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 by publishing my list of the Top 30 Nats organizational prospects. On Saturday, I posted prospects number 20-11. Today, we get down to the really big guns as it is numbers 10-1 (forgive me missing my promised posting date of yesterday. I’m still getting used to working with WordPress). Feel free to argue with me, or agree with me if you will, in the comments.
10. Taylor Hill, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Washington; How Acquired: Draft (6th Round) 2011; Age 25.
There was a time not all that long ago when a young starting pitcher who put up the kind numbers Hill did early in the season at AAA would have found himself called up to DC with a chance to immediately become a rotation mainstay for a depleted Nats team for whom good starting pitching was a rare commodity. For Hill in 2014, however, all starting the year 9-2 and having a scorching month of May ERA of 0.95 in 38 innings got him (other than being named to the International League All Star team) was a brief cup of coffee in the Nats’ bullpen that amounted to 2 appearances and 4.1 innings pitched. Hill didn’t even get a September call up to the big club, likely because the Nats wanted to protect his arm. With the Nats’ rotation already five deep going into next year, and with Blake Treinen, A.J. Cole and possibly still Taylor Jordan ahead of Hill on the starting pitching depth chart, don’t be surprised if this young pitcher ends up being part of a trade this coming offseason.
9. Sammy Solis, LHP; Highest 2014 Level: Harrisburg (AA); How Acquired: Draft (2nd Round) 2010; Age 26.
Solis’s Nats’ career has been one of extreme frustration, as injuries, including the dreaded Tommy John surgery in 2012, have significantly held him back. During this past offseason, however, things were looking up as despite being a career starter Solis was being mentioned as a potential lefty bullpen arm for the big club in 2014. Another injury delayed the start to his season, and he was just getting going when he was shut down yet again in early June with what was described as elbow discomfort. Solis would not again return to the mound. Though his career minor league ERA is excellent at 3.32, it unfortunately reflects only 178.2 innings pitched in five seasons as a starting pitcher. Solis will be 27 next year, and he must finally get healthy if he is ever going to be a contributor at the MLB level.
8. Brian Goodwin, CF; Highest 2014 Level: Syracuse (AAA); How Acquired: Draft (1st Round) 2011; Age 23.
Among the Nats’ elite prospects going into the 2014 season, no player saw his stock sink faster than Goodwin. Part of that amazing 2011 draft haul that also brought Anthony Rendon, pitcher Alex Meyer (traded for Denard Span) and Matt Purke to the organization, Goodwin was tagged from day one as the team’s centerfielder of the future. Goodwin started off very well in 2012, showing both speed and power while getting bumped up from Low A Hagerstown to AA Harrisburg at the tender young age of 21. Though he regressed some last year playing a full season at AA, he retained his top prospect status. This season, however, the bottom fell out as Goodwin slashed only .212/.342/.328 at AAA Syracuse. Even worse, he managed only 4 home runs and 6 stolen bases in 81 games before being shut down with a mysterious injury in early July. In the meantime, Michael Taylor leapfrogged past Goodwin on the CF depth chart, and is now considered the heir apparent to Denard Span, likely in 2016. Where this leaves Goodwin will depend on his production (or lack thereof) next season.
7. Erick Fedde, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Injured; How Acquired: Draft (1st Round) 2014; Age 21.
GM Mike Rizzo’s latest injury gambit was using the Nats’ top 2014 draft pick on Fedde the very same week the pitcher went under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Once again, as with Anthony Rendon, Luke Giolito and Matt Purke, it was a matter of getting a player lower in the draft than he would have otherwise been picked and hoping he can overcome his injury. Fedde will likely return to action in the middle of next season and be brought along slowly for his first couple of years. Assuming all goes well, that would put him on track to join the big club’s rotation circa 2018 or so.
6. Wilmer Difo; IF; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: IFA 2010; Age 22.
Difo was without a doubt the biggest surprise in the organization in 2014. A former graduate of the DSL, prior to this year Difo looked like a typical light-hitting, slick-fielding middle infielder. His HIGHEST previous annual home run and RBI totals had been 4 and 21 respectively. So how did it go for Difo in 2014? Well, all he managed to do was win the South Atlantic League MVP award while hitting 14 home runs, driving in 90, scoring 91 runs and stealing 49 bases. Additionally, his OPS of .831 was nearly 130 points higher than his previous career high. Splitting his time nearly equally between shortstop and second base, Difo instantly vaulted to the top of the heap of Nats middle infield prospects. Now all he has to do is go out next year and prove this season wasn’t a fluke.
5. Austin Voth, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Harrisburg (AA); How Acquired: Draft (5th Round) 2013; Age 22.
Voth (rhymes with “both”) was the fastest riser among Nats’ prospects in 2014, leaping from Low A Hagerstown (where he was a mid-season All Star) to AA Harrisburg with just 6 starts at High A Potomac in between. In his first five Potomac starts, Voth allowed an incredible 1 single run in 33 innings while striking out 36 batters and walking only 5. I was lucky enough to catch one of those starts live, and I must say he was really popping the ol’ catcher’s mitt with his pitches. Unfortunately, Voth was overmatched once he reached Harrisburg–or maybe it was the bad atmosphere on a club in the middle of a truly wretched season that did him in–and his ERA ballooned to over 6.00 in his last five starts of the season. Still, his dominance at both Low and High A ball at a relatively young age combined with his high strikeout rates are reasons to be optimistic that Voth could be a future piece of the big club’s rotation.
4. Steve Souza, OF; Highest 2014 Level: Washington; How Acquired: Draft (3rd Round) 2007; Age 25.
It’s been a long, hard road to the majors for Souza, one that included a PED suspension and once leaving his minor league team after an argument with the manager. There was also a lot of underachievement for the former 3rd round pick until things finally started to come together in 2013. Then in 2014 came the explosion–an amazing 1.022 OPS at AAA Syracuse (more than 100 points higher than the next highest International League batting title qualifier) coupled with 18 home runs and 26 stolen bases that made him the overwhelming choice for league MVP. Souza’s stat totals might have been even more impressive, but he got called up twice to Washington as an injury replacement, and the second time he injured himself running into the outfield wall while trying to make a catch. Unfortunately for Souza, the Nats’ outfield will likely have no open slots next year, and at age 26 to start the new season he deserves a shot at being a starter. That chance may come if GM Mike Rizzo decides to trade him for the right deal in the offseason. Otherwise, a spot as the Nats’ fourth outfielder next year seems virtually assured.
3. Michael Taylor, CF; Highest 2014 Level: Washington; How Acquired: Draft (6th Round) 2009; Age 23.
For several years, the Nats have been waiting for Taylor’s production to catch up with his outstanding raw ability. As it turned out, 2014 was the year he would put it all together. Already known for being a top notch defender, Taylor went 20+ (home runs)-30+ (stolen bases) playing mostly at Harrisburg before getting his first taste of the big leagues and hitting his first big league homer in August. One of two Nats selected for the MLB All Star Future’s Game in 2014, Taylor’s overall minor league slash line was a robust .304/.390/.526. If there is any knock on his game, it’s his high strikeout rate (144 in 493 PAs), but if he can keep hitting home runs and stealing bases at the major league level, he could eventually be the CF version of Ian Desmond. Expect Denard Span’s contract option to be picked up in 2015, but expect the Nats to be looking at Taylor as Span’s potential successor beyond next season.
2. A.J. Cole, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Syracuse (AAA); How Acquired: Draft (4th Round) 2010/Trade 2012; Age 22.
Oakland’s Billy Beane is generally considered one of the best GM’s in baseball, but Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo might just have gotten the better of Mr. Moneyball in two trades involving A.J. Cole. Cole was initially shipped off to Oakland as part of the deal that brought Gio Gonzalez to DC. But then, after Cole had a disappointing 2012 minor league season, Beane sent Cole back to the Nats along with fireballer Blake Treinen and lefty Ian Krol (later part of the Doug Fister trade) in a three way deal that cost the Nats exactly one year of popular slugger Mike Morse’s services. At any rate, since returning to the Nats’ organization, Cole has steadily marched up the minor league chain and with his excellent combined numbers at Harrisburg and Syracuse this year (13-3, 3.16 ERA, 111 Ks in 134 IPs), is knocking on the door asking for admission to the big club’s rotation. With that rotation apparently set again in 2015, Cole will likely have to bide his time at Syracuse, likely to be used as the team’s 6th starter in anticipation of getting his big chance in 2016.
1. Luke Giolito, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: Draft (1st Round) 2012; Age 20.
No Nats’ rookie pitcher will ever come close to having the kind of hype Stephen Strasburg had before ever throwing a big league pitch, but by the time he is ready for The Show a couple of years from now Luke Giolito may just come close. The triple-digit throwing Giolito was, like Strasburg, set to be a near consensus overall number one draft choice when he injured his elbow his senior year of high school. Tumbling all the way down to the Nats with the 16th pick, GM Mike Rizzo took a risk that Giolito wouldn’t opt to go to college and that his elbow was salvageable. Though he ended up needing Tommy John surgery after throwing only two professional innings, Giolito has bounced back strong. Despite being held to an innings limit of just 98 this year, he still won the South Atlantic League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher award courtesy of a stellar 10-2 record, a 2.20 ERA and racking up 110 strikeouts. With his surgery now more than two years behind him, expect Giolito to move quickly up the Nats’ chain, and possibly join Strasburg in the rotation by 2016 where if he continues to dominate, he’ll give the Nats one heck of a one-two punch.