Outfielders – Down on the Farm
Welcome to the last installment of this series, and potentially the most interesting, as we look at the deepest pool of minor league outfield talent that the organization has had since they became the Nationals. An optimist could see eight future MLB contributors in this group, although some of them have a long way to go before that’s anywhere near reality. Still, the growth and development of this group will probably go the furthest toward determining when the Nationals are truly competitive again.
James Wood, 20
Prospect Rank: MLB #7/WAS #2
2023 Level: A+, AA
What We Learned: That Wilmington’s offense-suppressing environment was no match for perhaps the best athlete in the system (.293/.392/.580 in 42 games), and that after a rough start that included some terrible batted-ball luck, nor was the Eastern League. Wood led all Nats minor leaguers in home runs while also running the bases exceptionally well and playing elite defense in both center and right field (Senators manager Delino Deshields was essentially playing three-card monte with Wood, Hassell, and Young – and later Crews – in the three outfield spots, as all three are plus CFs or better). Wood also paced the organization in strikeouts, but folks, you’re going to have to deal with it; 6’7” dudes with long arms are going to whiff a lot. But he’s also going to walk a lot (he’s maintained a double-digit walk rate at every level he’s seen) and hit for plenty of power.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: Will he make the Opening Day roster? That is the biggest question that we would all like to know the answer to. In my opinion, I would say the odds are in favor of “yes” unless he absolutely bombs in March. It is less important for high-octane hitting prospects to spend serious time at AAA than for pitchers, and he doesn’t have many guys in his way. Are we supposed to believe that Alex Call is going to hold him down? Please. Even if he’s not with the Nats to open the season, he should be ensconced in DC well before Memorial Day. The more interesting question is whether or not he will bump Young to left field or whether he will move to a corner himself. I would leave him in center for now – he glides around out there like a supersized Carlos Beltrán.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: Such a contender doesn’t exist without Wood playing a prominent role.
Dylan Crews, 21
How Acquired: 2023 Amateur Draft, 1st round (2nd overall)
Prospect Rank: MLB #4/WAS #1
2023 Level: FCL, A, AA
What We Learned: That the Nats don’t trust Wilmington and the Christiana River to not mess with an über-prospect’s development. The Golden Spikes winner sprinted out of the gates and toyed with the lower levels before skipping high-A entirely on his way to Harrisburg. He encountered some actual challenges there (.208/.318/.278 in 85 PA), but a lot of that was bad BABIP luck (his exit velocities were in the 90th percentile). Like Wood, he is going to be playing with the big boys in West Palm Beach this coming spring.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: Will he be on the Opening Day roster? That’s the second-most interesting question that will puzzle us all winter. Crews did hit a bit of a wall in Harrisburg, but in part because he played 71 college games en route to a national championship, he had almost 200 more plate appearances than his sophomore year. He should be conditioned for a full season now, and I would bet on his talent, work ethic, and exceptional polish for a 21-year-old placing him in DC pretty early. This is not a guy who is going to be fazed by bright lights. Do Rizzo and Davey bring both him and Wood north? It would be something of a gamble to try and go for 1-2 in ROY balloting and all the bonus money that comes with it, but Rizzo has done crazier things before.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: 100% yes. I do wonder if, given the glut of outfield talent, perhaps the Nats have Crews dabble in some second base over the winter as an experiment? He’s a very good defensive outfielder, but so are Wood, Hassell, Young, and Pinckney (and further away, Green, Vaquero, and JDLR, for what that’s worth), and if Hassell in particular hits enough to stick he has to play outfield because he’s left-handed. It’s just a wild-hair idea – I have no clue if Crews even played any infield in high school (he did not in college).
Robert Hassell III, 21
How Acquired: Traded by the Padres for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, 8/2/2022
Prospect Rank: WAS #8 (Pipeline)
2023 Level: A (rehab), AA
What We Learned: That hamate injuries are a bear, even when you have the surgery right at the end of the season. 2023 became something of a lost year for Hassell, as he was passed by two guys from below (Wood and Young) with a third and fourth nipping at his heels (Crews and Pinckney). Most alarmingly, Bobby Barrels’ strikeout rate jumped to 31%, twelve points higher than it was in the Midwest League when he was traded a little over a year ago. He has always been a guy who takes some time to adjust to a new level even as he has been pushed pretty aggressively by both the Padres and the Nats, so hopefully that will be the case once again.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: I would guess that he goes back to Harrisburg, and if all goes well with the wrist and with his approach, he should get bumped up to AAA sometime in May. If there are any injuries/struggles among the Nats’ outfielders, he would probably be third in line for a debut appearance after Wood and Crews.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: He can, but will he? It would seem that Hassell would be the third-best outfielder on such a team, so is he going to force his way into the conversation and bump Young down the depth chart AND Thomas to the trade market (or either of them to second base)? Or is Hassell now potentially expendable in a trade for pitching help? The 2024 season will tell us a lot.
Daylen Lile, 20
How Acquired: 2021 Amateur Draft, 2nd round (47th overall)
Prospect Rank: WAS #6 (Pipeline)
2023 Level: A, A+
What We Learned: That we forgot about Day.* Lile mostly underwhelmed in his brief FCL sample after being drafted two years ago out of a Louisville high school (although he walked 15 times in 80 PA), and then missed all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. After the additions of Wood and Hassell and Green last year, Lile dropped off our collective radar before having a strong spring training, including in a few appearances with the big club. He then proceeded to hammer low-A pitching for 66 games (.291/.381/.510, with 34 of 73 hits going for extra bases, including 7 triples) before getting called up to Wilmington and hitting the wall after a brief flurry there. He recovered towards the end of the year, and was the biggest midseason mover on prospect lists, leapfrogging several other outfielders to land as high as #6. He’s probably a corner outfielder at the end of the day (and likely left field at that), so he will have to continue to hit to stick in the system. He has an advanced approach at the plate (lots of walks but also not a ton of Ks), so as long as he can continue to display gap power there is promise for him.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: Whether or not he goes back to high-A or starts the year in AA probably depends on his own spring performance as well as the domino effect of what the Nats decide to do with Wood and Crews. If either or both is on the Opening Day roster, I can see the Nats starting Lile in Harrisburg, particularly as he turns 21 next month and is a bit on the older side for a high schooler in his draft year. His best-case scenario likely involves finishing the year at AAA.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: It’s possible if he laps Hassell, but since he’s unlikely to be even an emergency CF, the fourth outfielder role is going to be a tougher sell for him (though with Wood, Crews, Young, Hassell, and even Thomas all capable of playing in the middle of the grass, that may be less important than for other teams). I feel that it’s more likely that Lile becomes a trade chip if he continues to hit – a team that sees him as a .280/.350/.430 hitter in the bigs could be persuaded to part with something of value for him.
*I recognize that this Dr. Dre reference probably flew right past 80% of you due to age. I have no regrets.
Elijah Green, 19
How Acquired: 2022 Amateur Draft, 1st round (5th overall)
Prospect Rank: WAS #5 (Pipeline)
2023 Level: A, FCL (rehab, or “rehab” for the more cynical among you)
What We Learned: Simultaneously too much and not enough. While Green walked an impressive 52 times in 83 games (that’s more walks than any National save Alex Call, in half as many games), he has a monstrous hole in his swing on pitches in the zone, and showed almost none of the light-tower power that was always a part of his scouting report. Green plays elite center field defense, runs the bases very well, and displays a good eye, but none of that will matter if he can’t make contact in-zone against A-ball pitchers – and smash it when he does. More than anything, he needs a referral from his old IMG teammate Wood to go see the same swing doctor this winter who helped simplify the latter’s swing path in between the 2021 and 2022 seasons. There was a wrist injury that cost Green more than a month in the middle of the season, and he didn’t exactly finish strong. His performance and the miscommunication about his injury was probably a significant factor in the ouster of farm director DeJon Watson.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: He has to show more against low-A pitching before he can be moved up. Assuming he can do that, I have to believe that he’s another guy that the Nats would be tempted to route up 270 to Harrisburg instead of up 95 to Wilmington, although the Eastern League is almost as pitcher-friendly as the Sally League. Green’s strikeout rate needs to fall by ten points or more, and he has to hit for more power – the former wouldn’t be nearly as concerning if he were regularly jacking baseballs 420 feet, but those are few and far between.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: Not unless he has a miraculous turnaround. I will maintain that Green’s ceiling is “Mike Cameron with 40-homer power,” which is an incredibly valuable player, but Cameron himself didn’t stick in the majors until he was 24 (Torii Hunter, Ron Gant, Jim Edmonds, and Eric Davis, also high school draftees and good comps for Green’s ceiling, were likewise all 23 or 24 by the time they were MLB fixtures).
How Acquired: Signed as an international free agent, 1/15/2022
Prospect Rank: WAS #9 (Pipeline)
2023 Level: FCL, A
What We Learned: That El Fenómeno has an excellent eye, makes contact, covers more ground than the tarp, runs the bases…and hasn’t hit for a lick of power yet, despite carrying a 55 grade in that department from both Pipeline and Fangraphs. Even a fair number of his extra-base hits were bleeders that got through the infield which he then outran. Granted, he’s 18 and built like I was at that age (6’3”, 180), but he just doesn’t seem to hit the ball with authority yet. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be excited about him, however – the last teenager in the Nats’ system to have essentially a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was Juan Soto, who had neither Vaquero’s glove nor his wheels.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: The Cowboy will probably be back with the FredNats to start 2024, even if both Wood and Crews make the majors and start a cascade of promotions. I’m assuming that he has been tasked with putting on 10-15 pounds of muscle over the winter. If he has a big year, he could get as far as AA by the end of the season, but Wilmington would be a safer bet.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: He can be on a 2027 contender, but almost certainly not a 2025 contender – he will be 20 for most of that season and is currently four levels away from the majors.
How Acquired: Signed as an international free agent, 7/2/2018
Prospect Rank: WAS #17 (Pipeline)
2023 Level: A+
What We Learned: Nothing that we didn’t also learn from Hassell’s struggles in returning from hamate surgery. JDLR was added to the 40-man this winter but didn’t do much that was exciting in his second tour of the Sally League. Of more concern than the drop in hitting (expected with a hamate injury) was the big slippage in his stolen base numbers from 39 to 13 while being caught the same number of times. He had previously done well in his repeat year of low-A, so hopefully the injury was the primary reason for his struggles this year and he can get back on track next summer. In the meantime he has been caught from behind by at least four outfield prospects in the system (Wood, Crews, Pinckney, and Lile), so even if he does bounce back he’s blocked from above in a lot of ways.
40-Man Odds: 20% – he would get through Rule 5 unscathed, but Rizzo did protect Yasel Antuna (a worse prospect) for multiple years.
2024 Outlook: JDLR will be back on the banks of the Christiana River to prove that he can hit high-A pitching. If he can, he should eventually backfill the voids left by the inevitable promotions of Wood and Crews and get to Harrisburg around mid-season.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: Unlikely. There are seven outfielders in front of him on the depth chart (Wood, Crews, Thomas, Garrett, Young, Hassell, and Lile), so a lot would have to go wrong for JDLR to break into the bigs that season. He’s another potential trade chip if things turn around for him in the Nats’ system.
Andrew Pinckney, 22
How Acquired: 2023 Amateur Draft, 4th round (102nd overall)
Prospect Rank: WAS #19 (Pipeline)
2023 Level: FCL, A, A+, AA
What We Learned: That not all “senior signs” are created equal. Pinckney was second team all-SEC for the Crimson Tide (.339/.442/.648) and rather notably went 3-3 with a homer and a double off of first overall pick Paul Skenes, but was available for the Nats at the start of the fourth round of this year’s draft. Described as maybe the best athlete in the organization (6’3” and 215 with 3% body fat), Pinckney raked at every stop in the minors, including reaching base four times in his six plate appearances at the AA level to close the season. True, he was old for two of the levels and right below the average age for high-A as well, but everything about his season was promising.
40-Man Odds: 0%
2024 Outlook: Can he hit offspeed stuff from advanced pitchers? He will get a chance to do so in Harrisburg to start the year, and his further advancement will likely be dictated by how well he does against good breaking balls and changeups. He’s yet another guy with the tools and skillset to handle center field, and I would bet on him closing the year in Rochester.
Can/Will He Be On a 2025 Contender?: Maybe, which would be baffling to any of us prognosticating this just four months ago. Does he overtake Hassell? Can he usurp Young’s spot as the fourth outfielder, or work his way into the DH conversation? All of these things are possible, but we need to see a full season from Pinckney first at the appropriate level(s) in order to determine what’s next.
Well, that’s a wrap on this series! Thank you for all of the comments and kind words – I hope you have enjoyed reading almost twenty thousand words about the players in the organization over the last few days.