And just when you think it can’t get worse, an 0-9 start in Fredericksburg is ugly and indefensible. A 7-29 start throughout is lousy enough, and then you realize there is no payoff for tanking. At Fredericksburg, scores in the early going have resembled little league blowouts between the too-big vs. the too-little. How brutal? Team Batting Average last in the league at .171. Team OBA 281. Team home runs, and extra base hits last in the league by far. Team SLUGGING .220. Team ERA 9.12 – next closest is 5.86. It doesn’t get any more palatable in the other statistical metrics. Blecch!
A team that makes 11 errors in its first three games is poorly prepared. Now at 20 errors after nine games, there is at least some normalizing, but the product on the field just does not look like it belongs on the field. How does one make sense of this?
The Fred Nats are right now featuring some players who were drafted long ago enough, and international signees who came into the system long ago enough, that they either should have developed or will wash out by summer’s end if the light does not go on. Playing those performers on the bubble now helps the parent club to get a feel for what they can expect, as there is no Auburn this year. In the Nats case, they are learning the hard way about what talent the organization has – and does not have — on the field when there is still a decent amount of unutilized player inventory that is clearly too advanced for the GCL.
Whom we are also seeing in Fredericksburg now are several new arrivals from the 2020 haul of free agents, signed electively after the fifth round for modest bonuses. The older players from that group, with the exception of the clearly outperforming Zach Brzycky at Wilmington, are on the field at Fredericksburg and getting their chance to show they belong. In another year, folks like Landon Dieterich, Paul Witt, and Jake Boone would be at GCL or at Auburn. So that’s a positive for the organization taking a sink or swim approach with talent in whom it has invested less up-front cost.
The Nationals had been emphasizing developing young position players from Latin American teenagers signed into the system. Sign many, develop all in the Academy, and watch them rise slowly through the system. That’s great when you have Juan Soto and Victor Robles matriculate to the top levels. But Robles, whose trajectory was more realistic for a star player, signed in 2013. It takes all of that time to break through. Just for some perspective, the meteorically rising Juan Soto signed in 2015. Luis Garcia, poking through consciousness at AAA at a most tender age, signed in 2016 – as did now-struggling Yasel Antuna and Israel Pineda – and Joan Adon, for example — taking the stage in A+.
For awhile, I’ve operated on the two-tier thinking that the Nationals draw in the more educated and older in the amateur draft (with the exceptions of first round picks and the occasional Sammy Infante, Justin Connell and Michael Cuevas), and the high schoolers through the Latin American signings. That appears to be true. And with this year, I’ve presumed that the Latin crop would begin to bear organizational fruit in Fredericksburg, as would seemingly better drafts in most recent years. The problem with overreliance upon position prospects from the Latin market is that they are signing well before one can project offense and in particular, a power ceiling.
The pitching depth at Wilmington is pretty impressive. And there may be some emerging pitching talent at Fredericksburg, too. Yes, I said that after seeing three of the lowly FredNats’ hurlers amass 19 strikeouts in a nine inning game. Whoa!
However, it does not take a statistical breakdown to see that the lack of power and real hitting potential is a byproduct of hyper-emphasis on pitching in the June US draft. And, that the crop of international signees and the investment that began with the 2015 Soto signing has yet to blossom as high as A+.
If you want to look at what’s working this year, we should now begin to see that manifesting in the lower minors with the international class of 2017. Perhaps it will, as most of those players are yet to arrive on the field in Low A. Remember, the Dominican development pipeline is a complete mystery since 2018. In recent years they have signed some large international classes into the system, which is just as well to wash out June late draft picks who do not gel and would otherwise be OG – organizational guys.
The current strategy of showcasing the older players pre-June is essentially Survivor – Nationals edition. That’s one approach for player acquisition and development, and very clever if you can make it work as a true pipeline to major league starting talent. Now that the team has won a World Series and has one of the game’s most marketable Dominicans in Soto, it’s a strategy that can still work.
But unless that approach works as intended, the organization needs to be asking 1) How can they better scout, sign (and properly allocate bonus polls), and develop affordable talent from all over Latin America that has the long-term potential of major league starters or major trade chips? 2) If that projection is not possible, how should organizational priorities be changed in the June Amateur draft now that the lower system (soon to be upper system) is truly flush with pitching talent? 3) Can the team flip unwanted parts (Trevor Gott, Pedro Severino) that are valued by other teams for Latin American youngsters that the team has scouted but failed to sign (a more fledgling example of the targeting of Trea Turner)? 4) Have such international players been jettisoned at age 20-21 and only now maturing into a deserved second chance at an age where college juniors get drafted?
So let’s look more closely at those starring in Survivor Nationals.
Just as we would expect one day from Mason Denaburg, a player who shows up in low A after having been drafted nearly four years earlier likely had significant injury history that he has clawed back from. The organization thought enough of Leif Strom and his recovery from Tommy John surgery to put the 6’6 Strom and his reportedly big fastball in the Fredericksburg rotation. Early returns have been pretty bad.
You know the name – Onix Vega. And since being a 20th Round pick in 2018, this otherwise afterthought catcher has produced when given the opportunity in the GCL and Auburn. He’s now batting third in the Fredericksburg lineup, he doesn’t strike out much, and caught the first two runners trying to steal against him. Now if he can just hit a lick.
It’s easy to overlook Tanner Driskill, who pitched a bit in 2019 with unimpressive results. Drafted in the 9th, he was one of three consecutive players the Nats signed for 10K well below slot deals. The other two are long gone from the organization, Tyler Cropley and Carson Shaddy. Trivia question: that opened up the coffers for going over slot with which players? Answer, Denaburg and Jake Irvin – yikes, both injured.
If the Nationals are waiting on Driskill in 2021, the results are not yet worth it.
Another fascinating fact – of the players drafted above Driskill, only one (Tim Cate has reached Double A). Of those drafted after him, however, five Frankie Bartow, Carson Teel, Cody Wilson, Ryan Tapani, Aaron Fletcher) have reached Double A. What’s up with that?
We know how Rizzo likes bloodlines, and Jake Randa, the son of Joe Randa, scored a 300K bonus as a 13th round pick. For some perspective, that was the fifth highest bonus the Nationals paid in 2019. A two-year producer at JUCO, he had great power his first collegiate year and then fell off in his draft year a bit but still had great plate discipline. He played all three outfield spots and has a very qualified outfield arm, with 5 assists in only 53 games after the Nationals planted him at Auburn post draft. In 2021 and now 22, he has an OBP of .367 through the first nine games, so he’s earned some patience at his new level.
JT Arruda was right behind Randa in the bonus list, despite being an 11th round pick. As shortstop on a winning Fresno State team, he left school early to sign with Washington, and has since been used at three infield positions, showing a strong arm and very capable defense. He has on base skills and base stealing prowess but his bat remains meh and uninspiring at age 23. For those of you who grouse about how he got 250K, cheer up: Tony Renda was once a 2nd round draft pick.
Lucas Knowles was a late sign after being drafted in the 14th round out of JUCO. He generated a lot of excitement for being an up-and-coming lefty arm headed to the SEC before the Nationals snagged him, but he has ultimately pitched very little in the system. So he remains a low mileage 23 year old, right now working out of the bullpen.
He was an unimpressive 15th rounder once he hit the system, but Davis Moore made it through the organizational COVID purge and now, has started his Fred Nats year with a nice couple of outings before getting hammered in Tuesday’s 17-3 wipeout against Delmarva.
Kevin Strohschein was a 21st round OF out of Tennessee Tech who is being converted into a 1B. He had a good arrival at the bat with the GCL Nats in 2019, and comes with a background of a dominant bat at a smaller college program. This year, at age 23, he has proven the Ron Washington adage to be correct about playing first base “It’s incredibly hard,” making five errors in his first six games. It’s hard not to wonder how this might be affecting him at the plate, as his college talent made him a Golden Spikes semi-finalist and first-team All-American. So, he’ll get his chances to work it through.
Junior Martina was quite the rage of the GCL Nats in 2019, settling down to .320 by year’s end. Yet he had such an unassuming background that when he was drafted, folks thought he was using a pseudonym. He played multiple infield positions and was a player one would feel certain about rising to Fredericksburg. He has, but has barely seen the field and was hitless in twelve at bats before finally starting to hit last night. Smells like an injury, perhaps its COVID, perhaps its whatever else is going around the team. No one would sleep on him yet, though.
Jeremy Ydens is a 23 year-old outfielder out of UCLA who signed at 8th round slot after a drop-off to more ordinary production at UCLA in his junior year. He did not impress at all at Auburn after being drafted in the 8th round and signing with the Nationals. Every one of the 2019 draftees other than Ydens is a level above or more at this point. Now, he gets one more chance to show he is better than striking out 30% of the time and with little more to show for it. The early returns are icch.
At 24 and coming off being drafted in the 28th round, Jordan Bocko would be prepared for low expectations. He excelled in relief at Auburn in 2019, and now mans the Fred Nats pen. He’s been hurt by giving up two home runs already in two outings.
2020 Draft and Undrafted Signee
Landon Dieterich was a small college standout with both bat and outfield arm. 6’5 and a good athlete with some power, he has already played some CF, although he is primarily a RF. After a recent strong game at the plate, he added something positive to an atrocious start of 12 strikeouts in his first 21 pro plate appearances.
Jake Boone will have to overcome a natural eye roll in the fan base from his organizational bloodlines. That noted, he is playing errorless 2B and 3B and at the bottom of the order. He had one decent year at Princeton prior to getting his chance with the Nationals, who can be excused for giving playing time to Boone while a more exciting player like Viandel Pena readies to take over soon enough and when the weather warms.
Like a player drafted in the 40th round, Paul Witt is a guy you root for. He wrapped up a VCU career with COVID’s interruption, but the second baseman then signed on with the local Nationals to continue his career. He was a consistent excellent second baseman for the Rams, converted from SS. Nothing exciting, but he’ll get his chance now to see what he’s got. Still waiting on his first hit after 13 at bats.
Another outfielder, Zach Cornell, dominated the NAIA in all hitting metrics in the abbreviated COVID year. And he showed excellent plate selectivity and a terrific home run to strikeout ratio – 1:2. He’s a religious kid, which I like, and the Nationals have already tried him all around the outfield. For someone who came out of that low a level of competition, Low A might be a challenge, so we may need to be patient, although he is 23.
Gio Diaz has started the year with a ghastly 6 errors in 6 games at 3B, a far cry from the defensive prowess he displayed as a collegiate. The Nationals signed him on with a reputation for seldom striking out. Having begun his career at Fredericksburg, Diaz’ results at the plate have not been especially fertile, but he boasts six walks in only eighteen plate appearances.
When you consider the Nationals typical slow advancement of prospects, it’s a bit hard to believe that Mitchell Parker is the lone 2020 draftee starting at Low A. But yes, here he is in the F’burg rotation. A lefty starter who can strike guys out is always welcome in this system, and Parker will be a reason to watch, whatever the team’s record. He’s had his rough spots in two starts, but with fifteen strikeouts in only 7 2/3 innings in two starts, he’s got a lot worth watching.
2016 International Signees
Geraldi Diaz comes out of the same well-discussed class as Garcia-Antuna-Pineda-Adon and now gets the bump as a 20 year old catcher, sharing time as he has at lower levels. After incubating in the DSL for two years, he made it to the GCL in 2019 and responded with an impressive offensive showing. He’s off to a very rough start in 2021 Fredericksburg, with three errors already at catcher, poor ability to stem the running game, and bad plate production.
Pedro Gonzalez arrived on the radar with a strong age-17 campaign in the DSL. Since then, he’s been pretty bland, but the Nationals have seen enough to have him in the Fred Nats rotation. He’s still only 20, so an interesting one to watch.
A bit more consistently intriguing has been Alfonso Hernandez. Now 21, he has had success at every level until his first taste of Low A in 2019. When the Nats stick with a pitcher who’s 5’11, he’s got talent. Hernandez had not given up a home run in his minor league career. But this is the Fred Nats, and so tonight he gave up two. Still, he struck out seven in three innings, so that will raise an eyebrow every time.
2017-2018 International Signees
Nats faithful were told that Karlo Seijas was the name to know from the 2017 crop. And now we have a chance to get a closer look at him after his quite impressive 18-year old campaign in the GCL two years ago. In 2019, he had only six walks in 36 innings and finished the year in Auburn with a four inning save. Now in the rotation at age 20, he was battered in his first 2021 start. But if you are looking for the future future, Seijas is still that kind of guy.
Now 22, Braian Fernandez got his first stateside looks in 2019 with the GCL Nats after a .313 season with the Dominican Nats the year before. His GCL batting line was pretty pedestrian, and he showed neither power, speed, or plate selectivity. He did have five assists from center field in only 25 games, though. But it’s hard to see him, given his uninspiring start, as any more promising than the 2019 draftees who are underperforming in Fredericksburg.
If you’re looking for lefthanders, Bryan Pena is a guy to keep your eye on. At age 19, he more than held his own in the GCL. Two years later he gets the bump and is still in the bullpen, though the very early returns are poor. His career includes successful starting experience as well.
When Rodney Theophile was signed in 2018 out of Nicaragua, he was billed as a bit of a discovery. A big arm that no one knew about, he managed to get an assignment to the GCL right out of the gate at age 18, skipping the DSL. He was roughed up, but hung around for 11 outings, and after dipping out of sight in 2019, here he emerges three years later in the Fredericksburg rotation. And threw four scoreless in his first outing. That’s pretty intriguing stuff to me.
Theophile is the only signee from the 2018 international class who is now on a roster. Consider that he is only one of four signees post the bumper crop of 2016 who are now on rosters. Yet the Nationals have been signing some significant sized classes.
Translation? There is a lot of 2017 international talent ready to rise once the organization resolves its current inventory. So yes, we are watching auditions for the future. Who, might you ask? Well, several promising position performers from the 2019 lower levels have already demonstrated their skills stateside (Leandro Emiliani (2017), Viandel Pena (2017), Jose Ferrer (2017), Jorge Hurtado (2017), Caldioli Sanfler (2016), Jeremy De La Rosa (2018) and Daniel Marte (2018)). They have yet to appear in Fredericksburg, but you will be seeing them all.
Let’s not forget those who should have been here, but for injury.
Outfielder Ricardo Mendez (International Class of 16) was one of those higher bonus and better performing international signees who made it to Fredericksburg this year at age 21. In Game 1, he went to the 60 Day IL. Likewise did scratch hitting shortstop Jose Sanchez, himself part of the Garcia-Antuna-Pineda-Sanchez-Mendez 2016 class that famously blew out the Nationals bonus pool and into the penalty box (and still only 20 years old!). So to be sure, the Fred Nats team has been undermanned up the middle.
Michael Cuevas flew into this year under many people’s radar as a 23rd round pick. But where the Nats are concerned, you should always perk up when they uncommonly reign in a late round high schooler, as the Nats did Cuevas in 2019. Indeed he showed up well in the GCL, and got the bump to Fredericksburg. But after an excellent first outing for one hit and no walks in 4 and 1/3 innings, Cuevas went to the IL. Let’s hope it’s minor.
Mason Denaburg has a story already written. We just don’t know how it ends. Proving once again that a surplus of quality pitching makes a first rounder’s injury more of an afterthought. Trey Turner, yes, the other one, has posted video game strikeout – and walk numbers in his two minor league years, but is also oft injured and injured again.
I’ll return in my next installment to lay out the 21 in 21 – the Nationals minor leaguers I’ll be watching most closely this year, and for all the right reasons. It’s better than a “best prospect list” because it cuts through age-ism, bias, bonus-ism, draft-ism, and perhaps even Rizzo-ism. When you think about Armando Cruz coming in last July 2020, use the precedents and be prepared to be patient. He won’t be on the list because he’s a long way off.
But forget the FredNats record and joy the ride. That’s why we’re all here. And when it comes to the minors, watching them grow is the most fun of all.