Since the Washington Nationals have given us fans the blessing of an early and relatively drama free clinching of the NL East title, I thought I would use some early posts here at Nate EXPOSed to publish my list of the Top 30 Nats organizational prospects. No, I’m not a professional or amateur scout or anything…just a fan who follows the Nats minor league system almost as closely as I do the big club.
Funny thing about baseball prospects lists, however–no matter who is responsible for assembling them they typically manage to be wrong more often then they are right. Nobody, and I mean not even the Nats’ own scouting staff, had former 2008 25th round draft pick and Cristian Guzman trade throw-in Tanner Roark on their prospect radar prior to the 2013 season. Yet as it now stands, Roark has had more success than any player who WAS on those lists at that time other than Anthony Rendon.
To be eligible for this list, a player must have finished the 2014 season with their “rookie” status intact, meaning that they have fewer than 130 MLB at bats or 50 innings pitched, or have been on the 25-man roster fewer than 45 days (which excludes September call ups). As of this writing, MLB.com still lists Blake Treinen on its list of Top Nats’ prospects, while Treinen has pitched 46.1 innings so far for the big club with 10 games to go in the season. I’m going to assume he reaches 50 by season’s end, and am thereby leaving him off of my own list.
And so, with all that in mind, below is the bottom third of my Top 30 list in reverse order (the second and third portions of the list will follow over the next two days). Feel free to argue with my selections and/or analysis, or agree with me if you like, in the comments.
30. Anderson Franco, IF; Highest 2014 Level: DSL Nationals (Rookie); How Acquired: IFA 2013; Age 16.
Franco was last year’s International Free Agent (IFA) “bonus baby,” the only non-U.S. player to whom the Nats gave a significant bonus to sign (though it was still less than $1 million, or less than 1/68th of what the White Sox gave to Cuban slugger Jose Abreu). Nevertheless, Franco held his own as one of the youngest players in the Dominican Summer League, slashing .272/.346/.379 in 237 PAs, and hitting 4 home runs in a league not known for huge totals in that department. In the field Franco split time between third base and shortstop, and it is unclear as to which position will ultimately become his primary position going forward. Either way, assuming he develops into a MLB-quality player it will be four or five seasons before this youngster will be ready to play in DC.
29. Daniel Rosenbaum, LHP; Highest 2014 Level: Syracuse (AAA); How Acquired: Draft (22nd Round) 2009; Age 26.
For the first few seasons after he was drafted, Rosenbaum looked like he was going to follow in the footsteps of fellow soft-tossing lefty starters John Lannan and Tommy Milone by maximizing his limited natural talent and making it to the majors as a lower part of the rotation innings eater. In 2011, Rosenbaum sparkled between Potomac and Harrisburg, throwing an impressive 171.1 combined innings with a 2.52 combined ERA. Rosenbaum showed enough promise, in fact, that the Colorado Rockies plucked him away in the 2013 Rule 5 draft, only to return him at the end of spring training. Since then, Rosenbaum’s career has been on a downward trajectory as his ERA has climbed each of the last two years while his already low strikeout rate has sunk even further. In 2014, he bottomed out, making only four starts before being shelved with an injury for the rest of the season. Rosenbaum has one more year with the organization before he becomes a six-year minor league free agent, so he’ll have to quickly prove he’s worthy of a 40-man roster spot next season–possibly as a future LOOGY reliever–or he’ll likely be moving on.
28. Spencer Kieboom, C; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: Draft (5th Round) 2012; Age 23.
Kieboom came into the 2014 season something of a forgotten man, as injuries had limited him to four games last year. He made his mark this season as an offense-first catcher who slashed .309/.352/.500 while bashing 9 home runs and driving in 61. His .852 OPS led a Hagerstown lineup which was blessed with some pretty good offensive players, including South Atlantic League MVP Wilmer Difo (more about him later), who was a fellow South Atlantic League All Star. The concern with Kieboom, as it is with many Nats’ prospects, is that he was quite a bit older than the league average player, and must replicate his batting success as he moves up the minor league chain. Defensively, Kieboom was solid, committing only two errors all season while throwing out 40% of potential base stealers.
27. Brett Mooneyham, LHP; Highest 2014 Level: Potomac (High A); How Acquired: Draft (3rd Round) 2012; Age 24.
Mooneyham was one of the biggest disappointments in the Nats’ farm system in 2014. After scorching the South Atlantic League to the tune of a 10-3 record with a 1.94 ERA in 17 starts at Hagerstown last year, the wheels fell off for Mooneyham after being promoted to Potomac this season. How ugly was it? A 7.36 ERA with a 2.121 WHIP ugly. While control was always an issue for Mooneyham, his 35 walks against only 18 strikeouts in a mere 33 innings showed a ghastly lack of control. Pushed back to Hagerstown in the 2nd half of the season, he recovered somewhat, but he’ll be 25 next season and his time as a prospect is already rapidly running out.
26. Jake Johansen, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: Draft (2nd Round) 2013; Age 23.
Because the Nats lost their 1st round draft pick for 2013 by signing Rafael Soriano as a free agent (don’t get me started), Johansen was their de facto top pick last year. Well, he sure didn’t pitch like it in his first full season in the minor leagues. Like Mooneyham, Johansen is a hard thrower with control issues. In just over 100 innings this season he managed to strike out a decent 89 batters, but that production came at the cost of 55 walks, which helped balloon his ERA up to 5.19. By the second half of the year, he’d been moved to the bullpen, where his results were inexplicably even worse (6.38 ERA in 11 relief appearances vs. 4.92 as a starter). Still, there’s too much raw talent there for the Nats to give up on Johansen too quickly.
25. Erik Davis, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Injured; How Acquired: Trade 2011; Age: 27.
Acquired from the San Diego Padres in a trade that sent infielder Alberto Gonzalez packing (boy, THERE is a name that dredges up bad memories for Nats fans), Davis converted to relief pitching and finally got his call to the show last year, throwing 8.2 innings in 10 appearances with a decent ERA of 3.12 and WHIP of 1.269. Better yet, he struck out 12 batters, for a sizzling K/9 rate of 12.5 in an admittedly very small sample size. Unfortunately, Davis was injured prior to this season and missed the whole year, and at age 28 going into next season may face the same unfortunate fate as Cole Kimball before him–another promising young reliever who got a brief cup of coffee with the Nats in his mid-20s a few years ago before injuries ultimately derailed his career.
24. Robert Benincasa, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Harrisburg (AA); How Acquired: Draft (7th Round) 2012; Age 23.
Many of any team’s top relief pitching prospects are usually failed starters. Benincasa, on the other hand, has never started a game as a professional but nevertheless has been steadily moving up the ladder since the Nats picked him out of Florida State in 2012. His year actually got off to a rocky start at Potomac with an ERA north of 5.00, but he settled down upon being promoted to AA Harrisburg, where he put up some pretty good numbers (3.10 ERA, 1.241 WHIP) for a team that had quite a dismal year. Most importantly, his K/9 rate rebounded to above 9.0 (30 Ks in 29 IPs), which should keep him on track to someday surface with the big club as a middle reliever.
23. Rafael Bautista, CF; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: IFA 2012; Age: 21.
One of a slew of “graduates” from the Nats’ Dominican Summer League squad playing stateside in 2014, Bautista’s 69 steals led the entire organization. Better yet, he got on base at a decent clip (.290 BA, .340 OBP) and even hit for a little power (20 doubles, 5 home runs), which was good enough for him to be named to the South Atlantic League All Star team. In order to become a top prospect, however, Bautista will have to increase his walks rate going forward (only 33 BBs in 543 PAs) so that he can make the most of his speed on the base paths. Still, he’ll only be 22 next season and has a lot of time yet to develop as a hitter.
22. Stephen Perez, SS; Highest 2014 Level: Potomac (High A); How Acquired: Draft (8th round) 2012, Age 23.
The switch-hitting Perez was a midseason Carolina League All Star for the Potomac Nationals and instantly became the top shortstop prospect in a system sorely lacking at that position. Perez then tailed off a bit in the second half to finish with a slash line of .253/.364/.339. Though he walked plenty as indicated by his high OBP, he only managed to hit two home runs all year and his speed (27 stolen bases) is decent but not spectacular for a player at this level of the minors. Perez also committed 25 errors, and when I saw him play in person his range did not appear to be all that great. Given that he is right now the same age that Ian Desmond was when he made his MLB debut, Perez looks to project more as a future utility player than as Desmond’s eventual replacement.
21. Matt Purke, LHP; Highest 2014 Level: Harrisburg (AA); How Acquired: Draft (3rd Round) 2011; Age 23.
Nats fans are well aware of GM Mike Rizzo’s willingness to take a chance on injured players with talent, especially if he can obtain them for a relative bargain. Sometimes, as with Anthony Rendon and Luke Giolito, it works out. Then there is the contrary example of Purke, who was signed for 1st round money back in 2011 when teams could still vastly overpay for lower draft picks without being penalized, and was given a coveted 40-man roster spot in anticipation that he would get healthy and quickly join the Nats’ rotation as a hard throwing lefty. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out as expected. Purke, who was injured his final year of college, causing his draft status to drop precipitously, has been hurt a couple of times as a professional, but no more disastrously than this year. After posting a ghastly 8.04 ERA in just eight starts at Harrisburg, he was shut down for the season to have the dreaded Tommy John surgery. Because he was placed on the 40-man roster right away, he’ll be out of options next season unless the Nats get a fourth option year for him. Either way, it’s not certain he will even be able to pitch next season and given that he has yet to be truly effective as a professional his career is currently in jeopardy.