For well over a year, we have been forced to settle for blurbs from the alternative training site, unexpected promotions to the major league level of overlooked talents like Dakota Bacus, Kyle McGowin, Seth Romero, and Yadiel Hernandez, the procession of clickbait offered by pundits telling us whom they think are the Nationals best prospects, and of course, the major leagues’ own list. And, like Charlie Brown missing the kick when Lucy whisks away the ball, we fall for it every year until we have the chance to use our own minds and own eyes once again and see how wrong they are. I’m convinced that the angst that follows Kieboom and Robles is heightened because of the hyped expectations they fell short of.
This week begins our own eye test of minor league baseball, as four Nationals minor league squads head to the diamond to begin action. In so doing, the players graduating now reveal how well they have done in their studies and preparation.
The COVID cancellation of the 2020 season brought with it attrition of the organization’s player pool. Those remaining, and where they are now, says a lot about them and about the Nationals as an organization and how they are using their system of development.
I’ve long been a skeptic of publicized prospect rankings. Latino players are often overranked based on the bonuses they get, drafted players are often overranked based on round pedigree. Older players who still have prospect status are often unranked even when it is quite obvious that they are churning up through the system and setting it on fire. Sometimes they have a ceiling. Well, sometimes that is a glass ceiling. I could not be happier, for example, than I am about Yadiel Hernandez. It’s not his fault he came to the United States in his mid-20s. And, after actually walking away from the game for a year. The Nationals got him for 200K – not bad when you consider the Red Sox paid Rusney Castillo – who is 92 days older – 72 million dollars as a hyped prospect. Count me among those who hope Yadiel supplants Kyle Schwarber, as a tribute to perseverance that finally results in an opportunity to produce, that results in play that you cannot allow off the field. And best yet, it would be a stark reminder that Yadiel has never, even to this day in which he retains rookie eligibility, been ranked as one of the Nationals top 30 prospects.
Hernandez’ rise is very similar to that of Tanner Roark. He muddled along and then, one day, he began pitching more aggressively in AAA, and took off. And got himself invited to spring training despite a horrible won loss record. And then, went back to AAA and kept grinding, and eventually, would not be denied. And Roark was promoted, and promoted to stay.
So I follow the minors intensely. I remember Steven Souza turning the corner and flipping a switch just as I do Roark, just as I do McGowin, just as I did Ian Desmond. Yes, it’s baseball. But I also know that the minor league system that pundits like to trash, and demoralize many fans as insipid media invariably does, has produced talent that helps the major league team in every playoff year. I love to watch it and get a feel, between the lines, for who is rising, beyond the stats, who passes the eye test and is headed to the next level. And otherwise, the Nationals’ maligned system is still producing talent that brings back needed capital in trades.
Rosters are out for the minor league teams, with many on the IL and perhaps yet to be assigned. For them, I will defer comment (no Seth Romero rants) because we truly do not know what his health has in store, nor do we Mason Denaburg. Until they turn into Koda Glover, they are in suspended animation. Baseball works that way for every team. One day you are Adam Eaton and setting the world on fire. The next minute you are out for the year. One day you are Jesus Luzardo, the one that got away for Sean Doolittle. The next minute you bash your hand and are on the IL .
There is enough to recognize from the rosters that are.
Overview: It’s even harder to look at the Red Wings in comparison to 2019, because the AAA franchise now situates outside of the pitchers’ Death Valley that is the PCL. Now closer to DC, assignments are affected as well, with folks routed to New York that were otherwise being kept warm at Harrisburg. What we can see is that the Nationals have very little position talent that is knocking on the door to break through. Yes, you knew that. And once again, the organization has loaded up with older arms as filler and AAAA depth in the event of COVID or other unforeseen incapacitation. And is staching other ML caliber depth pieces like Gerardo Parra as well – because yes, Barry Svrluga, people want to play for the Nationals even though “the Lerners are cheap and horrible.”
The roster has some notable qualities. For one, there are four catchers who could conceivably receive significant playing time. So the intrigue of competition follows Castillo/Barrera/Read/and Swihart. The latter may be organizational filler who can double in other positions; perhaps Castillo has an out clause. But Avila has been meh, Gomes can catch Scherzer just fine, and Lucroy remains unsigned and looking for a major league job. I’m watching the catching to see who emerges, and when.
It was only 2018 when Taylor Gushue looked like he was fading away. And in 2019, he used the PCL to parlay his at bats into a resurrected career. The Cubbies gave him a home and he is in AAA with them, not so far away from the bigs. And we all know how Severino turned out. So I’m watching the catchers with the position being one where injuries happen and both ML catchers are in their last contract year.
It’s notable also that players we thought ticketed for the Rochester rotation were not. Tim Cate starts in AA as their opening night act. That appears to be a theme throughout the organization; the Nationals apparently want players to dominate to force the issue of their promotion. I like that. It’s likely why, all the way up the chain, there appear to be young players who could conceivably be pushed. But having not played games in so long, it’s up to the players to force this issue. Again, good! The Nationals have lots of contracts expiring and the incentives will continue to introduce us to players who use that to take it to another level.
Surprise(?)s: The most eye-catching surprise is Luis Garcia at SS. With Turner unsigned, it’s easy to interpret this as Turner negotiating fodder. Or it may enhance his overall trade value should he shine, while the Nationals work through an extension with Trea Turner. Whatever the case, the Nationals value positional flexibility, and if Garcia’s bat comes around and he proves to be a lot more than Wilmer Difo, that’s still a path to the major leagues, even if he does not make it as a starting player (and many believe he will).
Intrigue: I’m old enough to remember when Jefry Rodriguez was a good enough arm for the Nationals to flip him to Cleveland to (arguably) headline a Yan Gomes trade. He had some good outings, and hurt his shoulder, which usually puts off Mike Rizzo (elbows OK, shoulders no). But the Nationals brought him back early in the off season. It’s good to remember that Rodriguez is still relatively early in his pitching career. As I watch Erick Fedde finally mature into a pitcher whose starts I no longer dread, I wonder whether Spin Williams and company can get Rodriguez back on the road to the bigs.
As much as we bemoan the Nationals lack of thump, it seems the organization is buying low on two players hoping to recapture the magic. Yasmany Thomas we know well, and he is in Rochester after being one of the last cuts of spring. He hit OK in the clutch, and although we did not see a big bopper in him, he was doing something very right in the 2017 deserts of Arizona, and is still young. And then the Nationals went out and signed Daniel Palka, an OF-1B who hit over 25 home runs for the White Sox in 2018 before falling off the map in 2019. Usually these ploys go nowhere, but every once in awhile Clint Robinson comes along.
Alec Keller is back for another hitch, which may be either a last chance but more likely an entrée into a coaching gig in the Nationals organization when he finally knows he can’t break through. He’s too educated to ride buses for many years.
There’s also a lot to be said for the bullpen backfill – Ryan Harper, TJ Mc, even Justin Miller. That looks better when we consider that when Suero and Harris come back, they will have more company.
Fast risers: The quieter surprise has been the rise of Stephen Fuentes into the Rochester rotation. Likewise overlooked by prospect pundits who emphasized Cate, himself sexier as a lefty, Fuentes has emerged when it mattered, overcoming suspension and the hype of others, and on the opening day roster that matters. Even more notably, he is in a rotation of an organization that plants retreads rather than aggressive promotions in the current regime. Congratulations to him.
Predictions: Ben Braymer is one of those guys who, in his second year at a level, has made big leaps forward. So I’m expecting impressive things from him. And Rogelio Armenteros, whom I think the Nationals are also quietly hoping will establish himself as a rotation depth piece this year. Like anyone who roots for Yadiel Hernandez, I’m hoping Brandon Snyder eventually plays his way into a promotion; but that’s unlikely and he knows it.
Folks are following the left side of the infield – I don’t want to add another word on the still-young starting third baseman. His play will have to do the talking. So I think the most interesting thing in Rochester will be the players who push their way up from Harrisburg. And I think that is exactly the way I want it.