With the Nationals slowly rebuilding prospect depth with more quality recent drafts than early years, and the paucity of breakthrough position talent at the AAA level, Harrisburg naturally draws attention for who might be poised to the reach the cusp of the majors this year. Everyone who aces the year becomes, at least, part of the 40-man discussion and perhaps an NRI next year. Or perhaps, even more.
But this year has a really nice mix of folks, in my opinion. Like every year, there are a few whom one might have little confidence in, filling out the roster while others at A+ have the opportunity to show they have the helium. So as I look at the Senators, I find myself seeing them in terms of groupings, rather than by their prospect number or position or pedigree. Here’s what I mean, and I look forward to seeing how you size them up:
Ones to watch
There are a few of those players here. I’ll start with Jakson Reetz. He’s always been well thought of since being a high draft pick, started well, stalled for a couple of years, has long shown a good batting eye, and started flashing heavy power in a pitcher’s league later in 2019. He looked great in the fall league a couple of years ago until getting hurt, has looked good in spring training. His defense and game skills have always been improving. I’ve been waiting for him to break through and still have hope. Unlike the quartet behind the plate at AAA, Reetz has a clear path to regular playing time. And as competition is always healthy, he has the far more heralded and younger Israel Pineda one level below.
He’s big, he closes, has been consistently successful, and for the last four years he got himself promoted. Jhonathan German has been praised by Nationals major leaguers who faced him as a non-roster invitee. So there is no reason not to continue to dream on him earning his way up the ladder this year. We’ve not heard the last of him.
I appreciate those players who hustle and know the game, play it right and succeed with whatever is thrown at them. And so I see a future for Cole Freeman, whether it is as a National or in another organization. I suppose confidence in a former batting champion is no great stretch, and Freeman was a polished SEC product. But I think his ceiling is yet to be defined. And in an organization where we have learned the hard way that top infield and outfield prospects have stalled in the big show, if he keeps improving and excelling, he’ll get a chance at the head of the class if the others ahead of him underperform.
Show me what you got
In 2017, big Gabe Klobosits became arguably the biggest late draft pick splash since Brad Peacock. And then, 2018 brought TJ surgery and the invariable interruption of his career. He showed enough in 2019 to believe in the potential of his recovery, though he never has returned to close. Harrisburg pitched him two innings in his first outing this year. Let’s see what he can do while healthy.
Likewise, Andrew Lee started fast as a Nats draftee in 2015, only to fall prey to TJ and then, the long road back. But he re-emerged in 2019 as a swingman with success even at Harrisburg, where he returns this year. He begins in the bullpen in 2021, and after a scoreless three inning, three strikeout debut, his task is clear – cut down the walks and then see what opens up above.
Far less hyped than his teammate Cate, Carson Teel and his stock as a left-handed starter have picked up steam as his career has advanced from its beginning as a sixteenth-round draft pick. At AA, this will be the year we discover whether he belongs in the discussion of the future, or if his success was to be expected, as a veteran college product.
Hard to believe that Mario Sanchez’ wonderful 2019 year brought him…right back to AA two years later. This is the opportunity for the skinny second-time-arounder to show he’s been overlooked.
Now or never
Rhett Wiseman was a power beast in early 2019, and a true revelation carrying his team. But by the time of the all-star break, he had completely lost it and sputtered for the rest of the season. Now he is back in AA. Will the light go on, and stay on? Will he adjust to how opponents got his number? Will he regain the confidence to dominate? The SEC-loving Nationals believed in him; and if Wiseman figures it out, the path upward is there.
Ian Sagdal has pop and versatility. In 2018 he had quite the marvelous season, truly plays multiple positions, and he is a three-time organizational all-star. So what fizzled for him in 2019? He’s 28 and may only be keeping a seat warm right now. After handling AA with solid if not spectacular results, back he comes in 2021.
Frankie Bartow was never a sexy pick like Holden Powell. But as former closer at the University of Miami, he had a great college pedigree. For now, he’s closing at AA. With the closing talent below him, be it Cronin, Powell or others, he has both an opportunity and a ticking clock.
Nick Banks is back in the starting outfield. Once a Team USA star alongside players who came to be more household names, Banks faded toward the end of his college career. He has muddled his way up the Nationals ladder since being drafted lower than some had expected. And in 2019, he looked like he was really coming on when named an A+ mid-season all-star. Promoted to AA, he held his own. But he lacks anything exciting to, well, get excited about. He’ll get another chance in AA this year, but it’s time.
Scouting and development bets
Austin Adams was acquired from the Angels in a kind of trade that has served Mike Rizzo well – jettisoning a major leaguer of lesser value for unpolished parts and potential gems. After coming close, but never breaking through despite a minor league career with gaudy strikeout numbers, Adams was abruptly shipped to Seattle for an unknown and undistinguished lefty arm, Nick Wells. Adams, as we know, went on to contribute to the Mariners before getting hurt, leading us to wonder about the one that got away. Wells, meanwhile seemed to be in a witness protection program, getting very little burn. But Wells was once a third-round pick of the Blue Jays, and then included in a trade for major league talent a year later. He’s 6’5, a lefty, and, now switched to the bullpen, leaping from Hagerstown in 2019 to AA in 2021. So let’s see what he’s got.
Some organizations are respected more than others for their pitching products. The Cardinals are one such organization. And so the heretofore unknown Bryan Dobzanski is a story we are yet to discover. A late round pick in 2014, he kicked around the Redbirds system as a dead end starter until a bullpen switch in 2018. Since then, the big righthander’s numbers very much improved. And the Cardinals noticed, inviting him to spring training in 2020. But when their clock ran out in November, Dobzanski elected free agency. The Nats reeled him in in January.
Pearson McMahan is only 24 and a 2017 fourth round pick of the Rockies. So he is hardly stale. The Rockies cut him loose after two years as a failed starter. The Nats picked him up in 2019, switched him to the bullpen, and voila: he posted excellent numbers at two levels. Now, he is making a leap from Hagerstown to Harrisburg, and over other more known products. Methinks there is some there there.
We’ve heard about Jackson Cluff and his story, and seen him in spring training. He didn’t show much offense after being drafted in 2019, but the Nationals praised him through the 2020 developmental period and then, brought him to spring training. Unlike other surprise entries this spring, Cluff actually settled, when all was said and done, at the ceiling level of his 2018 draft class, AA, starting at SS. What have we here? He has started slow, but he’s getting a chance to swim with bigger fish in 2021.
Cody Wilson has long been praised for his “tools.” His time in the Nationals system, however, has been marked by statistical underperformance, great speed and baseball IQ, and great defense. We saw him in spring training, which was a mild shock given how low in the chain he had been to date. But the good vibes he engendered were real, and he is the starting CF in Harrisburg. So much for prospect rankings.
Drew Mendoza drew all of the benefits of being a Boras client, hyped to smithereens, and signed for a great bonus. Among a fan base shell-shocked by Carter Kieboom’s inopportune regression, Mendoza at third base would be a next man up with a heavy stick if his defense were passable. But the Nats are playing him at first base – so far — until last night.
Tim Cate has carried the tag of a great lefty curveball pitcher who was showing improvement in his other pitches, and took a noticeable step forward in 2019. None other than Mike Rizzo was mentioning him among the next wave of pitchers knocking on the door of the Nationals rotation. He’ll need to show what he’s got in Harrisburg first. He is a Top-10 prospect among all of the evaluation services.
Sterling Sharp, the most well-known player on the roster, may also be the most impossible to gauge. A late draft pick, he busted from obscurity. Many expected the Nats to protect him when he became Rule 5 eligible; they did not. Many expected him to be returned to the Nats in the spring; he was not, and made a great impression on the Marlins last spring. With that, many thought he was gone for good. Guess what? Back he came by the end of the year, but certainly with valuable experience and additional notches to add to his poise. Now, again unexpected, Sharp begins in the AA rotation. Go figure. But he has made a career of exceeding expectations, so I would rather him do that as a National.
For everyone else on the roster not mentioned in this story, remember: laboring in anonymity is sometimes the best setting in which to blossom. May that be your story, and for all of the Senators. Harrisburg’s head coach is Tripp Keister who has coached up some of the best in the Nats system. He was promoted from High-A to Double-A this year. Especially when the next installment features a bevy of talked-about players starting this year in Wilmington.