The 2021 edition of the Arizona Fall League came to a close Saturday, when the Mesa Solar Sox beat the Surprise Saguaros 6-0 to cap off the month-long instructional season.
For the Nationals, the AFL presented an opportunity for eight of their prospects to test their talents against one of the toughest levels of competition that Minor League Baseball has to offer. Among those that took advantage was shortstop Jackson Cluff, who hit .342 with eight stolen bases in 22 games while accruing just one error in the field to claim AFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Cluff, 24, is the No. 19 overall prospect in the Nationals’ system by MLB Pipeline and Washington’s highest-rated defensive infielder by Baseball America. The 2019 sixth-round pick out of BYU played his first professional season this year and struggled at the plate, hitting .214 with a .595 OPS in 45 games across three levels. Despite the poor results, Cluff still made his way up to Double-A and he should be back there again in 2022 with a strong AFL showing under his belt.
On the pitching side, Cole Henry stood out with 30 strikeouts (second-most in the AFL) in 19 innings. The Nationals’ No. 7 overall prospect finished with a 3.32 ERA and 1.105 WHIP in six appearances, including three starts. Henry dominated High-A hitters in 2021 with a 1.88 ERA in 43 innings. He’s expected join Cluff in Double-A next season with the potential to move up quickly if he continues producing.
Jackson Rutledge, the Nationals’ 2019 first-round pick, also participated in the AFL but couldn’t shake the inconsistencies that plagued him last season. He put up a 6.98 ERA over 19 1/3 innings, striking out 17 with 10 walks. Rutledge will look to put 2021 behind him after a strained rotator cuff and blister kept him off the field for a good chunk of the season and never allowed him to settle in.
Other notable Nationals prospects in Scottsdale included outfielder Donovan Casey and left-handed pitcher Evan Lee, both of whom were added to Washington’s 40-man roster on Friday. Casey, acquired in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trade, hit .255 with an .815 OPS in the AFL after reaching Triple-A last season. Lee posted a 4.66 ERA over 9 2/3 innings after providing a steady presence out of the High-A Wilmington rotation last year.