Beyond Rankings, the Nationals Prospects Who are Rising to Relevance

Hi folks, it’s been awhile and I want to compliment my fellow travelers here on a generally upbeat mood that I’ve noticed after time under water in my work world. Yesterday I was raising a toast to Daylen Lile for his fast start and the emergence of his pop, and how his profile is rapidly rising among the outfielders who otherwise draw the most praise within the Nationals’ system (James Wood, Elijah Green, Robert Hassell III).

The Nationals’ top and otherwise hyped prospects and young talents have been a mixed bag so far in 2023, with some clear disappointments (De La Rosa), slow starts (Susana, Alu), and others whose good performance (Wood) is to be expected. There are others working through injury (Hassell) as hamate surgery takes time to get back to 100 percent, and others grounded by serious injury (Cole Henry, Zach Brzykcy) and Carter Kieboom returned yesterday in a rehab assignment with Harrisburg Double-A. Still others keep reminding us that they really did deserve the fuss and top prospect rankings they were given (Brady House).

But then, there are still others who, in 2023, are proving to be the most interesting minor league performers in the system. More importantly, they are developing a relevance for themselves in the context of the major league team’s needs in 2023 and 2024. I know, we all expect the team to be a last place team and not to contend. But we all remember 19-31, and many of us quietly acknowledge that we genuinely like watching this team. The 2023 Nats are several pieces away from something special – and there are some pieces we may have on hand, already. So that noted, here are some players who deserve love and are absolutely catching my eye for what they can be, and I hope yours as well. This is only a list based on performance this far in 2023, and not “tools.” Lord knows, we’ve had plenty of hype infusion to be well-acquainted with white whales. No, these are names to throw around when you have the optimistic-realist’s mindset.

Drew Millas – He’s repeating AA, but he’s always been a warrior catcher and brings a good eye to the plate. I love his fire and his game. When I watched him this spring training on the backfields, I saw his putting extra work in with the coaches. His OBP is around .500(!) and he is hitting. He’s throwing out over 30% of baserunners in conditions that favor stealing more than ever. There’s a lot to like about a catcher with two way potential, brings extra hustle energy and moxie, and who can DH as well. He has the pedigree of being acquired in the 2021 selloff, so there’s that as well. With Pineda shelved and Keibert Ruiz under heavy team-friendly commitment by the Nationals, this is Millas’ time to grab opportunity.

Harrisburg bullpen – There are a number of intriguing arms there getting tested for better things. Seeing that the next level is AAA, it’s realistic that we can even see one of them this year, particularly if anyone gets moved at the trading deadline or if the Nationals stretch Mason Thompson or Thaddeus Ward into being a starter. 1) Amos Willingham – getting closer work, performing very well, steadily climbing the system 2) Malvin Pena (once rising prospect, flamed out starter, slowly converted last year, now effective reliever in his second turn at AA). 3)  Tim Cate – lefty, hyped curve, failed starter, now in bullpen, good early results. 4) Orlando Ribalta – slower start, but big AFL after strong 2022 effort in A+ 5) Carlos Romero – Under the radar, very tall, steady climber through the system

Jackson Rutledge – He opened eyes in the spring, and got an aggressive bump to AA to start the year. And he’s coming out of the gate well, with six scoreless in his last start. The team’s patience with his figuring out how to mature into a successful starter is being rewarded. And now that he is in AA, he can factor into the 2024 conversation if he can maintain his progress and stay healthy.

Kyle Luckham – The 2022 15th round pick has got everyone’s attention with his excellent start out of the gate in the Wilmington rotation, and his >7:1 K:B.

Jacob Young – Top of the order centerfielder with great stolen base numbers in 2022 that are even better this year, and he’s hitting very well and showing more pop as well in his first run with Wilmington. An excellent outfielder who has never made an error since coming into the pros in 2021, and who brings a strong arm to the table. A smart, very fundamentally sound player on the rise and headed for the upper minors.

Nick Pogue – A completely off the radar name, not even drafted, but brought into the Nats organization in 2022. He’s obviously showed enough to get routed to Wilmington already, and has had an excellent start as a multiple inning reliever. Like Jacob Young, he has the University of Florida pedigree and is a big bodied former starter there whose 2022 was his first year back from Tommy John. He’s got my attention, and it looks like the Nats may have found an overlooked gem.

Marlon Perez – The Nationals have been taking it slow with this 2022 Cuban signee, but the lefty is showing eye popping strikeout numbers and good control after rising to A+.

Tyler Schoff Yet another undrafted signee who has started fast,  (this is what happens when you shorten the drafts to 20 rounds and teams can then sign players looking for their best chance), Schoff is doing some closing, getting a lot of looks at Wilmington and faring very well.

Pablo Aldonis – The 21 year old lefty starter showed up well at Fredericksburg late last season and has kept it going so far in 2023. He’s one of the few who have excelled on the mound for the FredNats.

Help is on the way. Maybe it’s from one or more of these talents. Or, it may not be the conventional route. But some of that help will come, if not for the 2023 run, but playoff chases to follow in the form of deadline trades. I am old enough to remember some of the less talked about but most consequential prospect for deadline trades in Nats history – 2017 McKenzie Mills from Hagerstown for the great Howie Kendrick, and 2019 Kyle Johnston from High A Potomac for Daniel Hudson. With the Nationals sporting a low payroll, and the free agent marketplace featuring overpriced top end items that usually don’t work out, the trade marketplace at the deadline remains the best place for acquiring top-end talent for prospects, especially when other teams press the fire sale button. We can debate the merit of certain trades elsewhere, but Mike Rizzo’s additions of Sean Doolittle, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, and Adam Eaton brought in highly talented pieces that fueled a great run of playoff teams. We know the team will be hunting controllable starting pitching, and history has demonstrated that other teams value Nationals prospects much more than we do.

I’ve got other favorites, people I’ve seen who have not yet translated their skills into game action. And maybe they never will. How many batting practice home runs did I see Eric Senior hit, for example? But for this list, anyone else? Anyone you’ve seen in person? Who is catching your eye?

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