The Nats farm went from almost barren a year ago to a bumper crop!

Brady House with high school teammate Trevor Maddox; Photo provided by Trevor Maddox

Just by signing № 11 overall pick, Brady House (№ 90 Baseball America Ranking), in this year’s first round of the amateur draft, the Washington Nationals would have had two Top-100 prospects in their farm system with House and Cade Cavalli (№ 26) who was the team’s first round pick last year.

Adding Keibert Ruiz (№ 15) and Josiah Gray (№ 58) through trades this week to their top prospects, has now propelled the Nats to one of the strongest farm systems.  But a year ago at this time, the Nats had no players ranked in the Top-100 and were rated last by Baseball America as the worst minor league system in baseball. 

“It’s so exciting,” House said on signing with the Nationals this week. “That’s the thing you want to hear, that you’re going to help a team win a title one day. I think that that’s a really good compliment for the guys that are with me, and me as well, just trying to get up there and help the team.”

Most would have you believe that the last place ranking of the farm system was because of all of the trades the Nats made over the years, but actually not one of the players the Nats traded in recent years would have changed that ranking. The players traded in the Adam Eaton and Sean Doolittle trades had long since matriculated to the next level like Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo. The Nats system was almost barren due to some poor draft picks but mostly due to poor development if you are a believer in the great the debate putting the failure of the student on the teacher and they system in place.

For years, the Nats’ organizational philosophy was to go after big arm, high velo, pitchers with upside like Seth Romero and Jake Johansen as well as players who have had injury histories, and the results were poor. Johansen is already out of the team’s system.

Now the team is choosing starters with 3-and-4 pitch repertoires and “stuff” as well as positional players who make contact with good barrel skills. Sure, part of the failures come from picking near the back of the first round due to the Major League success of the team. The more games you win — the lower you choose in the drafts. But there are plenty of successes by teams like the Dodgers who have also consistently picked lower than the Nats and turned gems in their farm system through great development.

Progress and tough decisions were made this week when the team demoted two of their MLB bullpen arms with both Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero sent back to Triple-A to learn how to pitch again.

Another player teetering on the edge is Victor Robles who lost almost all of his power and now is batting .198. Some in the Nats local media drilled into Robles’ head that he had lost speed due to adding muscle on. What did Robles do over the winter? He lost the muscle mass he worked hard to gain and not only has his speed barely changed according to Statcast, his power has all but disappeared.

Two of the Nats top prospects from 2019, Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia are both on the big league squad and starting almost daily now, trying to show they belong. They both exceeded the 130 at-bat threshold to be considered as prospects. At one time, they were part of the Nats’ top prospects going into the 2020 season.

By having a strong farm system, teams can promote players at minimum salaries to their MLB team allowing for payroll flexibility to add expensive free agents — but also allow teams to sign their homegrown talent long-term. The Nats from 2014 to 2020 were near the top payrolls in the Majors. But the team handcuffed themselves after the 2019 season by re-signing Stephen Strasburg and climbing into the stratosphere with a $100 million starting rotation with Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez. Those expenditures left them short the available cash to extend Trea Turner unless they wanted to go over the CBT Tax cap.

As Jim Bowden said on MLB Network Radio, “They were spending like the Dodgers and Yankees as if they are a big market team, but they are not.” The Nats had the 18th lowest revenue stream, and tied for the 5th lowest local TV revenues, and you cannot survive that way as a singular business entity.

Last week was almost a reset in payroll and repairing the farm system simultaneously, but the team still has problems. They have almost $70 million tied up in questionable contracts for Corbin, Strasburg, and Harris. The latter two are both out for the season after thoracic outlet surgeries, and Corbin is the guy who has a 5.74 ERA. Imagine giving up 4 runs over 7.0 inning last night and improving your ERA. That’s exactly what Corbin did. The Nats are on the hook for eight more combined seasons for Corbin and Strasburg. They have to hope that both can snap back into form.

Corbin has an issue besides his abominable statline, he is basically a two-pitch guy. He threw two curveballs last night and one was smashed for a home run. He is essentially a slider and fastball pitcher needing another “plus” pitch. You would have thought that at his level that he would have developed it on his own. What makes Scherzer so great is that he commands five pitches.

Like celebrating the successes of the 2019 World Series, the accolades for those triumphs and the criticism of the failures must fall at the feet of general manager Mike Rizzo. The development of players in the system if you carve out all of those “can’t miss” first rounders like Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Turner, and the international equivalent in Juan Soto, you have little to show for it otherwise. A year ago the Nats were back to where they were in 2005 with a farm system with little hope. The team had to boot the season. It was teetering on the edge anyway given how bad the 2020 team did.

Now we are at a crossroads and do not know if the team is going to tank in 2022 or what the “plan” is. Projected team payroll is at $125 million with 54% tied to Strasburg, Corbin and Harris. We cannot even project the 2022 starting rotation with the question mark surrounding Strasburg’s health, and Corbin’s ineffectiveness. Without Turner at the top of the lineup and anchoring the shortstop position, we do not even know who will be the catalyst to start rallies. For now, it is Soto and Josh Bell as the only two players you could say will start in 2022.

Sure, you could fill in a lineup with six other names and add Kieboom, Garcia, Barrera, Robles, Adrian Sanchez and Andrew Stevenson. You could also then pencil in 90+ losses and get more games like you have seen the last two nights.

But maybe last night is the right answer. See what you have in Strasburg in 2022 and go from there. Rizzo says the team isn’t rebuilding and called it a “retool” which sounds better. Hopefully he can retain Kevin Long and Jim Hickey as his hitting and pitching coaches because these are two of the best in baseball. Get them working in the offseason on plans for top prospects.

In his Triple-A debut for the Nats last night, the switch-hitting Ruiz hit a home run. Gray pitched for the Nats in his debut on Monday night against the Phillies and that looked promising over his 5.0 innings of work yielding just one run. Cavalli threw 6.2 scoreless in his last Double-A start. House is in West Palm Beach working out with the new draft signees. So yes, the future is looking brighter.

Before Spring Training, Rizzo talked to a group of season ticket holders, and said the team went through autopsy after the 2020 season. An interesting choice of words indeed when you consider that you do an autopsy on a dead body — not one that is breathing. That might give you an idea of what Rizzo thought of the 2020 season. Can you imagine what he thinks of the 2021 season? Here is what Rizzo said:

“We gave ourselves an autopsy of how things went. What went right and what went wrong in 2020. We put together a wish-list of players that fit positionally, fit well for us. Then we kind of get more specific into specific names and players and that type of thing. Then you painstakingly go through each and every report and evaluate the players you may — or may not want to acquire.”

“Lots of specifications go into this thing. There’s the performance on the field, roster dynamics [such as] right-handed balance, left-handed balance, and there’s a makeup and character component that we factor in very greatly. And then there’s availability — are players available? Are other teams ready to make moves? So we kind of dive into the free agent market, the trade market, and see what fits better for us.”

“We put together a plan and there is no specific timetable. Sometimes we’ve done our business earlier than others and it’s kind waiting for the market to form when your best deals are made.”

This will be Rizzo’s blueprint for this upcoming offseason also. In my opinion the team should be looking at Kyle Schwarber as a free agent on a long-term deal as he should fit perfectly with this team for the future. Spend the bulk of the money in free agency on top bullpen arms and one key starting pitcher because those are the players who can easily be flipped at the trade deadline for more prospects.  The rest should probably be a lot of short-term deals and hope this team is more like the 2011 Nats than the 2007 Nats.


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