspeed offerings. He draws some Brett Anderson comparisons, and while those are quite premature, Ray also has the chance to add some velocity down the line. His upside isn’t as high as Cole’s, but he’s already further along in his development.

Upside: 8.7, Downside: 3.0

Starting Pitcher #3: Brad Peacock. Peacock dominated High-A at age 22 (118/25 K/BB in just over 100 frames), but hit a wall in Double-A late in the year, as his K/BB dropped from 4.72 to 1.36. He offers plus velocity and two solid offspeed pitches, but while he throws a good number of strikes, he’s still refining his ability to hit the corners. Also a flyball pitcher, Peacock is pretty rough for an upper-minors hurler, but he’s got both stuff and stats on his side, so he should be a solid contributor for the Nationals someday.

Upside: 8.5, Downside: 4.6

Starting Pitcher #4: Sammy Solis. I’m not big on Solis, a big college lefthander whom the Nationals nabbed early in the 2010 draft. Solis has decent stuff, but he’s not projectable, so he’s probably going to throw a fastball around 90 with a solid changeup and slurvy breaking ball. Inconsistent mechanics and a very low release point have led to back troubles in the past, and Solis’ low, Randy Johnson-esque arm slot could give him trouble against righties despite his solid changeup. The lack of any true plus stuff and the low release point probably knocks Solis down to having a back-0f-the-rotation ceiling, although he could also be a shutdown reliever given his arm slot. He is a polished product who has solid command of his pitches, and the Nationals sent him straight to the AFL despite his lack of pro experience. The 22-year-old will be on an accelerated timetable.

Upside: 8.1, Downside: 4.1

Starting Pitcher #5: Tom Milone. Milone, like Solis, is a lefthander without any knockout pitches. The soon-to-be-24-year-old did, however, post a 155/23 K/BB in Double-A thanks to surgical command of his finesse repertoire. He sits around 86-87 mph with his fastball and mixes in a plus changeup and average breaking ball. That worked for Dallas Braden, Mark Buehrle, and Jason Vargas in the bigs last year, and while it’s beyond foolish to expect Milone to be another Buehrle or even Braden, he could string together some solid years as a fourth or fifth starter.

Upside: 7.7, Downside: 5.6

Relief Pitcher #1: Cole Kimball. Kimball is already 25 and has yet to see Triple-A, but he struck out over 100 batters in relief last year, and nobody in the AFL could touch him. Kimball is a power arm who has long had control issues, but a move to the bullpen allowed him to whiff so many hitters it didn’t really matter if he walked a guy here and there. Many think he can skip Triple-A and break camp with Washington.

Upside: 8.7, Downside: 6.2

Relief Pitcher #2: Kyle Morrison. Morrison isn’t anywhere near Kimball’s prospect status, largely because he was a 22-year-old reliever in Low-A, and those types rarely get much attention. A 32nd-round pick in 2009, he dominated with an 88/29 K/BB in 73 frames. Morrison works with a low-90′s fastball and a plus changeup that nobody in the South Atlantic League had a chance at. It’s a solid repertoire, but Morrison will need to prove his changeup works against upper-level hitters. Since he’s a bit old for A-ball, he’ll need to move quickly as well.

Upside: 7.9, Downside: 3.2

Topics: A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Bryce Harper, Chris Marrero, Cole Kimball, Danny Espinosa, Derek Norris, Eury Perez, Kyle Morrison, Randolph Oduber, Robbie Ray, Roberto Lopez, Sammy Solis, Steve Lombardozzi, Tom Milone, Washington Nationals

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