Top 15 Prospects: Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals organization has come a long way in a short period of time. The former Montreal Expos club suffered from tight budgets due to MLB control while a suitable buyer was found. As a result, the ability to acquire top-notch talent via the amateur draft and international free agency was all but snuffed out. Some smart, aggressive drafting by the current front office has turned the minor league system around in a hurry.

1. Bryce Harper | RF/LF
BORN: October 16, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 1 season (A+/AA in 2011)
ACQUIRED: 2010 1st round, Nevada JC (first overall)
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 1st

SCOUTING REPORT: Harper comes as close as anyone not named Mike Stanton to have legit 80 power on the 20-80 scouting scale. He also has a very good eye for his age, although he doesn’t handle off-speed pitches as well as the hard stuff but that should improve with experience. He has the chance to be a four- or five-tool player.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Despite the immense scrutiny that followed Harper everywhere he went, the 18-year-old former catcher quieted doubters. He hit .318 with a .236 ISO rate in 258 at-bats in A-ball. He was jumped to double-A and posted a triple-slash line of .256/.329/.395 in 129 at-bats. His power slipped to an .140 ISO but the decline in numbers is not concerning considering his age.

YEAR AHEAD: Harper will almost certainly return to double-A to begin the 2012 season, although a strong spring could vault him to triple-A. It would not be a shock to see the teenager in Washington by August. Even so, he’ll probably struggle a little bit with advanced pitchers since he only has 118 games of professional experience under his belt (including the ’10 Arizona Fall League).

CAREER OUTLOOK: There isn’t anyone on the current 25-man roster that possess any sort of threat to Harper’s eventual playing time once the organization deems him MLB-ready. It’s hard not to predict massive success for Harper, although there are still concerns over his maturity and we’ve seen what that can to do players’ careers.

2. Anthony Rendon | 2B/3B
BORN: June 6, 1990
ACQUIRED: 2011 1st round, Rice University (6th overall)
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: A third baseman in college, Rendon will likely move to second base due to the presence of Ryan Zimmerman at the hot corner. He projects to be at least average defensively at the position, but his bat should be well above average. Rendon has excellent bat speed and projects to hit for both average and power.

YEAR IN REVIEW: If it had not been for a serious of unrelated injuries, he could very well have gone first overall in 2011. It’s a minor miracle to consider that Washington got Rendon with the sixth overall pick. You could argue that the club received the best player available for three straight seasons (Stephen Strasburg and Harper are the other two).

YEAR AHEAD: Rendon could start the season in either high-A or double-A. He could be ready for the Majors by the end of the 2012 season if he can stay healthy. He should have little to no trouble with minor league pitchers but will need some time to learn his new position, although he does have some experience at second base.

CAREER OUTLOOK: The former Rice University star has the chance to be a MLB all-star at both second and third base. Although none of his injuries have been of the chronic variety, you have to be a little worried about his inability to stay healthy over the past few years.

3. A.J. Cole | RHP
BORN: January 5, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons (A)
ACQUIRED: 2010 4th round, Florida HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 3rd

SCOUTING REPORT: Cole has the potential for a very good pitcher’s frame (6’4” 180 lbs). His fastball reaches the mid-90s already and there may be more in the tank. His secondary pitches include a potentially-plus curveball and developing changeup. Cole shows good control overall but needs better fastball command.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Cole has emerged as the top pitcher in the system but two college pitchers, Matt Purke and Alex Meyer, are both hot on his heels. The young pitcher spent the year in low-A and pitched better than his 4.04 ERA would indicate, as seen by his 2.52 FIP. He gave up his fair share of hits (.342 BABIP) but missed a lot of bats (10.92 K/9) and showed above-average control (2.43 BB/9).

YEAR AHEAD: Cole’s 2011 season did not begin until May after being held back in extended spring training to limit his innings total. He should spend a full year in high-A ball in 2012, although a strong showing could lead to some time in double-A. If he can continue to show improvements with his secondary pitches, he could be in Washington in 2013.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Cole has the chance to be a No. 1 or 2 starter if everything breaks right for him – and his changeup improves. He may even add a few ticks to his fastball if he continues to add muscle to his slender frame. Once a weakness for this organization, Cole could help anchor a very strong starting rotation before too long.

4. Alex Meyer | RHP
BORN: January 3, 1990
ACQUIRED: 2011 1st round, U of Kentucky (23rd overall)
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: Because he’s so big (6’9” 220 lbs), Meyer may always struggle to repeat his delivery, which will hamper his command and control. He should still be able to overpower hitters, though, thanks to a 95+ mph fastball and wipeout slider. His changeup isn’t bad either, although he hasn’t used it a lot.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Meyer had a very nice junior season for Kentucky after struggling for his first two years. He flew up draft boards and eventually went 23rd overall to Washington after some draft analysts even projected him in the first 10 picks. Meyer signed late so he did not pitch in the regular season but he did attend the Nationals’ fall instructional league.

YEAR AHEAD: Meyer could very well join A.J. Cole, Robbie Ray, and Matt Purke in high-A, which would create an outstanding rotation for Carolina League fans. Washington is quickly building a very strong organization and may want to challenge some of its top college picks in the hopes of having them support the likes of Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and, eventually, Bryce Harper.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Boston made a big push for Meyer after drafting him out of high school but the right-hander made a smart move to attend college. His game has improved but he still has some rough edges. If he can smooth those out, he could develop into a No. 2 or 3 starter. If not, it’s not hard to envision him as a high-leverage reliever at the MLB level.

5. Brian Goodwin | CF
BORN: Nov. 2, 1990
ACQUIRED: 2011 supplemental 1st round, Miami Dade JC
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: Goodwin is known for having good (but not great) speed on the base paths and he could also add power to his attack once he matures as a hitter. He shows signs of being a good fielder but he’s more likely to end up in left field than center.

YEAR IN REVIEW: It’s not often that a move from a NCAA Division 1 school to a junior college works out in a player’s favor. However, that’s exactly what happened to Goodwin. It’s also important to note that he transferred after getting suspended for violating a university policy rather than for anything baseball related.

YEAR AHEAD: Because he played at the junior college level in 2011, the Nationals organization may want Goodwin to begin the year in low-A as he has yet to play in a pro game after signing late. He should rack up a solid number of steals because he projects to both hit for average and take the free pass when it’s offered up. He may initially struggle with strikeouts, especially if he tries to force the power game.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Goodwin has the potential to be a five-tool player if everything clicks. He’s a toolsy player that still has work to do on his defense and it remains to be seen if his power will develop as expected. I don’t see him becoming a star but he could develop into a very good baseball player.

6. Matt Purke | LHP
BORN: July 17, 1990
ACQUIRED: 2011 3rd round, Texas Christian U
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: Purke has suffered through a variety of well-documented ailments (back, shoulder, blisters) and velocity loss (down to 82-85 mph in games). When he’s on, though, he’s a southpaw that possesses an above-average 90-95 mph fastball. He rounds out his repertoire with a good slider and changeup. Durability questions will continue to haunt Purke until (if?) he can string together a number of dominating starts.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Assigned to the Arizona Fall League after signing late, Purke did not pitch much. He also spent time in the fall instructional league but did not really stand out. Despite the big paycheck, the 2011 season was pretty much a lost year for Purke.

YEAR AHEAD: The 2012 season will be a big one for Purke as he’ll look to prove that he’s healthy after a very disappointing sophomore season at Texas Christian University. The lefty may begin the year in high-A ball with a large group of impressive arms. Given his problems, though, the organization may want to play it safe and allow him to build a solid foundation in low-A ball before challenging him. At this point no one really knows what to expect from Purke but the club has a lot invested in him.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Again, it’s all one big question mark at this point but Purke has the potential to be a No. 2 starter if Washington can find a way to get him back to the level he was at in high school and during his freshman season of college.

7. Brad Peacock | RHP
BORN: Feb. 2, 1988
ACQUIRED: 2006 41st round, Florida CC
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 9th

SCOUTING REPORT: Peacock flashes a solid three-pitch repertoire that includes a 90-95 mph fastball, changeup, and curveball. He’s still working on the consistency of his changeup and his fastball command comes and goes. He doesn’t have the strongest frame so durability could be a bit of a question mark once he hits the 180-inning mark

YEAR IN REVIEW: Peacock has come a long way as a prospect and made his MLB debut in 2011. The right-hander showed a solid three-pitch mix and did a nice job of using all his pitches. His changeup has been considered his third-best pitch but it looked good in the Majors. Peacock pitched well in double-A (98.2 IP, 1.87 FIP) and was OK in triple-A (48.0, 4.18).

YEAR AHEAD: He has nothing left to prove in the minors and his development could allow the club to slot him into the fourth or fifth hole in the starting rotation, thus saving the club some money a generic veteran arm. The organization may also think about easing him into the Majors with a bullpen role. Control and command will be the biggest things to keep an eye on in 2012.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Peacock has a good chance at developing into a reliable third starter at the MLB level. He shows a good fastball and his curveball should be a nice second weapon for him. His overall potential hinges on the changeup. If it doesn’t become more consistent, he could end up as a high-leverage reliever, most likely in the eighth inning.

8. Robbie Ray | LHP
BORN: Oct. 1, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 1 season (A)
ACQUIRED: 2010 12th round, Tennessee HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: Ray isn’t a huge guy but he has a decent pitcher’s frame some projectability. The left-hander has an 87-92 mph fastball that has reportedly touched the mid-90s occasionally. His changeup is good but his improved breaking ball is still slurvy. He is a fly-ball pitcher that needs to work down in the zone more consistently.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Like Cole, Ray was held back in extended spring training in an effort to limit his innings in 2011. Once he reached low-A ball in May, the southpaw displayed a nice approach for his age. He clearly tired as the year progressed with his ERAs each month as proof: 0.38, 3.92, 1.73, 6.91, and 11.25. His last two starts of the year muddied his overall numbers with 14 hits and 12 runs allowed in 7.1 innings.

YEAR AHEAD: Ray will not have the same innings restriction in 2012 that he had in ’11. The organization is likely expecting him to break the 100-inning mark for the first time in his career. He should spend the majority of the year in high-A ball and there is really no need to rush him now that the club has a lot more pitching depth around him.

CAREER OUTLOOK: He’s still quite raw but Ray could develop into a solid No. 3 starter. He’ll most likely move up one level at a time and may not see the Majors until 2014, so he’s a long-term project. At worst, he should develop into a middle reliever but he hasn’t shown enough success against left-handed batters to be considered a LOOGY.

9. Derek Norris | C
BORN: Feb. 14, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 5 seasons (AA)
ACQUIRED: 2007 4th round, Kansas HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 2nd

SCOUTING REPORT: Norris is a bat-first catcher, which isn’t great news when you consider his .210 batting average in 2011 at double-A. He’ll probably never hit for a huge average because he swings and misses so much but he will get on base a lot (and clog them) and provide quite a bit of pop when he makes contact with the ball. Defensively, he does a nice job throwing out runners (51% in ’10, 40% in ’11) but his receiving and game calling both need work.

YEAR IN REVIEW: It’s been a rough two years for Norris in terms of hitting for average (.235, .210). You can blame his BABIP (.251) to some degree in 2011, but the bigger issue was the 27% strikeout rate. If we’re looking for positives for his year in double-A, it would be his walk rate (18.2 BB%) and power output (.237 ISO).

YEAR AHEAD: Quite honestly, Norris’ development is headed in the wrong direction and he’s in danger of falling out of the spotlight when it comes to the organization’s top prospects. He’ll have to have a bounce-back year while repeating double-A if he’s going to get any traction in his question to become the Nationals’ backstop of the future. Expect the organization to slow his development down.

CAREER OUTLOOK: As implied, the 2012 season will be a big one for Norris as he looks to rebound from a disappointing year. His age works to his advantage, as does his raw power but it’s hard to project more than a backup role for him at the big league level, along the lines of Sal Fasano’s career. Norris gets the benefit of the doubt for now because he plays a key position (albeit not overly well).

10. Destin Hood | RF/LF
BORN: April 3, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons (A+)
ACQUIRED: 2008 2nd round, Alabama HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: Swayed from a football scholarship to the University of Alabama, Hood entered pro ball with a lot of work to do to learn the nuances of the sport. He shows above-average raw power thanks to his excellent bat speed and he made big strides in 2011 in terms of pitch recognition. The outfielder has also improved his outfield defense and could become above-average at a corner spot.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Hood made a lot of strides in his game over the past year. A formerly-raw player with the potential for three or four tools, he finally began to make good on the scouting reports. Moving up from low-A to high-A in ’11, Hood saw his strikeout rate drop almost 5% to 17.9 K%, and his ISO rate rose from .104 to .168. Increasing one’s power output while actually decreasing strikeouts is a very good sign in terms of a hitter’s development. He also saw his wOBA jump from .326 to .370.

YEAR AHEAD: With a little more fine tuning, Hood could zoom up this list in 2012 and is a player that prospect watchers (and fantasy players) will want to keep an eye on. All signs point to a huge breakout in double-A in 2012. Consider yourselves warned.

CAREER OUTLOOK: If he continues to show improvement, Hood could become an above-average outfielder, both offensively and defensively, that will hit for a decent average, provide 20-25 homers and get one base at a consistent clip.

The Next Five

11. Sammy Solis, LHP: Had he been healthy for all of 2011, Solis may have made the Top 10 list. His ceiling is decent and he could pitch at the level of a No. 3 starter for a few years but will likely settle in as more of a No. 4 guy. He displays good control, as well as solid command of his fastball. He has the chance to be an innings-eater thanks to his big frame (assuming the injury woes are behind him).

12. Chris Marrero, 1B: An ’06 first round pick out of a Florida high school, Marrero has developed slower than expected. It remains to be seen if he can produce the type of offence that clubs expect from the first base position. The organization originally tried to play him in left field but he eventually found his way back to the infield and has made some strides defensively over the past year but he’ll probably never be more than average at the position.

13. Steve Lombardozzi, 2B: There was talk this past season that Washington refused to trade Lombardozzi when teams asked for him. He’s produced very good numbers throughout the minors but projects to be more of an average regular than a star. He hits for average but doesn’t have much power or true foot speed; Lombardozzi is an average defensive player.

14. Zach Walters, SS: Obtained from Arizona in a late-season trade for veteran pitcher Jason Marquis, Walters projects to be a big league utility player; he’s already shown the ability to play second base, third base and shortstop. The switch-hitter has some gap power but not enough to justify the +20% strikeout rate that he posted in 2011. One scout recently commented on Walters:

“Zach has always had tools; he ran average, [showed a] plus arm at times, pull power… I think that is what was intriguing about him. He had a lot of tools and needed to sharpen them… A shortstop with size, strength, power, plus arm, average run [tool], and can switch hit… Doesn’t that sound intriguing?” he asked. “Because of his versatility I think that he has a chance to be a very valuable utility player, but it hinges on whether his bat continues to improve and whether he becomes an everyday player. He is showing that he has a good chance to be a Major League regular.”

15. Jeff Kobernus, 2B: Although he might end up being a better hitter than Walters (at least more consistent), Kobernus gets knocked down for his lack of versatility. Of the two players, Kobernus has less pop in his bat and is a little to aggressive but he has better pure speed and more athleticism.

SLEEPER ALERT: Josh Smoker, LHP: Once considered a pretty good starting pitcher prospect and the 31st pick of the ’07 amateur draft, Smoker fell on hard times due to injuries and inconsistency. A permanent move to the bullpen, though, may have saved his career. His fastball is now showing mid-90s velocity and his breaking ball gives him a second weapon. He’s tough to hit when he’s on (5.68 H/9) but he needs to find the plate more consistently (6.57 BB/9).

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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12 years ago

Surprising that Peacock (guy that has proven it at AAA and looked solid in a SSS in the big show) would be ranked below two guys (Purke, Meyer) so far away who have SERIOUS questions of reaching an upside that is not that much better than Peacock’s.

12 years ago

Isn’t the difference between a #2 and #3 starter something like the difference between Jaime Garcia and Trevor Cahill? So you have someone with a 30%? chance at being Trevor Cahill and someone else who has a 10% chance at being Jaime Garcia. Obviously the percentages are made up and most probably wrong but I think you could make an argument either way.

12 years ago
Reply to  IvanGrushenko

What are the rough baseline FIPs for “1 starter”, “2 starter”, etc? It’s clearly not an exact science but the terms have been around so much in prospect-land that I’m just curious as to what the qualifications are.

12 years ago
Reply to  IvanGrushenko

You could say there were approximately 30 #1 starters in the league, 30 #2, etc. Not the best pitcher on each team, as Philly clearly has more than their share of top pitchers. And if 30 and 33 aren’t substantially different, there’s no reason to draw an arbitrary line through them.

29 qualified starting pitchers in 2011 had a FIP of 3.42 or lower, and then there’s a (smallish) jump to 3.52. Then another 30 are below 4.00, but there’s not substantial separation after that to draw a clear line.

Looking at FIP-, 34 pitchers were below 90 and another 31 were below 104. These are just examples, probably want to tweak the number of pitchers you’re looking for in each category.