The baseball quiet of January does deliver one annual treat: top-100 prospect lists.
The month is a green space for banter about what-if prospects. Spring training’s scent is starting to waft, the offseason free agent pursuits are (typically) winding down, real baseball is still a couple months away.
Which brings the lists and the outline of a situation for the Nationals.
Washington president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo has turned the franchise into an annual contender through hard-to-obtain balance. He’s able to handle today, tomorrow and three years from now. It doesn’t work that way everywhere.
However, the organization’s pitching pipeline has taken a hit in recent years, which can been seen in the year-over-year prospect rankings since 2014 and its current lack of depth.
Let’s start with this season: the predictable happened when MLB Pipeline ranked Victor Robles No. 4, Carter Kieboom No. 25 and Luis Garcia 75th. Kieboom and Garcia played in the Futures Game last season at Nationals Park. Robles is Robles, a lingering element near the top of these lists since 2016. His elbow injury stalled his rankings removal and progress last season. This should be his last season on any prospect list.
What is not part of the list is any pitcher in the Nationals’ organization. Rizzo contends the minor leagues are filled with pitching depth. That’s not true, whether assessing personnel through these lists or otherwise.
The Nationals landed four prospects in the top 100 in 2016. Three were pitchers: Lucas Giolito (3), Reynaldo Lopez (38) and Erick Fedde (75). That was the last time a Washington pitcher made the list (which we should not are not infallible).
Which, of course, is largely their own doing. The Nationals sent Giolito, Lopez and Dane Dunning -- the latter of which is in this year’s list at No. 80 -- to Chicago for Adam Eaton in a rare 3-for-1 trade. That cleared out most of their minor-league pitching depth.
Joe Ross and Fedde remained. A.J. Cole, once a visitor to the January century club, was also around. Otherwise, the Nationals were limited.
Cole did not pan out (nor did Giolito, the most-touted prospect of the group, following the trade). He’s gone. Fedde is yet to find solid ground in the major leagues. Ross had Tommy John surgery. He’s a leading candidate to be a fifth starter in the rotation this season, but also remains a question.
From there, the organization’s pitching runs even more thin. They gambled on left-handed Seth Romero in the first round of the 2017 draft, knowing his behavioral issues led to his dismissal from the University of Houston team. Romero continued his troubling pattern following the draft, appeared to have resolved those issues, then tore his UCL late last August. He is out for the year because of Tommy John surgery.
Wil Crowe, a second-round pick in 2017, was part of Nationals Winterfest this offseason. That hints the organization expects more to come from him. Crowe pitched well at the Single-A level last season before a 6.15 ERA emerged in 26 ⅓ innings at Double-A Harrisburg. He’s far from ready.
The top pitching prospect in the organization right now? That could well be 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg simply because he has a stain-free resume as a high school pitcher yet to throw in a professional game. Denaburg is yet another Scott Boras client working for the Nationals. He was one of 23 pitchers selected by Washington in the 40-round 2018 draft, a nod to the need for fresh depth.
What he’s not is a pitcher on a top-100 list in stagnant January, leaving the Nationals without one for the third straight year, and work to be done in order to restock.
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