The calendar has turned to June, and with that, an adequate opportunity to study what we have in the minor league inventory. As you know from my previous columns, I dispense with the prospect rankings and their click-baiting that tell me to get overheated for Carter Kieboom while ignoring the staying power of Yadiel Hernandez; fixate on drafted talents while overlooking the fruits plucked from elsewhere like Sam Clay and Kyle Finnegan; drool in direct proportion to the bonus a young player receives while ignoring a player rising through the system who is lights out.
I also cannot relate to the misery of my fellow Nats fans who hand-wring endlessly over won-loss records and again, overall prospect rankings. There is only one won-loss record that counts, and it’s the major leagues. Oh, sure, I’m irritated with Fredericksburg’s record like the rest of us, gnashing my death at the dearth of power in the system, embarrassed at the lack of potent two-way outfield talent at the upper levels, and recognize the infield talent is no less thin, unless we are hoping to grow 25th and 26th roster spots. But if I had any desire to be miserable, I would get my information from the legacy newsmedia (which is why I don’t), and I watch baseball to be happy.
Be Happy! There is no strike, and the minor leagues are back.
There. If that message cannot resonate, then you probably want to skip the rest of this article and stick with thinking what Keith Law tells you to think. Because, he’s like, on ESPN!
Prospect lists are fun, but it’s like the prospect lists I made when I dated as a single man. Who was a top prospect and why? Since we’ll never know who’s a keeper until we do, I thought I’d identify the prospects I most want to watch this year, the ones who so far have shown they deserve to be watched, and why. Living for today is fun when risk-free. So with that, let’s go over 21 to watch in 21.
Yes, I am ranking them, because ranking is fun. And, because I know some of you will tell me I’m nuts, which means we get to wait a year to see who’s right and it’s a bet I’m willing to make. Yes, Wilmington is overrepresented, and we all know why. Yes, it’s mostly pitchers, until the non-pitchers are worth watching. No, I don’t care how old someone is. He is not dating my daughter. No, I don’t care what their bonus is. Bless his agent. No, the list does not include certain players at the top of other lists – because after years of Jake Johansen, I’ve moved to the show-me state. No, this list includes no one who has not yet been playing; if they have not seen a game field since 2019, so what’s to watch already? If the Nats wanted to watch them so bad, we’d be seeing them. That’s good enough for me.
Who’s on? People who are really taking their game up a notch. People who are showing things to get excited about. People who, on a closer look inside the numbers, would be one day be conceivably helpful at the major league level if their trajectory continues. And, no surprise, comparatively few position players. But whomever is there does deserve it.
What does one notice about where the action is? Well, the starting pitcher action is with the 2020 draft. Three of the top ten two watch are 2020 starting pitcher draftees. Relief arms? Harrisburg has a complement of numerous relief options in a scrum that may be the next wave in a post-Harris-Hudson-Hand era.
This list will absolutely change, for many reasons, most notably all of those players who have yet to take the field in Rookie League ball, or those who are on the mend but would have been interesting in their own right. I’ve always seen Seth Romero, for example, to be more than a whipping boy for blog posters who resent his making a big bonus he could buy weed with, and so I won’t give up on him. But until he gets between the lines, there’s nothing to watch. Same with folks like Jackson Tetrault and even dark horses like Michael Cuevas. And then there are others who just have to prove something. There’s a lot to like about Viandel Pena, for example, but until he hits and shows any measure of power in low A, a guy that small has a long way to go before we can start calling him Jose Altuve without an earpiece.
Absent from this list are a number of hyped prospects, and for one good reason – they’ve got to give results to get attention. I know that Steve likes Jeremy De La Rosa, and he may be the next big thing, and he’s only 19, but his strikeouts are up up and he has yet to produce and separate himself. There are others I like, such as Ben Braymer, who’s had a couple of nice outings. But until a guy like that starts dominating, it’s hard to envision his sticking with this big club. A guy like Armond Upshaw is not yet here even though he is clearly improved, as he’s on his second run of A+ so I am yet unconvinced.
So just as I will update with a “State of the Minors” after the draft picks are signed, the GCL gets going, and the washout of the minors happens, I’ll update this before the home stretch of the season. Why not more frequently? Because everyone has a bad game or two or three. One truly needs to see a long stretch to take a long look. These are kids, and they are finding their way, and so I am writing with the patience of a parent and coach rather than the impatience of a fan.
21) Bryan Pena, 21 – Another of the higher-level players from the 2017 class, Pena has only known statistical success as a pro. Now bumped to Low A after an impressive GCL showing in 2019, Pena started in the bullpen and still walks too many. However, he recently entered the rotation of the lowly F’ Nats, turning in nice outings. What’s to like: At this point, it’s more the optics of his climb, his success at lower levels, his tracking as a starting pitcher, and ability to get guys out through more than one run through the order.
20) Nick Wells, 25 – It’s early, and maybe this is just my inability to concede that Rizzo gave away Austin Adams for nothing. But Wells, whom two organizations were high on before the Nats, was converted into relief and showed the team enough to make it to AA this year. The tall lefty – and we know how the organization covets its tall arms – has started nicely this year, indeed. What’s to like: Better than a strikeout an inning, good control, and two outings of three scoreless innings. It’s a crowded bullpen in Harrisburg, but he’s got his place there for now.
19) Alfonso Hernandez, 21 – It was back in 2017 in the Dominican League that Hernandez was last starting regularly, where he posted excellent numbers. Pigeonholed to multiple inning relief stints since, he has continued to perform well at every step up the ladder. Until this year, he was not giving up home runs. And now, with early flameouts in the Fred Nats rotation, Hernandez has grabbed a starter spot and is delivering. What’s to like: Since becoming a starter, he is allowing even less runners on the basepaths, even as his innings are increasing.
18) Gage Canning, 24 – Drafted out of Arizona State in the fifth round, Canning had the gap-power baseball smarts pedigree that translated into very meh production his first two years. Now 24 and living Take Two at high A, I had Canning as Ripening or Rotting at year’s beginning. He’s apparently answered that well with five home runs in his first 54 plate appearances – more than he generated in 445 plate appearances in 2019. All this while operating at a .348 on base average. Since it’s early, we have yet to sort out whether his power is streaky or substantive benefits of an organization strength program. What’s to like: Canning also runs well, plays all outfield positions well, and throws guys out on the bases – 11 in 2019, two so far this year.
17) Jacob Rhinesmith, 25 – He was drafted as a hitter when he came into the system, but whether Rhinesmith’s small college success would translate in the pro game was unclear. After two years at lower levels, with passable production and an excellent on-base eye, the right fielder got the A+ start. Though old for the level, he is hitting very well, to go along with other established parts of his game. There was always a sense that more power was going to come from Rhinesmith, and apparently it has. What’s to like: An all-around talent who will also steal a base from time to time. And a .382 OBP to go with extra base power is great to see. Excellent production with runners in scoring position and in late innings. So he’s got the mental game going for him.
16) Tim Cate, 23 – Another particularly hyped arm, this time with the 2019 performance to back it up, Cate had a horrid start to 2021, victimized by both control and the gopher ball. Now that the weather is warming, he is considerably improving, and a scoreless outing this week left a lot to be encouraged by. What’s to like: A dedicated professional who is mature and has that highly regarded curveball. Even with his early struggles, AA batters are hitting only .235 against him.
15) Luis Garcia, 21 – Before you say anything, I know he’s not a “rookie” and so therefore not a “prospect,” but just turning 21 and on a developmental trajectory, primarily at AAA, he belongs on this list. The glove plays, the confidence plays, the bat doesn’t, and as we all ask, will it? With 5 HR in only 89 plate appearances in AAA, he’s answered one question, but not enough questions (he doesn’t walk enough and strikes out too much, and doesn’t steal enough bases, either). If the Nationals struggle and continue to muddle, we may see more of him than we ever hoped – unless he goes beyond Wilmer Difo production. What’s to like: He’s fearless and happy, and we’ll always have his successful debut in 2020. And, he really hasn’t had apprenticeship at AAA. The Nationals still clearly believe, as he was promoted when Gerardo Parra (who admittedly would have prompted a DFA) was not. The problem is, there isn’t a lot about Garcia to be excited about right now, other than his birth certificate and apparent continued physical growth.
14) Tyler Dyson, 23 – Many find it aggravating that the Nationals draft high profile who fall out of favor. For every Anthony Rendon, there is a Nick Banks. For every Lucas Giolito, there is a Seth Romero. Into that category is Tyler Dyson. Once thought of as first round material, he fell out of favor as he fell out of the Gators rotation as well. But the Nationals have their favorites, and SEC talents are to be sure. So they signed Dyson to 4th round money. So far, he looked good starting at the NY Penn Level at age 21, and now he gets the bump to Wilmington – more age appropriate. He cannot be faulted for being born into that rotation, but when he finally got his chance as a starter for the Blue Rocks, he showed up big with five hitless innings. He started June with a rough outing, so let’s see how he bounces forward. What’s to like: Pro batters are hitting only .167 off him for his career, including .143 this year.
13) Alex Troop, 24 – The long, lean lefty has paid his dues. And now, he is getting heavy play out of the Blue bullpen, with eight games pitched to date. That’s all the way back for a TJ survivor. His only earned run was a homer in the one outing he went 3.1 innings. That was his inning high, and he’s worked two innings or more his last three outings. What’s to like: A .163 batting average against, no walks in seven of eight outings, 15 K in 12 innings, and a WHIP of .75. Excellent pitching numbers in late innings.
12) Jakson Reetz, 25 – Nobody plucked him when he was free, and I’m happy for that. The longtime veteran of the Nats system has inched his way up, and now toils in AA. Which is a good thing, because whatever the cluster of catching in AAA, they are all utterly uninteresting. Reetz excelled in fall ball, looked good in spring training. And after a miserable start to this year, Reetz turned on a switch and hit very well over his last nine games in May. No power yet for this cleanup hitter, but his power started when the weather warmed in 2019, so I’m optimistic on this front as well. What’s to like: He is a well-regarded game general and baseball rat. Now in his first season of AA, he has an excellent on base average, even with a batting average still bearing the effects of his dreadful start.
11) Karlo Seijas, 20 – Finally, he has shown flashes of pitching like the crown jewel of the 2017 international class he was expected to be. His control has always been a positive feature, but he has never showed the potential as a starting pitcher that he is right now, at Low A for the first time. Shellacked his first time out, Seijas turned it around, and fast. If he keeps the ball in the park, his numbers will improve. What’s to like: Seeing him put together dominating 6 and 7 inning outings, and what that has to do for his confidence to build on.
10) Zach Brzycky, 21 – The Nationals are apparently figuring out what to do with this undrafted free agent, and enjoying the process at A+. He started very fast as a multi-inning reliever, before Aberdeen roughed him up a bit in their next looks, including the first three home runs of his professional career. What’s to like: The demonstrated ability to get through the lineup more than once. Holding his own at A+ in his first pro taste, getting tested like lower profile Nationals picks don’t.
9) Sterling Sharp, 25– Sharp was not supposed to make the Marlins after getting Rule V selected. He did. Folks said that was because the Marlins were horrible. Turns out they weren’t. So much the better for the Nationals, who got Sharp back before the end of the year. He went from being talked about among surprises at the major league level to an afterthought alongside Mario Sanchez and seemingly in AA purgatory. After a couple of excellent starts for the Senators, the Nationals decided they had seen enough and promoted him to Rochester’s rotation. It reminds one of the philosophy guiding Rizzo’s promotions – that the player be mentally ready. One has to think the apprenticeship of 2020 was constructive for Sharp, who is forgotten no more. What’s to like: A sinkerballer, and a tinkerballer. Very dedicated to craft and consequently, one of those players who won’t be defined by his being selected late in the draft.
8) Carter Kieboom, 23 – Quietly, he has gone from a miserable start to steadily improving at the plate. He still isn’t mashing extra base hits with any regularity, but his home run drought has ended. He’s played 19 games of errorless ball at third, his strikeouts are down and his walks are up. As I watch Austin Riley’s breakthrough and the Braves’ patience rewarded, I’m wondering what will be of Carter. I won’t get excited till he starts playing like early 2019 Carter, but I have to admit I’m now watching and rooting and watching. What’s to like: An on-base average of .395 despite a batting average of .234. Hitting very well with runners in scoring position. And after watching him scuffle in spring training to a painful degree, it’s encouraging to see he has 17 strikeouts in 79 PA.
7) Evan Lee, 23 – We’ve heard chatter about Lee increase for well over a year. A two-way player without much burn on his arm at Arkansas, the Nationals have since apparently come to believe that they unlocked a live arm that has helium. Better informed sources like Byron Kerr and Steve Mears were talking up Lee heavily and Baseball America but him on their watch-list, and I have, as with folks like Yasel Antuna, hoped for the best, but remembered being burned by the same enthusiasm for since-forgotten talents like Eric Senior that, like the song says, “cooled in the warmth of the sun.” So when Lee started this year getting roughed up in his first couple of outings, I found myself thinking that the Wilmington lefty was alas another unrealistic hope. To my delight, Lee has really turned it around with consecutive dominant performances. Looks like we do have something real here. What’s to like: In his most recent outings covering 8.2 innings, Lee has 15 strikeouts and only 3 walks, no runs allowed and 6 hits. He’s keeping the ball in the ballpark.
6) Matt Cronin, 23 – Not surprisingly, with his high-profile college career and a high draft pick (4th Round), there would be expectations. And Cronin was dominant at a lower rung in 2019, and impressing in instructional settings. When we saw Seth Romero last year and did not see Cronin, some wondered whether the Nats were just bringing him along slowly for reasons that have more to do with what he’s being groomed for. Some would be surprised that he’s in A+, but Aberdeen hit him a bit after seeing him a couple of times. What’s to like: Twenty-three strikeouts in 12.1 innings will get people dreaming on you. The walks are down a bit, and he’s still not giving up many hits. Showing the ability to pitch more than one inning. Tough on both lefties and righties.
5) Frankie Bartow, 24 – Before the Nationals went all in to drafting pedigreed late inning relievers in early rounds in recent years, they selected Bartow in the eleventh round in 2018. He was a late reliever success at the University of Miami, and continued closing in the pro ranks. He reached A+ in 2019 and showed the kind of late inning results (1.86 ERA, .215 opponents’ batting average) that warrant promotion. Now in AA, he has started fast, outpacing other closer prospects on the same staff (who are also on this list), with five saves in five opportunities for a dismal Harrisburg team. What’s to like: He’s given up only two hits in eight innings, along with two walks and ten strikeouts. That’s eight games of scoreless and clean performance. He isn’t sexy, but neither was Brandon Kintzler.
4) Mitchell Parker, 21 – It’s Low-A, yes, and he has dominated the same team, yes, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by Mitchell Parker’s two wipeouts of a good Down East team. With only one hit allowed in his last twelve innings, and 22 strikeouts, Parker’s been overpowering, and further evidence of quite a starting pitching haul coming out of the ’20 draft. Not bad for a fifth round JUCO product. What’s to like: His last three starts, only four walks total, even as the strikeouts are piling up. No home runs allowed this year, either.
3) Cole Henry, 21 – It hasn’t taken Henry long to bust out of the shadows of Cade Cavalli. And a welcome development this has been, given the Nationals’ first round frustrations of underachieving Denaburg, Romero and hopefully not Rutledge. What’s to like: Four starts in, showing the ability to pitch six strong innings, 29K in 21 innings, only three walks total in his first three starts, showing the ability to truly dominate, success with two unknown catchers, and a .167 batting average against. You rank high when one feels they can’t wait to see what you do next. That’s the vibe of Henry right now. Hopefully his injury concerns are minor, and we get to see more.
2) Gabe Klobosits, 26 – He came out of college as a 36th Round draft pick and then roared through the short season like a meteor. And just like that, Big Gabe was gone to TJ. But he briefly returned in 2019 with good success, giving hope to Klobosits watchers everywhere. Now in Harrisburg and sharing late innings with Frankie Bartow, the eye-popping numbers are there. What’s to like: With almost 2 K’s an inning, and only one unintentional walk, the 2017 numbers are back. He’s even dialed it up to two innings. Oh, what fun it would be to have an intimidating reliever at the big league level who shuts things down with strikeouts.
1) Cade Cavalli, 22 – He’s been everything as advertised. In his first game action on pro ball, he has shown enough that we can expect to see him in AA for long enough of a stretch to prepare him for the 2022 conversation. What’s to like: Eye popping strikeout number with decent control at this early stage in his pitching development. He’s overmatched three different opponents, one of whom he has already faced three times. No home runs allowed, coming back on Aberdeen to shut them down. No walks to go along with eleven strikeouts in his last start, and opponents batting less than .200 against him.
OK, OK…one more
22) Israel Pineda, 21 – I’m not supposed to watch a guy hitting .140 who is striking out at a pace of almost one every three at bats. And I’m not supposed to watch a guy just because he came in with the notorious class of 2016. I know. But I don’t! Pineda more than survived being thrown into the GCL pool at age 17. He hit well there and in 2018, his sophomore year at Auburn, when he began to show some power. But then 2019 happened, and he offensively tanked before being shut down with a significant wrist injury. Now two years later, he looked good in spring training with the Nats, but began Wilmington with an atrocious 1 for 28 start. But he’s had 6 HR at age 21, which gets me watching. What’s to like: Since power returns slowest after a wrist injury, the power surge is welcome. On defense, he’s always been good at controlling the running game, but this year Pineda is off to another level, throwing out 56% of would-be base stealers.
Thanks for all of your input and feedback. I’ll look forward to following on this list in seven weeks or so, before we hit the home stretch with the rookie leaguers. As we know from 19-31, a lot can change, and fast. Enjoy the ride. The ones to watch are the ones to enjoy.