February 4, 2016
Washington Nationals Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: This top four is arguably the best in baseball, and with a number of players ready to contribute during Washington’s current window of contention, the organization is set to compete in both the present and the future.
The Top Ten
1. Lucas Giolito, RHP
Giolito is a no-doubter atop this list and is the best pitching prospect in baseball. With a profile driven by elite stuff, size, pitchability, and makeup he’s one of the few minor leaguers out there who’s truly deserving of an 80 OFP. He creates excellent plane, working downhill from a high three-quarters arm slot, with a lively fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90s and will touch the upper 90s without exerting exceptional effort. His 12-6 power curveball is a top-of-the-scale pitch that shows sharp, abrupt break late in its trajectory toward the plate. He’s able to both throw it for strikes and bury it effectively as a put-away pitch, initially showing the plane of his fastball, then falling off the table into the dirt. The changeup is the least potent pitch in his repertoire and even that projects as plus thanks to his ability to replicate fastball arm speed and turn the ball over to induce arm-side fading action. He’ll throw the pitch to both righties and lefties, and its development really took off in the second half of 2014 as the Nats mandated that he dial back his curveball usage. With his go-to weapon taken away from him, Giolito was forced to really bear down on developing his changeup and more importantly, executing it in-game.
There’s a TJ on the résumé, and of course pitching prospects, no matter how big, durable, and mechanically efficient, are an inherently risky bunch, but Giolito is as good a bet to hit his frontline starter upside as any pitching prospect in recent memory. Giolito is ready to pitch in the majors, and he likely would have done so down the stretch in some capacity last season had the Nationals not fallen out of contention. The Nationals have some rotation depth to work with so it’s hardly a given that Giolito starts the year in Washington, but once the Super Two deadline passes, he should be called up in short order.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: It’s not an exaggeration to say that the next pitcher who is drafted ahead of Clayton Kershaw in fantasy leagues might be Giolito. And the fact that it’s not exaggeration just shows how stupid his upside is in dynasty leagues. There’s risk inherent with any pitcher, which is why he’s behind the most elite hitting prospects in the game, but Giolito could consistently have a 2.50 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 250 strikeouts. There’s really not much more to say after that.
Major league ETA: 2016
2. Trea Turner, SS
Despite the presence of Danny Espinosa and the signing of Stephen Drew, Washington’s starting shortstop job should be Turner’s to lose in spring training as he exceeds both players in terms of present ability and future ability. With an above-average arm and double-plus speed, Turner has the tools of an above-average everyday shortstop. He doesn’t have the cleanest actions at the position but he’s able to compensate for aesthetic inefficiencies with the aforementioned speed, which also gives him 30-40 stolen base potential.
Turner’s swing mechanics have gone through all sorts of ups and downs over the years but he’s simplified his approach of late, cutting down the long stride that inhibited his ability to consistently stay back on off-speed offerings. His hands work fluidly and efficiently, producing hard line-drive contact to all fields. It’s a plus hit tool that stands on its own, independent of the bump he’ll receive from speed-aided BABIP success. His raw power potential is limited by a slight frame and a swing path that isn’t conducive to inducing loft. That said, the strength of his plus hit tool allows him to tap into every ounce of it in-game.
Other than his speed, Turner doesn’t have an easily observable tool that pops out during a first viewing. He’s the kind of player who grows on you after watching him make all the plays required of a shortstop, and pummeling line drive upon line drive to right-center over the course of a five-game series. This is a first-division shortstop who will be a staple in the Nationals lineup for years to come.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: There’s just so much safety in a prospect who is on the cusp of the majors and floats potential 40-steal speed like it’s nothing. After all, only three players stole 40 bases last season. Frankly, anything above a mediocre batting average is gravy, if he can gather 500 at bats a year—and with only Danny Espinosa standing in his way, it shouldn’t be long before he starts producing for fantasy owners.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2015
3. Victor Robles, OF
Coming into 2015, Robles was just another toolsy guy worth keeping an eye on, but he’s now established himself as a legitimate high-end prospect thanks to a year of applying those sparkling tools, translating them into usable skills. The super-athletic, wiry-strong center fielder is capable of impacting a game on both sides of the ball. With plus bat speed, and present strength that far exceeds what you’d expect from a guy of his stature, Robles has a knack for punishing the ball on a line, backspinning balls to all fields. Power hasn’t really shown up in-game for Robles just yet, but it’s only a matter of time as the 18-year-old has the swing of a bigger player and still has plenty of size and strength to add to his lithe frame. A polished hitter for his age, Robles is able to make consistent contact in spite of an aggressive, high-yield swing that’s typically displayed by players that have more swing-and-miss in their offensive profiles.
With double-plus speed in his arsenal, Robles is a legitimate stolen base threat and a plus defender, moving fluidly and effortlessly to cover ground in the outfield. He rounds out his collection of tools with arm strength that nears double-plus, producing throws with very nice life and carry. Robles, who won’t turn 18 until May, should start the season in High-A and possesses an All-Star caliber ceiling. If this list were based solely on upside, Robles would be placed at no. 2, above Turner, but the appeal of a major-league-ready Role 6 shortstop is just too much to pass up. This is one of the most intriguing long-term talents in the minors right now, and with another year of development he has a strong chance of being included in the Top 10 on the 2017 edition of the Top 101.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: If you’re into upside—and you didn’t pass out after reading about Giolito—this is the profile for you. Even if the power never comes to more than about 10-12 homers a year, Robles could still emerge as a top-three round pick in fantasy leagues for a good portion of his 20’s, given his threat to one day hit close to .300 with 40 steals. If he’s available in your dynasty draft, it’s going to be a tough decision between his ceiling and the floors of Alex Bregman and Dansby Swanson.
Major league ETA: 2018
4. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP
The athletic, projectable right-hander broke out in 2014 and continued his progression through the minors this past season with a strong showing in High-A Potomac. Armed with one of the best fastballs in the minor leagues, Lopez comfortably works in the mid-90s and regularly touches triple digits. Thrown from a high three-quarters arm slot, the pitch features heavy downward action, which further enhances its efficacy, making it a legitimate 80-grade pitch. His power curveball shows excellent depth, two-plane break, and is especially effective in the bottom third of the zone. His changeup flashes above-average and shows fading action, but it’s still a bit too firm as a mid-80s offering. That being said, the fastball-changeup separation is typically around 10 mph so it’ll still play as a usable pitch even if its raw potency doesn’t improve drastically. As you might imagine, Lopez’s feel for control is well ahead of his command. He’s consistently around the plate but not yet locating with the precision he’ll need to combat big-league hitters.
Lopez will be given every opportunity as a starter but it’s at least worth noting his reliever-like traits. He’s a 6-foot right hander with a fast arm driven by ultra-aggressive trunk rotation. His arm action is clean in back as his elbow remains below the shoulder line up until the moment trunk rotation initiates, and his arm path is clean but his lack of extension, upright finish and upwardly flailing arm recoil are a bit concerning. Lopez has elite arm strength now but maintenance of said arm strength likely depends on his ability to effectively fine tune the mechanical inefficiencies listed above. Lopez’s ceiling is that of a no. 2 starting pitcher, but more realistically he’s a no. 3 starter with a nice fallback airing it out as a back-end relief ace.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The risk inherent in Lopez is mildly overstated, but unfortunately the fantasy upside might be as well. The quick and lazy corollary is Yordano Ventura, who we’re still waiting on to be an SP2 (and may end up waiting forever), and while it’s not quite apples-to-apples (despite common belief, not all six-foot Dominican right-handers are created equally), it hints at the path Lopez might have in front of him. The success story would be a strong SP3 with success spread across the categories.
Major league ETA: 2018
5. Wilmer Difo, SS
Difo followed up his breakout 2014 campaign with a solid 2015 effort that included a brief stint in Washington. An athletically gifted speedster, the diminutive 23-year-old packs excellent strength in a well-proportioned, high-waisted frame. The switch-hitter shoots balls to all fields with an aggressive approach, and while he won’t ever be mistaken for a slugger, he’s able to punish mistakes inside thanks to his quick hands and above-average bat speed. Difo’s double-plus speed plays well on the bases as he adds value both stealing bases and taking the extra base on balls hit to the outfield. Difo carries an up-the-middle set of tools that give him a chance to stick at shortstop but they’ll likely play better at second base. He shows an above-average arm, that’s enough to make all the throws required of a shortstop but his actions are only average and his speed and athleticism don’t translate fully when it comes to navigating the position. If not for Trea Turner’s presence in the organization, this would likely be more of a debate, but whether or not Difo is capable, he’ll be deployed primarily as a second baseman at the big-league level.
With a relatively low-risk profile, Difo has a strong chance of making it work as a regular, but if not there’s a high-end utility profile to fall back on, which might also entail adding all three outfield positions to his repertoire. There isn’t a clear-cut route to playing time on the Nationals at the moment but the roster features a number of injury-prone veterans who will inevitably miss extended stretches. Even if his name isn’t penciled in at a consistent position every day, Difo’s positional versatility should allow him to receive fairly significant playing time, filling in for Werth, Rendon, Zimmermann (with Murphy shifting over the first) and others over the coming years.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The speed is the selling point with Difo, but it’s the batting average that could make him a very solid fantasy option in the coming years. The Nationals have more depth this year at the positions he’s capable of filling, but Difo could hit .280 with 25-30 steals in a full season if given the opportunity.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2015
6. Erick Fedde, RHP
Less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, Fedde’s primary goals for the 2015 season were staying healthy and building up arm strength, with on-field performance being the tertiary concern. All told, Fedde successfully accomplished the first two goals, while showing encouraging flashes of the pre-injury stuff that motivated his inclusion among the top 10 or so 2014 Draft prospects.
With a three-pitch mix and a projectable frame, Fedde carries mid-rotation upside with a nice fallback option as a late-inning reliever. He gets excellent extension from a three-quarters arm slot and is able to get on top of his pitches thanks to slightly manipulated shoulder posture at release. He has a well-paced, controlled delivery that features loose arm action, coupled with mild but not particularly concerning inversion at landing. He creates good sinking action with an easy low-90s fastball that he can locate to both his arm- and glove-side. Fedde matches fastball arm speed well when throwing his two-plane slider, which was a plus pitch pre-injury and has a chance to regain its prior form as the surgery moves further into the rearview. It’ll hang at times without showing an abrupt point of trajectory deviation but it should firm up once he regains confidence in really finishing the pitch. The changeup lags behind the other two offerings (boy if I had a nickel…) but his arm speed and athleticism suggest it’ll be able to reach at least a fringe-average level and thus be a usable repertoire component.
On top of all the pitching-related attributes, Fedde is an excellent athlete who fields his position brilliantly. As you’d expect, everything was just a bit crisper pre-draft than what he showed in 2015, but that’s to be expected. There’s a pretty compelling argument for Fedde being a spot higher on this list, given his upside, but with Difo as an major-league-ready asset and considering the uncertainties that come with pitching prospects, sixth is the most reasonable position.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: There’s a great debate to be had as to whether Fedde or Lopez is the better fantasy arm in this system; and frankly, my money's on Fedde. The fastball/slider combination portends potentially strong strikeout numbers and ratios that will be above-average (especially his WHIP). He’s looking more and more like an SP3 now that he’s on the other side of his recovery.
Major league ETA: 2018
7. Anderson Franco, 3B
Franco got his first taste of stateside ball in 2015, starting out in the GCL, then moving up to Short-Season Auburn toward the end of the season, showcasing some rough edges but, more importantly, three tools that project as average or better. He’s a well-proportioned 6-foot-3, and has already started to fill out a bit in his lower half. He’s a below-average runner and it’s conceivable he’ll simply outgrow third base by no fault of his own, but with really good hands, a great feel for the position, and an easy-plus arm, he has a chance to stick at the position even if the range ends up being fringy.
He shows a fluid, uncomplicated swing in BP, producing plus power driven by easy loft and backspin. The swing lengthens out in-game, however, especially when his mechanics are disrupted by pitchers that change speeds and sequence well. His approach leaves a lot to be desired at the moment, with poor feel for the strike zone and a lack of spin recognition. To realize his offensive upside, he’ll need to make serious strides in this department. He’s a long way off from contributing at the highest level but there’s above-average-regular upside here, with the more likely outcome being a low-end regular held back from realizing his potential due to hit tool deficiencies.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Given the lack of offensive upside and the distance, Franco is not a name worth paying much attention to in dynasty leagues yet. However, if a step forward comes with the bat in full-season ball, the strong defensive profile will give him a great base for value.
Major league ETA: 2018
8. A.J. Cole, RHP
Cole has appeared on six Baseball Prospectus Top 10 Lists—five with Washington and one with Oakland—with an average ranking of 3.8 and a high of 2. He’s been a highly regarded prospect over the course of his professional career and at one time seemed destined for a high-end mid-rotation role. So what gives? Why’s he ranked at no. 8? For one thing, he’s been passed by some very talented players, but more relevant for Cole specifically, he’s just never really put it together like folks thought he would.
He’s a lanky 6-foot-4 and has the frame to hold good weight, but at 24 years old he still has the look of a projectable 18-year-old. He’s a bit long in back, and wraps on his arm swing, which makes it easier for hitters to time his offerings. He features a plus fastball that he throws to both sides of the plate, good feel for an above-average changeup that he sells well, an average slider, a fringy curveball and the makings of above-average command. A slight uptick stuff-wise from the slider would go a long way toward instilling confidence in a potential mid-rotation profile, but in absence of that he will carry plenty of value as a solid no. 4 starter. He’s major-league ready and will be one of the first guys to slot into the back of the Nationals rotation in 2016 when the need arises.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: There's still some name value in Cole, who has squandered most of his expectations over the past two seasons. At this point, the best you can hope for is a decent WHIP, a mediocre ERA, and 150-160 strikeouts over a full season; and if that doesn’t sound attractive to you based on your league depth, sell, sell, sell.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2015
9. Austin Voth, RHP
Voth gets the very most out of his average three-pitch repertoire with above-average command and an excellent feel for sequencing. Early in his professional career, the physically maxed, well-built right-hander relied heavily on his fastball, but over the past two seasons his changeup and curveball have both come on. Voth sits comfortably at 88-92 with his fastball, commanding it well to both sides of the plate, while effectively avoiding danger zones. His over-the-top slot creates excellent downhill plane, and he hides the ball well, not giving the batter a good look until release. His arm speed is only average, which limits the potential of his secondaries, but the changeup shows solid fade and his 11-5 curveball is a usable out pitch that is especially potent when spiked. All told, he’s a “sum of the parts” type of pitcher who profiles as a solid back-of-the rotation piece. Right behind Cole, Voth will be able to seamlessly step into the Nats rotation when the need pops up.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Back of the rotation starters are not a fantasy owner’s dream, but at least Voth is close. An injury to one of the big boys in Washington could open up a spot for him, which makes him on NL-only radars, but his mixed league appeal is very limited.
10. Pedro Severino, C
Carried by compelling defensive tools, Severino profiles as a second-division starter even though he won’t contribute much with the bat. His best case scenario is that of a 40 hit/40 power guy but more likely both tools end up at 35 or below. The defensive specialist is a very good athlete for a catcher, and moves well behind the plate, showing above-average footwork and pitch-blocking skills. His receiving still needs plenty of work as he’ll get sloppy with post-reception glove movement, but he has the hands to make it work with a little more refinement. His arm really stands out, as it’s easy plus, producing throws that show strong carry and accuracy. His offensive profile is such that he’ll never hit higher than seventh in a National League lineup but his defensive presence will make up for his offensive shortcomings. Severino currently sits at third on the Nats’ depth chart, but there’s not a ton separating him from Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton. That said, he hasn’t exactly pushed the organization’s hand, and would likely benefit from a year in Triple-A, refining his pitch selection at the plate and his receiving behind it.
Fantasy Impact: Stay Away!
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2015
Osvaldo Abreu, SS – Abreu doesn’t have a standout tool in his arsenal but nonetheless carries second-division regular upside at one of the up-the-middle infield positions—most likely second base. He shows above-average bat speed and nice swing fluidity, but it can get overly violent at times, throwing his ability to make contact out of whack and also limiting his fringy raw power in game action. Above-average speed makes him a threat on the bases, but it doesn’t translate all that well on defense, as he’s only an average defender at shortstop. He has enough arm for the left side but the profile will ultimately fit best at second base or in a utility role.
Blake Perkins, OF – Perkins is an impressively athletic deep-projection guy who has shown surprisingly advanced baseball aptitude since signing. He’s a graceful runner and has enough arm to man center field. While his smooth right-handed swing entails the potential for an average hit tool and fringy power, he’s resumed switch-hitting, which he mothballed leading up to last year’s draft. Initial results have apparently been positive. Perkins is a long way from contributing but there are some really interesting tools here that are worth following closely.
Jakson Reetz, C – With a prototypical catcher’s frame capable of withstanding the rigors of the position and a well-rounded collection of tools, Reetz possesses everyday-regular upside. He shows an above-average arm, strong actions behind the plate, and he’s dedicated to sharpening the finer points of the position. There’s above-average bat speed and raw power here but his overall offensive profile plays down in games, hindered by a non-rhythmic, muscled swing hitch. This inefficiency has been there since his days on the showcase circuit but he’s made little progress smoothing things out. In spite of this, he’s more than capable of meeting or exceeding the offensive requirements of a starting catcher, and if his defensive tools hit their 75th-percentile projections, the red flags in his swing will matter even less.
Andrew Stevenson, OF – There are serious question marks about whether the Nats’ 2015 second-rounder is going to hit enough to justify regular playing time. It’s difficult to get a read on Stevenson because his swing is essentially incomparable. Usually that’s a bad thing—not being able to match a trait displayed by an amateur or minor leaguer with something you’d see displayed at the highest level—but an odd duckling is worth investing in if he shows premium tools elsewhere and Stevenson most certainly meets that criterion with tantalizing speed and defense. His power projects as well-below average and while he demonstrates great feel for making contact, he’s unlikely to drive the ball with enough authority to approach average utility from his hit tool. He’s an impressive athlete with exceptional hand-eye coordination, and as with any athletic action, the more of those two qualities one shows, the more likely one is to overcome mechanical deficiencies. Even if Stevenson ends up as a below-average hitter, he could end up warranting consistent playing time based on his ability to impact the game on defense and on the basepaths.
Drew Ward, 3B – The physically imposing third baseman had a decent but uninspiring 2015 campaign, doing little to alleviate concerns about his hit tool and ability to stick at third base. Despite possessing an above-average arm and solid hands, there’s a low probability he sticks at third, as he’s heavy-footed and struggles to cover ground. Ward shows plus raw pop but he isn’t able to tap into it in game due to pronounced swing length and general hit tool deficiencies. There’s above-average power here and if Ward can finetune his swing a bit, he’ll have the offensive thump necessary to carry first base as a second-division strong-side platooner.
Let this sink in for a moment: Bryce Harper will be on the 2018 25U Nationals list. And barring a presently-unforeseeable and quite-possibly Rube Goldbergian catastrophe, he will still be ranked #1. Harper had been good, quite good in fact, before 2015, but last season was his coming out party as an elite major leaguer. As you may recall, he hit .330/.460/.649, good for a .386 TAv and 11.2 WARP. That is a better season than Mike Trout has ever managed in his career, but it isn't hard to picture Mike Trout standing off stage a la Bugs Bunny and saying: "That's terrific, Bryce. They loved it. They want more."
PECOTA sees Harper as merely an all-star level performer in 2016, perhaps because he only has done it once, but it sure didn't seem like a mirage, and at only 23, there's a chance he could even *gulp* improve down the line.
Rendon over Giolito may be a bit controversial, but the Nationals third baseman was a top-50 prospect himself, and has already shown you an all-star level of performance in the majors. His injury-marred 2015 was not as inspiring, but the offseason acquisition of Daniel Murphy allows Rendon to move back to third base full-time, which hopefully will be a bit easier on his legs. And a healthy Rendon is one of the best baseball players in the National League. Giolito isn't there. Yet.
Joe Ross will slot in at the back end of the Nationals 2016 rotation, and while he isn't Jordan Zimmerman, his 2015 debut went quite well. He was almost exclusively a sinker/slider guy, though, and you'd worry the league might figure him out this year if the changeup doesn't improve and become a more prevalent part of his arsenal. It is very tough to be a long-term major league starter as a right-hander that relies so heavily on two pitches. As is, lefties lit him up to the tune of a .809 OPS during his first Summer in the majors.
Michael Taylor's debut did not go quite as well. After checking in at no. 57 on our 2015 Top 101, Taylor was thrust into an everyday role in the majors after another Denard Span injury and looked badly overmatched at the plate. He is a good defensive center fielder and showed off some pop even in a bad offensive year, but is stuck behind Ben Revere on the center field depth chart heading into 2016.
Felipe Rivero looks like a very useful pen arm—a southpaw with a big fastball who doesn’t wilt against right-handed bats. But he may not give up only two home runs in 49 innings again. Brian Goodwin has fallen far from his top prospect heights, spending all of 2015 back in the Eastern League. He is firmly an organizational soldier now, despite a strong winter ball campaign in Venezuela. Trevor Gott came over from the Angels in the Yunel Escobar deal, and is a big fastball and not much else. He will get a shot at the major league pen, but the Nationals addressed their bullpen depth in the offseason, and having “Angels reliever” on your resume does not necessarily guarantee a lateral move elsewhere.
This perhaps isn't the deepest list of 25-and-under talent in baseball (although still a very good one). The Nats have been somewhat handicapped by only having one first round pick since selecting Giolito ( they nabbed an additional one on the trade market in Trea Turner), but the top five talents here match up favorably with any other team in baseball. And the top four all could have an impact on the 2016 team. 2015 was a disappointing season in our nation's capital, but any rumors of the Nationals demise have been greatly exaggerated. - Jeff Paternostro
GM and President of Baseball Ops: Mike Rizzo
The organization has had its fair share of success drafting and developing domestic amateurs in recent years, but its greatest triumph is likely the current state of its Scouting and Player Development operation in the Dominican Republic. The club was forced to start from scratch following the Smiley Gonzalez scandal of 2009, in which the investigation of a notable Dominican signee’s identity fraud unearthed fairly serious corruption within the department’s ranks. The scandal resulted in the firing of multiple Nationals officials in the Dominican Republic and the resignation of then-General Manager, Jim Bowden.
Brought in following Mike Rizzo’s ascension to the GM chair, Vice President of International Operations Johnny DiPuglia has overseen the departmental reboot, and the club is just now starting to see its efforts pay dividends. Looking at the composition of this list, we see that three of the top five and five of the top 10 players hail from the Dominican Republic, not to mention guys like Rafael Bautista, Jefry Rodriguez, and Juan Soto, all of whom have some form of major-league upside. Now positioned in an upgraded Dominican facility, the aspect of the club’s baseball operations department that was once an embarrassment is now a point of strength. Coupled with its efforts on the domestic amateur side, the club is well positioned carry on its winning ways into the future with a collection of both presently ready talent and longer-term assets.