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Nationals' Prospect Rankings: Top 15 minor leaguers in their farm system

Nationals' Prospect Rankings: Top 15 minor leaguers in their farm system

The Nationals entered the 2020 MLB Draft with one of the lowest-rated farm systems in baseball. After years of contending for the playoffs and sacrificing future talent for win-now moves, Washington’s minor-league depth is as depleted as it’s ever been since the club moved to D.C. in 2005.

No amount of success in the draft was going to change the overall outlook of their farm system, but the Nationals still put together a strong 2020 class that helped shake up their top 15 prospects list.

Here’s an updated look at their prospect rankings following the 2020 MLB Draft.

1. SS/3B Carter Kieboom (Age: 22, ETA: 2020)

Kieboom took over the top spot of the Nationals’ farm system in 2019 after center fielder Victor Robles graduated to the major leagues. The 22-year-old infielder doesn’t have that kind of upside, but he still entered this season as a consensus top-21 overall prospect in the minors.

A natural shortstop, Kieboom moved over to third base last year in order to fit into the Nationals’ plans as the potential successor to Anthony Rendon. He had the opportunity to try out for the starting job in spring training and while he could still conceivably win the spot once camp resumes, his struggles both at the plate and in the field suggest he’ll start the year on the bench for Washington.

2. SS/2B Luis Garcia (Age: 20, ETA: 2021)

If anyone was impressive at the plate during spring training before the coronavirus pandemic shut camp down, it was the young Dominican infielder. Garcia hit .417 in 27 plate appearances of Grapefruit League play, flashing potential that suggested he might be ready for the majors earlier than expected.

There is still plenty of room for Garcia to develop, particularly in the power department. He spent the 2019 season in Double-A Harrisburg, where he posted a .617 OPS with just four home runs in 129 games. It was a step back after posting strong numbers in Single-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac, making the loss of a minor-league campaign in 2020 a costly one for Garcia and the Nationals.

3. RHP Jackson Rutledge (Age: 21, ETA: 2022)

A tried and true formula for Washington, Rutledge fell to the Nationals at No. 17 overall in the 2019 draft after a sketchy injury history that included right hip surgery scared teams away from taking him earlier. The Nationals couldn’t have been happier to land the junior-college product, who posted an 0.87 ERA with 134 strikeouts over 82 2/3 innings at San Jacinto in Texas.

Rutledge has since rewarded the Nationals’ selection by rocketing up to Single-A Hagerstown in his first professional season and impressing by all accounts. His next campaign will be his first opportunity to pitch a full season in the minors. If he can prove his health problems are behind him, the major leagues won’t be too far ahead.

4. RHP Wil Crowe (Age: 25, ETA: 2020)

Though he has yet to be added to the club’s 40-man roster, Crowe is as close the majors as any pitcher in the Nationals’ farm system. He split last season between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Fresno and while his numbers at the latter were anything but spectacular (6.17 ERA in 10 starts), the Nationals should still feel good after he made progress in AA.

A likely candidate to be added to Washington’s 60-man player pool for this season, Crowe is a groundball pitcher with a four-pitch mix that includes a mid-90s fastball. FanGraphs compared him to former Nationals starter Tanner Roark with a ceiling of being a middle-of-the-rotation starter and floor of settling for the bullpen depending on his ability to locate his pitches.

5. RHP Mason Denaburg (Age: 21 on Aug. 8, ETA: 2023)

Another top draft talent with an injury history, Denaburg has only thrown 20 1/3 innings since being taken with the No. 27 overall pick in 2018. His 2019 campaign only saw him reach rookie ball before he was shut down by season-ending shoulder surgery.

Denaburg still has the potential to be a front-line starter, boasting a fastball that touches 98 and curveball that projects to be elite by the time he reaches the majors. His development has been slowed by his health issues and the hype around him has subsided as a result, but the Nationals still have plenty of reasons to be excited about the young right-hander if he can stay on the field.

6. RHP Cade Cavalli (Age: 22 on Aug. 14, ETA: 2022)

Cavalli cracks the sixth spot on the Nationals’ top prospects list after the team made him its first-round pick in the 2020 draft. Built like a linebacker at 6-foot-4, 226 pounds, Cavalli has the potential to be fast-tracked to the majors if he can adjust to professional hitters quickly enough.

A former two-way player at Oklahoma, he only switched over to pitching full time his sophomore year. However, once he committed to the mound, Cavalli showed strikeout potential (8.8 K/9) with strong run prevention (3.28 ERA). He did struggle mightily with walks (5.2 BB/9) but has the build and pitching repertoire that should’ve made Washington ecstatic to land him at No. 22.

RELATED: EVEN WHEN HE WAS A TWO-WAY PLAYER, THE NATIONALS SAW CADE CAVALLI AS A FUTURE PITCHER

7. RHP Andry Lara (Age: 17, ETA: 2024)

Lara was the Nationals’ top international signee from their 2019 class, inking a $1.25 million deal with the club at 16 years old out of Venezuela. MLB Pipeline ranked him the 16th overall international prospect of his class due to his pitch command that’s considered ahead of his age.

He has yet to pitch in the minors, leaving plenty of guesswork as to his true potential. That being said, his aggressive approach and still-developing fastball that sits around 92-95 mph is enough to make him a candidate to shoot up prospect rankings once he gets a year or two under his belt.

8. 1B Drew Mendoza (Age: 22, ETA: 2022)

Ending the streak of pitchers on this list is Mendoza, an infielder out of Florida State who raked against ACC pitching. Drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft for above-slot value, Mendoza started out at Single-A Hagerstown and showed flashes of power (16 extra-base hits) while struggling to the tune of 57 strikeouts in 239 plate appearances.

His approach at the plate is considered relaxed, sometimes too passive to the point he often falls behind in counts. The Nationals moved him from third base to first in order to help him focus on his hitting while playing an easier defensive position. If he can unlock the power he displayed in college, the Nationals may have found themselves their next everyday first baseman.

9. RHP Eddy Yean (Age: 19, ETA: 2023)

No international pitching prospect in the Nationals’ farm system has gotten more buzz in the past year than Eddy Yean, who has improved with each promotion he’s received over the past year. He made 10 starts between rookie ball and Low-A Auburn in 2019, posting a 3.50 ERA with a 1.165 WHIP and 8.4 K/9.

Still a long ways away from the majors, Yean’s biggest priorities are conditioning and stamina as he builds up for what would’ve been his first full professional season in 2020. He’s got an effortless delivery that projects well for his health long term. With an electric fastball and above-average slider already in his repertoire, there’s a lot to like about Yean’s potential moving forward.

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10. LHP Tim Cate (Age: 22, ETA: 2021)

The only left-hander to crack the Nationals’ top 10, Cate is listed at a generous 6-feet tall while weighing in at 185 pounds. He’s not going to overpower any hitters with his fastball that sometimes dips down into the high 80s, but the 2018 second-round pick has a plus curveball and good life on most of his pitches to make the Nationals optimistic he can stick at the major-league level.

Even though he underwent Tommy John surgery in college, the Nationals weren’t afraid to cut Cate loose for 143 2/3 innings last season. Between Single-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac, he made 25 starts and posted a 3.07 ERA with a 1.142 WHIP and 8.7 K/9. The loss of a minor-league season may set him back a year, but Cate has steadily progressed toward knocking on the door of the majors.

Next 5:

  1. LHP Seth Romero (Age: 24, ETA: 2022)
  2. OF Jeremy De La Rosa (Age: 18, ETA: 2023)
  3. LHP Matt Cronin (Age: 22, ETA: 2021)
  4. RHP Cole Henry (Age: 21 on July 15, ETA: 2022)
  5. SS/3B Yasel Antuna (Age: 20, ETA: 2022)

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Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

One game into his 2020 season, Juan Soto is already filling up the Nationals’ highlight reel.

The 21-year-old outfielder missed Washington’s first eight games of the season after testing positive for the coronavirus on the morning of the team’s opener. He finally returned to the lineup Wednesday and went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and a diving catch in left field.

“It feels good to be back,” Soto said after the game. “Being back with the team, trying to have fun in the game and everything. It’s amazing being with my team and my teammates and being ready to go.”

Washington didn’t win the game, snapping a three-game winning streak with a 3-1 loss at the hands of the New York Mets. But even though the offense wasn’t clicking, Soto’s presence gave the lineup a much deeper look than it had over the first two weeks of the season. He hit fourth, with second baseman Starlin Castro slotted in front of him and Howie Kendrick hitting fifth as the designated hitter.

RELATED: LOSING MAX SCHERZER AND STEPHEN STRASBURG IS THE NATIONALS' BIGGEST NIGHTMARE

“In his first at-bat, he took a breaking ball and smoked it to left field for a double,” manager Davey Martinez said. “[Then he] took a ball up and in, stayed inside the ball, base hit to right. But he looked good, he really did. Little jumpy, but that’s to be expected his first game back. But he looked good.

“I love writing his name in the lineup hitting fourth. It’s nice. So hopefully we continue to build him up and he gets ready to play and we can put him out there every day. I always say, he’s 21 years old so it doesn’t take him long to get ready, get loose. But we definitely got to keep an eye on him.”

Soto originally was cleared to return practicing Saturday, but the Nationals had the weekend off after their series with the Miami Marlins was postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fish’s clubhouse. He participated in simulated games through Monday and was available off the bench Tuesday against the Mets.

Despite his strong performance Wednesday, the Nationals have an off-day Thursday that plays to Soto’s advantage by allowing him to take a day to rest. Martinez said he anticipates Soto being ready to go Friday when the Nationals open up a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles.

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“I’m going to rest tomorrow because I played nine innings, I don’t play nine innings in a long time,” Soto said. “We’re going to try to rest my legs, try…to keep in shape and try to come ready to Friday.”

Late start or not, Soto doesn’t plan on easing into action. After a scheduled off-day Thursday, the Nationals will have 13 straight days with a game. He said that while he will take advantage of the chance to rest, there will be no breaks once the games begin.

“I just try to play hard,” Soto said. “Every time I’m in the field, it doesn’t matter…if I’m in there, it’s because I’m going to give my 100 percent. If I come to the field and I’m in the lineup, I’m going to give my 100 percent no matter what. And when I’m in the middle of those two lines, I’m ready to give my 100 percent.”

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Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

WASHINGTON -- Post a list of oh-no situations in the Nationals clubhouse and losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the same time would be on top of it.

That, at least temporarily, is the situation for the Nationals following Scherzer’s departure Wednesday night. A couple hours after Strasburg finished a 32-pitch simulated game in Nationals Park, Scherzer left his start one inning and 27 pitches into it. Scherzer said postgame he “tweaked” his hamstring Tuesday when sprinting in the outfield. He went on to say he doesn’t expect the issue to last.

“I’m really not concerned about this,” Scherzer said after the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to the Mets.

His right hamstring also gave him trouble before his July 29 start against Toronto. Scherzer pitched through it then, piling up 112 pitches. He could not -- or would not -- work through it Wednesday after catcher Kurt Suzuki expressed concern about the look of his pitches following the top of the first inning.

“Zook saw what my stuff was playing like -- he didn’t like it,” Scherzer said. “He just didn’t like what he saw -- how the ball was coming out of my hand. We just had a conversation: ‘Just get out of here. You’re taking on too much risk to continue to pitch.’ I didn’t injure it any further. I didn’t do anything worse. That was my limit for [Wednesday]. I wasn’t going to push past that limit.”

RELATED: AS JUAN SOTO RETURNS, BASEBALL IS REMINDED OF JUST HOW MUCH IT MISSED HIM

The Nationals have sunk their money and faith into the starting rotation. It won them a World Series last year. Its existence is a prime result of Mike Rizzo’s foundational preference in team building. The organization gave long-term contracts to Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Paying pitchers for such an extended period can be problematic. It hasn’t been in Washington.

Though, this year, the two top ends of that approach are not available to pitch in the season’s third week. It could be temporary. Strasburg’s simulated game went well Wednesday. His return to the mound could come Sunday in Nationals Park against Baltimore or Monday in New York against the Mets. The right wrist impingement which led to a nerve problem in his hand has calmed. Multiple injections and time off stifled the pain. The main problem before? He couldn’t get a feel for his pitches.

“I was waking up in the middle of the night and my hand was asleep,” Strasburg previously said. “Kept falling asleep and I was getting these feelings, and it wasn’t really bothering me throwing. It seemed like once I tried starting to ramp up and stuff, the symptoms started to increase.”

Which was exactly the concern across the league before the season began. Too much too fast was on the mind of every manager in July. It remains so in August. Martinez thought about the idea when he saw what he termed “weird” injuries around the league. His general concern exists around the bevy of older players on the Nationals. He was also wary of pushing 21-year-old Juan Soto back to the field too soon. A short season is a short season. But, years of team control -- as is the case for Strasburg and Soto -- is the long game. Not exchanging now for later has to be part of the thought process.

“We had to ramp these guys up fairly quickly,” Martinez said. “I know with our guys -- Max, Stras, all these guys -- they worked diligently over three months. These things during the course of a year....I’ll tell you right now it’s been really, really hot here. These guys are getting after it. That might have something to do with it. Dehydration. I just hope [Thursday] Max wakes up, he feels better, we get him back Friday, we’ll see where he’s at, then go from there.

“But we’ve got to be really, really careful. We really do.”

Scherzer is toward the end of his journey. This is year six of the seven on his $210 million contract. The deal is a win if Wednesday night was his last appearance (it won’t be). Scherzer has finished in the top five of National League Cy Young voting every year in Washington. He’s been among the three finalists four times. He’s won twice.

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Scherzer also turned 36 years old nine days ago. He went through multiple injured list stints last season because of back and neck problems. And, eventually, was part of stunning World Series news when he had to be scratched from his Game 5 start after his neck locked up on him the morning prior. Scherzer said he fell out of bed and his wife, Erica, had to help dress him because he could not raise his arm above his shoulder. He was back on the mound for Game 7.

He felt his delivery was causing the problem. Scherzer said in March video showed his glove in the wrong place, straining his back. This time, his hamstring groaned during his regular running routine. These are the kind of injuries that pile up with age. Scherzer’s ability to push aside the aging process during the life of his contract is almost as impressive as the outcomes all the times he does pitch. Run, lift, prepare, post. It’s a formula which kept him on the mound with regularity for a decade.

However, the process has become more challenging since last August when his back and neck problems began. This could well be a blip, though hamstring injuries rarely are. They tend to linger and nag, much like the problems for the Nationals to start 2020, which were precisely what they wanted to avoid.

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