Minors : : General
Monday, February 06, 2012

Top Prospects: Washington Nationals

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Perfect Game

General Manager: Mike Rizzo
Minor League Director: Doug Harris
Scouting Director: Kris Kline

AAA: Syracuse Chiefs (International League) 66-74
AA: Harrisburg Senators (Eastern League) 80-62
Hi A: Potomac Nationals (Carolina League) 68-71
Low A: Hagerstown Suns (South Atlantic League) 75-64
Rookie Adv.: Auburn Doubledays (NY-Penn League) 45-30
Rookie: GCL Nationals (Gulf Coast League) 20-33
Dominican: DSL Nationals (Dominican Summer League) 33-36

System Overview

The Nationals have made huge strides to become relevant of the past few years, going from 59 wins in the 2008 and 2009 seasons to winning 80 (80-81) games in 2011, the first time the franchise has won at least 80 games since their last .500 season in 2005. Their misfortunes in 2008 and 2009 enabled them to secure the top pick each proceeding year and draft two of the top prospects of the last generation, RHP Stephen Strasburg and OF Bryce Harper. They haven't been hesitant to spend money despite mediocre attendance numbers (14
th in the NL in 2011) as they have consistently been one of the big spenders in the draft and went deep into their pockets to sign free agent outfielder Jayson Werth in 2010.

What kept the team from passing the .500 mark in 2011 was a weak offense that finished 12
th in the National League in scoring and led the league in strikeouts. While the Nationals hit some home runs, they had three starters with on-base percentages under .300, and only OF/1B Michael Morse and C Wilson Ramos were above average offensive producers for their position.

It should be noted that the Nationals home stadium is almost neutral in the offensive/defensive spectrum amongst major league parks, having ranked 18
th each of the last two years.

It was interesting, therefore, when the Nationals two biggest moves during the offseason were both to bolster what is already a very good pitching staff. The Nationals finished sixth in the National League in ERA last season despite essentially having Livan Hernandez pitching in place of the injured Strasburg.

First, Washington traded arguably four of their top prospects in RHP Brad Peacock, RHP A.J. Cole, C Derek Norris and LHP Tom Milone to Oakland for 26 year old All-Star LHP Gio Gonzalez (31-21 the past two seasons and under contract until at least 2016). They then signed 28-year old Edwin Jackson on a one year contract as a free agent. Their starting rotation of Gonzalez, Jackson, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan could be among the best in baseball if Strasburg and Zimmerman are fully recovered from the surgeries that have held them back.

The Nationals bullpen, headed up by Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, also ranks among the most effective in the game.

The key to the 2012 season and beyond appears to be how much offense the Nationals can develop from essentially what they already have in the system. Aside from improvement from 2011 rookies 2B Danny Espinosa and Ramos and a return to 2009 form for 3B Ryan Zimmerman, the key component will likely be Harper. There is already plenty of speculation that Harper could start the season in the Major Leagues as a 19-year old, and there is certainly nothing on his resume that indicates that a normal development has anything to do with the left handed slugger. Seeing as the Nationals had Lance Nix, Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina as regular outfielders last year, Harper has a low bar to shoot for.

2011 Draft

The Nationals 2011 draft is very easy to break down. They essentially went all-in on their first four picks, spending $13.75M to sign four players who were projected to be potential first round picks in 3B Anthony Rendon, RHP Alex Meyer, OF Brian Goodwin and LHP Matt Purke.

The rest of the draft was very straight forward and simple, as the Nationals stuck straight to slot and spent only $801,000 on their picks in rounds four through 10, including senior signs with their picks in the sixth and seventh rounds. With all the money spent on signing the first four picks, it’s understandable that they didn’t go far over slot to sign any players from the 10
th round on, either.

Rendon, along with Bryce Harper, represents the offensive future of the franchise. The Rice slugger underperformed in 2011 due to a lingering shoulder injury, but is one of the most polished offensive performers to come out of the college ranks in years and should move quickly through the minor leagues.

Meyer, Goodwin and Purke are all potential high ceiling talents whose development will likely be on a bit slower schedule than Rendon’s, although Meyer was one of the most improved pitchers in college baseball last spring and already has a dominant pitch in a mid to upper 90s fastball. Purke is the wild card, as the former 2009 first rounder was never healthy in 2011, and will probably be handled with kid gloves by the Nationals player development staff until he proves himself fully recovered.

Selecting and signing the latter three became doubly important when the Nationals traded Peacock, Cole, Norris and Milone for Gonzalez during the off-season. If it weren’t for the money spent in the 2011 draft, that trade would have left the Nationals system seriously decimated at the upper talent levels.

The sleeper of the draft class could be fifth round pick 3B Matt Skole out of Georgia Tech. The left handed hitter is a pure and polished hitter who has hit at all levels and had a strong season in the New York Penn League after signing (.290-5-48/.820 OPS). Skole will likely need to move to first base as he moves up the ladder, but projects as a Casey Kotchman type hitter and should at least be a valuable utility/left handed pinch hitter type.

The Nationals have not made much of an impact on the international scouting market yet but that may change in the near future. Both GM Mike Rizzo and Assistant GM Roy Clark have strong track records in Latin America during their previous tenures with the Diamondbacks and Braves, respectively.

Top 10 Prospects

1. OF Bryce Harper
- Baseball-Reference player profile

Little more needs to be written about Bryce Harper looking into the past, as he is probably the most hyped and closely examined prospect of this or perhaps any other generation. He has a realistic chance of being a major contributor to the Washington Nationals this year as a 19-year old should the Nationals management think he will give them a better chance of winning than by playing the other outfield alternatives. There doesn’t appear to be anyone standing in his way.

Selling Harper’s chances of contributing in 2012 short would not be a wise thing. This is the player who hit .443-31-98/1.513 OPS with a wood bat in junior college in 2010 when he should have been a high school junior. He dominated the South Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League as an 18-year old and held his own in the AA Eastern League.

There have been only 17 position players in Major League history who have played 100 or more games in a season before their 20
th birthday. Amazingly, Robin Yount and Phil Cavarretta did it twice. So Harper would be joining a very exclusive fraternity.

The four players who it would be best to compare Harper to in order to gauge expectations for 2012 would be Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr, Yount and Edgar Renteria, the last teenager to play 100 games in a season.

Renteria, a native of Columbia, actually had over 100 minor league at bats as a 15-year old and almost 1800 minor league at bats total before his Major League debut, an incredible total for his age. He hit .309-5-31/.757 as a rookie in 1996 and finished second in the ROY balloting to Todd Hollandsworth.

Rodriguez had 52 at bats as an 18-year old in 1994 and 142 as a 19-year old (.232-5-19/.672) in 1995. However, he was perhaps the best player in baseball in 1996 as a 20-year old, hitting .358-36-120/1.045 and somehow finishing only second (to Juan Gonzalez) in the MVP balloting.

Yount hit .250-3-26/.622 as an 18-year old rookie and .267-8-52/.674 as a 19-year old. His power really didn’t start developing until he was 24-years old.

Griffey was a full-time starter as a 19-year old in 1989 and hit a very respectable .264-16-61/.748. He upped that to .300-20-80/.847 as a 20-year old and was off to a Hall of Fame career.

If Harper were to just duplicate Griffey’s 19-year old performance he would be more productive than any of the Nationals 2011 outfielders, including $126M man Jayson Werth. That’s certainly well within the realm of possibility. The chances of his even approaching A-Rod’s 20-year old season are long enough to almost be out of the question, but then it certainly is realistic to say that he can surpass Griffey if given the chance.

2. 3B Anthony Rendon - Baseball-Reference player profile

Sometimes scouts simply misevaluate a player and that was the case with Rendon coming out of Lamar High School in Houston. Despite hitting close to .600 with 14 home runs for one of the highest profile schools in Houston, Rendon created minimal draft buzz and was picked in the 27
th round by the Braves. Braves scouting director Roy Clark had Rendon put on a team at the WWBA 18U World Championships that July to further evaluate him and he was one of the most dominant hitters at the event. When the PG staff remarked to Clark that Rendon had first round bat speed, he emphatically answered “I know! I just don’t think I can get him signed.”

Rendon was the top hitter in college baseball his first two years at Rice and projected to be the top pick in the 2011 draft heading into the spring. A shoulder injury early in the season robbed Rendon of his plus/plus bat speed, however, and limited him to a DH role for the rest of the season. Uncertainty about the extent of Rendon’s injury made him a wild card entering the draft and the Nationals were able to draft him with the sixth overall pick. Coming on the heels of the Nationals drafting Steven Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the first picks in 2009 and 2010, it’s easy to argue that the team has nabbed the top overall prospect in three consecutive drafts if Rendon returns to complete health.

Rendon plays the same position as 3B Ryan Zimmerman, who the Nationals will likely want to have around long after his present contract runs out in 2013. He has played second base before and would have no problem athletically in left field. That is a scenario that will eventually play out and play out quickly if Rendon hits as he is capable of doing.

3. RHP Alex Meyer - Baseball-Reference player profile

Meyer was a loose and extremely projectable young right hander from Indiana when he pitched at the 2007 Perfect Game National Showcase. Here is his report from that event.

Alex Meyer is a 2008 RHP with a 6'7'', 200 lb. frame from Greensburg, IN who attends Greensburg HS. He has a very long, tall and loose build that hasn't come close to reaching physical maturity yet. Meyer throws from a low effort tall delivery that he repeats well and maintains good balance from. He arm stroke is clean and extremely fast; he has as much pure arm speed as any pitcher in the 2008 class and has excellent extension out front.. Meyer's fastball topped out at 95 mph and was rarely under 92 mph from a good downward plane. His breaking ball was an 80-81 mph slurve type slider that had some downward break to it. Meyer's delivery lacks deception and his slider isn't a swing/miss pitch at this point, so hitters got reasonably good cuts at him despite his raw ability, but he has a first round type arm and could be throwing very hard by next year's draft. Scouts will certainly dream on him. Selected to 2007 Aflac All-American team.

Meyer had an inconsistent spring in 2008 but the Red Sox drafted him in the 20
th round and made a strong run to keep him away from Kentucky, as Meyer eventually turned down a reported $2M offer just before the deadline.

Given his lack of experience and deception, Meyer struggled his first two years at Kentucky, going 1-4, 5.73 as a freshman and 5-3, 7.03 as a sophomore despite excellent strikeout numbers. But he blossomed as a junior and was one of the most improved pitchers in college baseball, going 7-5, 2.94 as the Wildcats’ Friday starter. The improvement came from two basic areas. First, Meyer was able to get his mid to upper 90s fastball down into the bottom of the strike zone much more consistently than he ever was able to do before. Secondly, he began throwing his mid-80s slider with more confidence and going after hitters instead of pitching around contact. That formula put him into the first round and saw the return of the money, $2M, that he had turned down coming out of high school.

4. LHP Sammy Solis - Baseball-Reference player profile

The 6-5/230 Solis has been held back over the past few years by back and quad injuries but flashed dominant stuff when healthy for extended periods of time, such as when he went 6-2, 2.70 over his last 10 starts in Hi A in 2011. He throws a heavy low 90s fastball that will reach the mid 90s at times to go with a sharp downer curveball and deceptive change up that are both potential plus offerings. Solis has a very low effort delivery that he repeats well and has only walked 23 hitters in 100 professional innings.

Given the fact that the Nationals traded three of their top pitching prospect to acquire Gio Gonzalez and neither Alex Meyer nor Matthew Purke have made their professional debuts, Solis is easily the most advanced and talented pitching prospect in the system. There isn’t an obvious, urgent need at the Major League level for pitching in 2012 but Solis will likely be right at the head of the line should a need develop.

5. LHP Matthew Purke - Baseball-Reference player profile

The Nationals may have caught lightning in the bottle by signing Purke with their third round pick (96
th overall) to a $2.725M signing bonus. They also might have paid for an expensive and long term rehabilitation project.

Purke was the Rangers first round pick (14
th overall) in 2009 but did not sign, in large part due to the financial situation involving the bankruptcy sale of the Rangers franchise. He went to TCU and went 16-0, 3.02 with 142 K’s in 116 innings. If he had been eligible for the 2010 draft it isn’t out of the question that he might have gone second overall behind Bryce Harper and in front of Jameson Taillon. As a sophomore eligible in 2011, Purke was projected to be among the first three picks going into the spring by just about every scout and analyst.

That wasn’t to be, as Purke was bothered by back and blister problems during the fall and winter, then by shoulder bursitis during the spring, although he made nine starts and went 5-1, 1.44 when he was able to take the mound. Scouts are perhaps more sensitive about Purke’s shoulder than they would be most pitchers, as he throws from an unconventional slinging low three-quarters release point and doesn’t pack much muscle on his slender 6-foot-4 frame.

At his best, Purke pitches in the 92-94 range with excellent life and will show a plus slider and very good change up. He has an advanced feel for pitching and will challenge hitters aggressively.

6. OF Brian Goodwin - Baseball-Reference player profile

The Most Valuable Player of the PG/Aflac All-American Classic in 2008, Goodwin has all the physical tools to be an impact player at the big league level, especially if he can learn to use his plus speed well enough to play centerfield. His above average throwing arm profiles to right field, although that is a position that is already well spoken for in Washington with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.

Where scouts sometimes waffle on Goodwin is on whether he will ever be truly plus either in regards to his power production or his ability to hit for average and reach base. He has the strength and bat speed to hit 20-plus home runs and has shown consistent production as a college freshman at North Carolina and as a sophomore at Miami Dade Junior College, but his left handed swing has some stiffness and rotation that usually limits power projection. The ability to become a plus hitter in either category, in addition to his ability to potentially stay in centerfield, will likely determine his future ceiling as a big leaguer.

7. OF Destin Hood - Baseball-Reference player profile

Hood had one of the most impressive debuts of any player in Perfect Game history. He was more well known as a football wide receiver in high school in Alabama and his first appearance at a WWBA/PG event was at the PG National Showcase in Cincinnati in 2007. He ran a 6.62 in the 60, then proceeded to blast seven home runs in batting practice in an incredible display of bat speed and power.

Hood’s game skills were understandably a bit undeveloped but the Nationals gave him a $1.1M bonus in 2008 to sign him away from playing football and baseball at Alabama. He spent two years in rookie ball but exploded in 2011 in the Hi A Carolina League as a 21-year old, hitting .276-13-83/.802 with 21 steals while dramatically improving his walk-to-strikeout ratio and taking big strides forward on defense as well. The same type of improvement in 2012 could have Hood on the verge of contributing in Washington by the end of the season.

8. 2B Steve Lombardozzi - Baseball-Reference player profile

I wrote this report on Lombardozzi after watching him at the 2006 East Pro Showcase:

Son of the former ML second baseman, there are plenty of resemblances. Bat is his best tool, has a simple line drive approach and stays on the ball a long time. High average approach and he had plenty of hits during the showcase. Doesn’t project much power. Hits to all fields and will fight off tough pitches. Limited to second base pretty much defensively, has a quick release and good feet but his arm is short for the left side of the infield. Betting he is an over-achiever type like his dad.

That pretty much nailed Lombardozzi. He’s got better as a hitter every year since signing as a 19
th round pick out of junior college in 2008 and hit .309-8-52/.790 with 30 steals before being called up last September. He made two errors in 539 minor league chances last season, so to call him sure handed isn’t giving him enough credit.

Lombardozzi’s dad played in 446 games in the big leagues, the over/under is well in favor of his son in that category.

9. LHP Robbie Ray - Baseball-Reference player profile

The Nationals signed Ray for $799,000 as their 12
th round pick out of a Kentucky high school in 2010 and handled him with kid gloves as a 19-year in low A ball, limiting him to 89 innings (2-3, 3.13, 95 Ks) in 20 starts.

Although Ray touched 94 mph at times in high school, he isn’t a true power pitcher and is most comfortable working at 90-91 mph. He has a polished delivery and simple mechanics that allow him to command all his pitches well. He has great feel for his curveball and has the ability to add and subtract from it and change the break according to his need on a particular batter. His changeup is a potential plus second off-speed pitch.

10. 3B Matt Skole - Baseball-Reference player profile

Skole comes from a baseball family (his grandfather played professionally, his father played in college and his brother, Jacob, was the Rangers first round pick in 2010) and it shows in his approach to hitting. He made an immediate impact at Georgia Tech, hitting .302-17-58 as a freshman and .335-20-63 as a sophomore before settling down to .348-10-58 with 44 walks with the new BBCOR bats as a junior. There is no reason to believe that he isn’t going to continue hit well enough to reach the big leagues.

Unlike his brother, Jacob, though, Skole is not a premium athlete and his 6-4/230 build limits him defensively. He has caught in the past and played exclusively at third base during his initial professional season, although he did play some first base at Georgia Tech as a junior.

Others in the Conversation: 1B Chris Marrero, SS Jason Martinson, 1B Tyler Moore, LHP Josh Smoker, OF Michael Taylor, SS Zach Walters

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