They enter play Monday eight games under .500 and just as many back of the New York Mets in the NL East with two clubs between them. In addition to Strasburg, the Nationals are down Kyle Schwarber, Joe Ross, Yan Gomes, Starlin Castro, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey and a good chunk of their bench. They’ve won only five of 20 games this month.
Luckily for Washington, reality has shown its hand before the July 30 trade deadline rather than after. That could allow the Nationals to turn their focus toward next season and beyond by trading some of their expiring contracts for prospects. For a team that entered the year with one of the worst farm systems in baseball, their decisions over the next week will be crucial in determining whether the Nationals can regain their success and sustain it over the long haul.
So with the Nationals likely headed toward selling at the deadline, let’s take a look at their farm system and where they might add some prospect depth.
Throughout Mike Rizzo’s tenure at the helm of the baseball operations department, the Nationals have heralded themselves as a pitching-first organization. They won their first World Series title in 2019 behind the strength of their rotation and established themselves as perennial leaders in most pitching categories for the greater part of the last decade.
Washington has attempted to keep that organizational backbone intact by prioritizing pitching in the draft. Rizzo and Co. selected a pitcher in the first round every year that they had a top-30 selection from 2011 to 2020. However, among those eight pitchers, only one (Erick Fedde) is pitching for the major-league club today.
Top prospect Cade Cavalli has rocketed through the system since being drafted last year and he’s shown signs of being a potential front-line starter in the near future. The other six are all either working their way back from major injuries, out of baseball or pitching for another ballclub after being traded.
Outside of the first-rounders, the Nationals still have high hopes for players such as 2020 second-round pick Cole Henry (High-A), 2019 fourth-round pick Matt Cronin (AA), 2018 second-round pick Tim Cate (AA) and international signees Joan Adon (High-A) and Andry Lara (rookie ball). Yet most of them are still at least a year or two away from the majors.
It’s likely the Nationals target a few arms in return for some of their trade pieces simply because of how highly they value a strong rotation. Given how few MLB-ready arms they have that will be able to help the team in 2022, look for the Nationals to target arms that already have experience in Double-A and Triple-A.
If there’s an area of the Nationals’ farm system that needs to be restocked, it’s the outfield. MLB Pipeline ranks the top 30 prospects in each organization and the Nationals only have three that make the cut: No. 6 Jeremy De La Rosa (A), No. 12 Roismar Quintana (rookie ball) and No. 14 Daniel Marte (rookie ball). None of them are projected to reach the majors until 2023.
The Nationals have emptied their basin of outfield prospects over the last few years, promoting Victor Robles, Juan Soto and Andrew Stevenson to the big-league club. Now, they’re in a position where injuries forced them to bring back Gerardo Parra rather than call up someone from their own affiliates. Aside from the injured Schwarber, Yadiel Hernández is the only other outfielder on their 40-man roster.
That lack of depth was reflected in the Nationals’ latest draft class, which saw four outfielders taken with their first seven picks. However, the best of those draftees is second-rounder Daylen Lile, who just graduated high school. He’s no closer to reaching the majors than any of the other aforementioned names.
With Schwarber potentially returning to free agency this winter and Robles recently moved into a timeshare with Stevenson, the Nationals should target outfield prospects that aren’t too far off from the majors. They may have to sacrifice some upside in order to get players that will be ready to step in next season, but the returns for names such as Max Scherzer and Trea Turner would each net Rizzo at least one prospect with the potential to be everyday player.
Ever since Soto and Robles were called up, most of the hype in the Nationals’ farm system has centered on their infielders. Former first-round pick Carter Kieboom and $1.3 million international signee Luis García both have the potential to stick in Washington’s infield. Yet while García has flashed some newfound power in Triple-A, Kieboom is out to prove his .536 career OPS in the majors isn’t indicative of what’s to come.
If Kieboom or García don’t pan out, the Nationals also have infielder Yasel Antuna in High-A working his way through the minors. They showed their belief in Antuna last offseason by adding him to their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. However, he’s since struggled to the tune of a .197/.283/.346 slash line in 64 games at High-A.
Deeper into the farm system are some real-high upside players in Armando Cruz — the No. 1 defensive player from the 2021 international prospect class — and Brady House, the Nationals’ 11th overall pick from this year’s draft who to this point remains unsigned. Cruz is 17 years old and House only a year older, so neither will be sniffing the bigs for some time.
Behind the plate, the Nationals are finally getting a chance to see how Tres Barrera handles everyday at-bats at the major-league level. He’s done well with a .784 OPS over his first 13 games while earning praise from several of their veteran starters for his game-calling and preparation. Jakson Reetz (Triple-A) and Israel Pineda (High-A) are both well-regarded by the organization despite neither swinging the bat as hoped this season.
Infield is an area where the Nationals may be most eager to prioritize upside over polish. Even with his struggles at the plate this year, Antuna is only considered a year away while Kieboom, García and Barrera still haven’t gotten extended chances to stick in Washington. The Nationals will want to see what they have in them, allowing them to target younger prospects with greater potential if they choose to pursue them.