High-A is a good lens through which to view the last three drafts. The 2020 draftees never got a chance to play, so anyone who gets to Wilmington genuinely has people excited. Anyone from 2019 who gets here, given the Nats’ penchant for slow movement through the lower minors, is also separating one’s self. As for 2018 draftees, if they have not yet made it to A+, then injuries or fate is getting in their way.
One way to appreciate the Latino contingent at Wilmington is to reflect that the most heralded of a trio of high bonus 2017 prospects, Luis Garcia, is at AAA this year. It says as much about him as it does about them, and the state of the Nationals’ farm system.
The Blue Rocks are 1-5 so far, but not a reflection on the Nats top two prospects who have already pitched there. The record though speaks to the lack of offense and much of the bullpen. That looks even worse when one considers the poor start of the Harrisburg Senators. We’ll leave the Fred Nats at Low-A for the next installment, which begs for rays of light. The on-field product reflects not only the draft and development, but the strategies employed for minor leaguers during the 2020 offseason. Of course, we don’t know how many of these players were affected by COVID, directly or indirectly. But we do know that every team had the same challenge and the same creative imperative to coach up players who could not otherwise get on the field.
There is a lot of impressive pitching talent on the Blue Rocks, to be sure. But the hitting has been abominable. That is bound to get better…right?
It is the oddest of coincidence that the progenitor Expos used to put outstanding minor league products on the field and push up prospect after star prospect in reloads for an organization that could not afford premium free agents. Yet here we have the Nationals, for all of their resources, and stability (no alarmingly brain dead idiots like Omar Minaya, or psychopaths like Jeffrey Loria in sight), and wondering why the lower minors’ position players are producing like they must have some connection to the old Redskins (pardon me if I have offended anyone). Bad as they are, though, some players who are conspicuously under-performing did well in spring training. So there is reason to be patient.
Since this is not an existential deconstruct of the minor league draft and development braintrust (which may ultimately evoke the Jack Nicholson line from Batman, “This town needs an enema”), and rather a focus on the players, let’s do just that. It’s thankfully a long season, and if we can (and basically have no choice but to be) patient with Josh Bell hitting under .150 at the cleanup position, we can repeat the same refrain for Nos Amours, as we Expos fans would loyally refer to the team we unfailingly supported (through thick and its thinning).
Wilmington does boast a pitching staff that is impressively low on pitchers who are holdovers getting another chance to show they belong on the track upward. Everyone on this staff pushed his way up. And the staff appears to be full of pitchers who have shown they can start, but are pitching out of the bullpen because there simply isn’t room yet on the starting staff. That is an excellent statement of the health of the farm system that transcends the won-loss record, and may feed an emphasis on bats and position player talent in higher levels of the upcoming amateur draft.
First, the good news. Cade Cavalli came out smoking in his debut, validating the interest that accompanies a top-prospect ranking. Considering that he is a 2020 draftee, this is welcome news and not necessarily to be taken for granted.
Jackson Rutledge, the other best prospect who was 2019’s first choice, has walked 7 in under eight innings in an underwhelming debut of a guy who shined at Low-A in 2019 and showed well in his one Spring Training appearance. It is still too early to panic or worry at this stage. We have no reason to panic or worry.
Cole Henry, the second hurler of the 2020 haul, was a lot more hittable in his 2021 debut. But his six strikeouts in 5 innings are what we like to see. All things considered, placement of these three here leave no reason for discontent. On any given night, one will see these guys start, and hopefully over-match the High A competition.
People took note of the Nationals high 2020 draft of Holden Powell and recalled the first round choice of Drew Storen, who was all the team hoped he would be (until he wasn’t). Powell starting at A+ is notable given the success and comparatively slow promotion of Matt Cronin, himself a decorated college closer was the compensation pick for the Qualified Offer tagged on Bryce Harper in 2018. For an experienced college closer of Powell’s success, A+ is not earth shattering. But the confidence in him was evidently borne out – until he was injured and placed on the IL yesterday.
The aforementioned Matt Cronin was very much talked about for his progress in the 2020 alternative site and fall instructional league, leading many to expect him on the fast track to the majors. So a start at A+ for the lefty reliever who had the lights out 2019 at Hagerstown might be a wee conservative. We’ll have a full year of Cronin to see whether his walks come down and the competition gets more challenging enough to consider him in a 2022 post-Brad Hand conversation.
Yasel Antuna was billed by the prospect pundits as a big power surprise at the Fredericksburg and fall instructional sites. He indeed showed a pretty swing and line drives at spring training. So his placement at A+ seemed a bit surprising as the year opened. Now it seems surprising for the wrong reasons. He has opened the year on an 0 for 17 run with 8 strikeouts in his first sustained game action since 2018. He’s playing shortstop, has made two errors so far and at 21 remains a defensive “work in progress.”
Israel Pineda is the third of the Antuna/Garcia/Pineda troika that turned heads in the GCL in 2017. After underwhelming the next year, Pineda recovered from an later-announced wrist injury. This spring saw him re-enter the prospect discussion with appreciation for his progress on both sides of the game. A monstrous home run in a spring training game quickened the pulse of the Nats faithful. Sent to Wilmington at 21, Pineda seemed a good bet, like Antuna, to swashbuckle his way through Sally League pitching while batting cleanup. Now 1 for 20, following Antuna’s black hole in the three spot of the order, Pineda is another principal reason for the lousy start to the 2021 campaign despite the good pitching talent.
Joan Adon is a guy the Nationals have long had high hopes for. After I visited spring training in my annual pilgrimage in 2019, if you were to tell me he would be starting 2021 in A+, I would have been surprised and guessed he had an injury. Well, no. So here we are with a player who is still only 22, big bodied, and a real fave among the development people. It would still not surprise me to see him move every bit as fast as any of the aforementioned starters in this rotation.
Francis Peguero earned a lot of hard-luck sympathy for powering through a 2019 of poor run support as a Hagerstown starter, then pitching well as a swingman in Potomac upon promotion. Now back in A+, it’s hard to tell what the Nationals’ plans are for him. After getting blasted in his 2021 relief debut, he followed up with over four innings of excellent work. So when he’s got it, he’s got it. Methinks that after the Nationals sort out which of the marquee A+ starters belong in AA, Peguero will get another shot at starting.
Alex Troop came into the 2017 draft class as a two-way player. The 6’5 left-hander has pitched exclusively since then, when he has played at all. Felled for an extended period by elbow surgery and rehab, he finally returned in force in 2019 with a brilliant, brilliant statistical season (as in 3 walks and 49 strikeouts in 44 IP) operating mostly out of the bullpen and across two levels. How much his arm is being nursed after his very long layoff is unclear. He has worked two outings thus far, both short. But he is a guy that I’ve been looking forward to getting a full season out of, and it’s good to see him pitching at his highest level yet. Seeing as the Nationals had him starting in early 2019, and he did well, perhaps he, too, will be back in the rotation when the Nationals promote starting arms from their talented Blue Rocks core.
Jacob Rhinesmith is an outfielder for whom the Nationals have waited to bust out, ever since he arrived in 2018 as a later round pick with an impressive smaller college pedigree. The power started to flash in 2019, and he moves up a level to see what he’s got. Often mentioned in the same breath of hopefuls as AA’s Cody Wilson, the trajectory of the two speaks to the importance of defense and the ability to do little things, as Wilson does, even when they don’t translate into stats. Of course, by year’s end the two may yet trade places.
Justin Connell is the uncommon US draftee who signed with the Nationals out of high school. As happens with high schoolers who lose time from injury, and outfielders who don’t provide eye-popping power, Connell gets little notice. But he is one of the youngest players on the Wilmington roster, showed advance plate discipline early in his career, and got the call to got to A+. He’s started well on an underperforming team and at his age, his ceiling is undefined.
Nobody but nobody was talking about Todd Peterson before spring training this year. The 6’5 former LSU product was a swingman after being drafted in 2019, pitching OK at Auburn. And then, under everyone’s radar, he was invited to spring training in 2021. More than getting a glance, Peterson was kept on the squad until deep into spring training. I saw him pitch a couple of times; he throws hard, and that’s that. But a jump to Wilmington from Auburn is indicative of how Peterson has impressed and has a rising stock.
Zach Brzycky was part of the unique 2020 free agent class, and pitched nearby at Virginia Tech. Although these were players who were the equivalent of the sixth round or later, Brzycky starting his career at A+ is a big statement. The Nationals aired him out for three innings in his debut, and he showed well especially in his first inning when he K’d two batters. Considering that this Wilmington team is chock full of valued arms, Brzycky’s presence reflects that he’s excited the team with his promise. I don’t know how other franchises did in the COVID post-draft signing bazaar, but the Nationals signed plenty and Brzycky is the most advanced of the lot.
Overlooked in the changes to the June draft in 2000, players’ decision-making, and the classes that are now draft eligible, the Wilmington pitching staff features some of its youngest players on the roster. Brzycky, notably, is one of those young arms, along with Henry, Rutledge, and Powell.
Evan Lee was a two-way player in Arkansas, drafted in the 15th round in 2018, whom we have been hearing about as a sleeper as a lefty arm who has a nice assortment of pitches. Those sentiments are validated in his placement in the Blue Rocks rotation to start the 2021 season, although his debut was pretty underwhelming. The Nationals have shown him the confidence to displace more accomplished arms like Tyler Dyson and Reid Schaller to the bullpen – for now.
Andrew Karp was a sixth round pick in 2018 out of FSU who pitched a few times that year and then, disappeared to injury. Though never seen since 2018, and never above Auburn, here he was throwing three innings twice and striking out six as a Blue Rock. Congratulations to him on his recovery and return of his career to being on an upward track.
Ripening or Rotting
Gilbert Lara came over from Milwaukee in the Gio Gonzalez trade, part of the yield when the Nationals traded Gio past the “sell by” date. His pedestrian output in 2019 aside, Lara is the only player in the system to have commanded a higher signing bonus than Antuna (fortunately, the Brewers paid that one). So whether it is the patience afforded a player with such dreamable tools-size-athleticism or whether it is Rizzo and co. giving extra rope to a player acquired for major league talent, or whether he is just that close to putting it all together, we will find out.
Not much was ever really expected from Gage Canning when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2018, and since then, the Nationals have not gotten much (considering he came in as an experienced college product with a good baseball IQ). They have lots of outfielders who can do what he does, and if and when they do it better at Fredericksburg, Canning may no longer get the opportunity he has now.
Armond Upshaw was a well-compensated 11th round pick whose athletic ability the Nationals fell head over heels in love with. The guy is an excellent defensive outfielder. Since 2016, they’ve been trying to turn him into a hitter in a sort of Liza Doolittle way. He does have a good eye and base stealing speed. However, this play does not star Rex Harrison.
Omar Meregildo is now 23 and into his first full year at High A. It’s hard to appreciate him as more than “just a guy,” and he appears to be one of several organizational options being considered/auditioned for the level (along with late draftees Jacob Alu, Jack Dunn, Cole Daily (on IL), and Kyle Marinconz) and its infield spots. It’s fair to say that we know what we are getting here, which is expansion team quality production. To be fair, the 2019 draftees (Dunn, Alu) are still new entries and are to be respected for having survived the organizational shakeout that followed the minor league contraction. And Marinconz has earned promotions in each of his two years in the system. But we are talking A+ ball here for players with college experience, so they ought to be able to play well here if they have talent to be more. Therefore, don’t be surprised if these infield positions are being kept warm for low A products, such as Latino players going north for the first time, who play big.
Actually, Potomac fans were used to help coming up from below, especially after the All-Star break. In some seasons, the needs became more glaring later than others. The slow starts by some may turn around, but the roster definitely demonstrates some spots to anticipate spirited competition, turnover from below (or above), or both. From a standpoint of talent in Wilmington, it will be turnover for the right reasons, and for the wrong reasons as well. Hoping for a hero to develop in Fredericksburg or drive on in from extended spring training. We’ll leave the light on for ya.