November 16, 2016
Washington Nationals Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: The top half of this list stacks up with any organization in baseball, but the lack of overall system depth or close-to-the-majors bats leaves the Nats system as “merely good."
The Top Ten
The Big Question: What if Lucas Giolito is a reliever?
Since we started filing eyewitness reports at Baseball Prospectus in 2013, our prospect writers have submitted exactly five carrying an OFP 80.
All five were on Lucas Giolito.
Five reports, by four different evaluators, across thirteen months. And a few hundred words from now, we are going to amend those with: “Well, about that…”
There is a school of thought that suggests player evaluation is best approached via tabula rasa. One of my predecessors, Jason Parks, used to remark about how he loved trying to identify the best players on the backfields in Spring or instructs, with no identifying information to go on, no idea which skinny teenager got five thousand or five hundred thousand.
Meanwhile, I like to joke that I don’t really like doing much amateur coverage, because on the pro side the hard work is already done for me.
But let’s say you didn’t know anything about Lucas Giolito past the 2016 reports. A fastball that sits in the mid-nineties, a potential hammer curve, but command issues with both that allow better hitters to sit on the heater and be rewarded for it. You wouldn’t immediately be moving this prospect to the bullpen of course. The body and delivery looks like a starter, and he’s only 22 (you got that from the roster sheet in the press box). It wouldn’t be off the table though.
This is reductive, of course, and in addition requires a jaundiced eye. Context matters. Giolito has been better in the past. However, I don’t think it is a stretch to say the kid that was hitting 100 in the Area Code Games is not showing up in the majors. I guess you could even reframe the ‘big question’ as the less clickbaity “How long does prospect pedigree matter?”
It’s easier to handle a prospect who has broken out. He is showing you something new, what is now possible. Victor Robles and Juan Soto both have fallen into this category the last two summers. And I think public evaluators are more easily swayed by this kind of novelty. We live for this shit, in fact. It beats writing about Jorge Alfaro and Gary Sanchez for the umpteenth year. And yes I know, cura te ipsum.
It’s harder to deal with a prospect that is stagnating or regressing. It’s easy to default to the assumption of a y = x development path for high-end prospects even though we know that is by far the exception in player development. Giolito is a particularly confounding case because he was both better in the past, but that, even then, there were obvious developmental hurdles still to go.
If you were to imagine the road to a 25th percentile outcome for 2014 80 OFP Lucas Giolito, it wouldn’t look all that different from what actually occurred. The velocity never really popped back to where it was pre-Tommy John surgery. The fastball/curve combo which overmatched A-ball bats stagnated a bit in the upper minors. The command profile remained fringy. The change improved, but didn’t “jump.” Even the best prospects in the minors still have to get better, often a lot better. Consider Archie Bradley. It’s not a fair comp, as Bradley had injury issues and lacked Giolitio’s “first prep righty to go 1:1” pre-draft profile, but as professional prospects they got similar acclaim and similar “tippy-top-of-the-rotation” projections. This for example could have easily been written by Jason about Lucas Giolito:
“Bradley is a true frontline power arm, with size, strength, and a highly intense arsenal that already features two well above-average offerings. The delivery can lack consistency and he struggles to finish his pitches, which can leave the ball up and arm side and cause his power curve to play too high in the zone. If the command continues to refine, a number one starter is a possible outcome; a true top-of-the-rotation starter capable of a heavy innings workload and gaudy strikeout totals.”
But Archie Bradley is not Lucas Giolito’s destiny. Nor is Giolito necessarily a reliever now. Extrapolating from 2016 is just as dangerous as doing it from 2014. This has not turned into a y = b situation. This is just a snapshot in time. The picture is just a bit fuzzier now.
Lucas Giolitio is still one of the best pitching prospects in the game. That ain’t nothing. But you can’t have the same OFP forever.
Or put another way:
“Unfortunately the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”
- Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance
1. Victor Robles, CF
The Good: There are very few five-tool, up-the-middle prospects in the minors, and even fewer of them turn into five-tool players in the majors. Robles has a shot. We may be squinting a bit to get the power to average, but we can say with more certainty the he offers three potential 70-grade tools— hit, run and arm— and has made strides with his center field defense (which projects as plus) in his first year of full-season ball. His approach is advanced for a 19-year-old, and he covers all four quadrants of the zone well. The bat speed is outstanding, and the barrel control to match is coming along. And zooming out, he’s more polished than you’d expect from the “toolsy 19-year-old center fielder in A-ball” cohort.
The Bad: Robles’ game power lags behind his other skills. It may come as he physically matures, but he may "only" creep into double-digit bombs in the majors. The hit tool is still mostly projection until we see him perform against more advanced arms. He could end up as more of a speed/glove 7-hole hitter in the majors.
The Irrelevant: We often harp on minor-league player nutrition, but Robles’ potential 2017 home, Harrisburg, PA, is home to Broad Street Market, one of the oldest continuously operating farmers' markets in the U.S.
OFP 70 — That really good Lorenzo Cain season
The Risks: The usual risks for this profile. He hasn’t hit in the upper minors yet, and he wasn’t quite as spectacular in his first taste of the Carolina League. The offensive tools are far less actualized than the defensive/athletic ones. He may take a bit of time to reach his projection, past just his Major League ETA.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Let’s face it, you either already own Robles or you missed the boat on him. Such is life with young, pre-elite fantasy prospects. It’s easy to fall in love with Robles and his projection as a future OF1. Take Starling Marte as an example of what a plus-hit tool and plus-plus speed can translate to at the MLB level; a .300-plus average, 40-plus steals and a ranking as the fifth-best fantasy OF in 2016, per ESPN’s Player Rater. That’s what we could be looking at with Robles, and while the hit tool and power have a ways to go, his floor as a speed-first OF 4/5 makes him mighty attractive. Now that he’s in High-A, lead time is becoming less of an issue, too.
2. Lucas Giolito, RHP
The Good: Giolito’s curveball, on raw stuff alone, is one of the most promising pitches in prospectdom, a potential 80-grade offering. His fastball has touched triple-digits in the past and will sometimes comfortably sit in the mid-90s with tremendous downward plane. The change flashes as more than a show-me pitch. He has a good idea of what he wants to do on the mound. There’s a lot of past history and previous looks supporting the idea that he’s a potential ace.
The Bad: Oh command, where art thou? Command was never the strength of his profile, but it disappeared for him in 2016, leading to huge struggles in the majors. He couldn’t spot his fastball well, leading to both too many balls and too many hittable strikes. He could only throw the curve as a chase pitch, which meant that better hitters just laid off it. Early in the 2016 season, media reports indicated these struggles were the result of overworked mechanics, but it didn’t get a whole lot better after Giolito was reported to have gotten past that issue. Just to top it off a bit, his fastball velocity was noticeably down pretty much all season compared to earlier pro looks.
The Irrelevant: Giolito is still eligible for this list, but could lose his prospect status by the time his uncle’s reboot of Twin Peaks hits the air in the second quarter of 2017. Hopefully the central mystery of Season 3 won’t be his nephew’s missing fastball command.
OFP 70 — Possible top-of-the-rotation starter
The Risks: The command might never come around, or it could take years and years and a bunch of teams and pitching coaches. The fastball/curve combination should give him a pretty good relief fallback, at least. As a Tommy John survivor, there’s always that little extra bit of risk, too. Also, he’s a pitcher. —Jarrett Seidler
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Giolito is still the top dynasty pitching prospect in my book. The aforementioned command issues are worrisome, but there simply isn’t another arm in the minors who comes close to matching Giolito’s upside and proximity to the Majors. He might kill your WHIP at first, and the whispers of a future move to the bullpen are scary, but there’s also a meaningful chance that he’s a true SP1 with 225-plus strikeouts. His median fantasy outcome is Chris Archer, which makes his ceiling pretty special.
3. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP
The Good: Lopez rode a post-April hot streak in Double-A to Triple-A and eventually an August-September Major League residency. That residency included a nine-strikeout debut performance against the Dodgers and an 11-strikeout game versus the Braves. His plus arm speed generates a plus-plus fastball, an upper-70s-to-low-80s curveball that flashes plus, and feel for a potentially average cambio.
The Bad: The walk rate spiked and strike throwing consistency diminished after the promotion. The fastball tends to stay straight. The curveball, its shape and use in the zone, is quite volatile. The changeup can get hard and lose effectiveness. The pitch inefficiency and fastball reliance could limit Lopez to a relief role.
The Irrelevant: Lopez threw his fastest pitch of the year, a 99.7 mph heater, against the Mets on September 12th.
OFP 60 — No. 3 starter
The Risks: If the minor league walk rates and efficiency can follow Lopez to the majors, there’s still middle of the rotation potential to be realized. The fallback of being a power reliever who can miss bats isn’t a terrible fate either. The fate of being a pitcher though, always makes things a bit more cloudy. —Adam Hayes
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Lopez may have a fairly low chance of actualizing as a no. 3 starter thanks to his size and command issues, but his strikeout potential and MLB ETA (of, you know, now) are too good for fantasy owners to pass up. Don’t pencil Lopez into your long-term rotation plans, but hope he turns into a 200-strikeout, high-WHIP no. 4 fantasy starter. A potential future at the back of a bullpen sooner rather than later gives him a lovely additional path to fantasy value, too.
4. Juan Soto, OF
The Good: Cineastes often complain that the sequel is never as good as the original, but the Nats had another teenaged outfielder breakout in the GCL and the NYPL this Summer, and Juan Soto is more The Curse of the Cat People than Honey, I Blew Up The Kid. While the circumstances of his breakout are similar to Victor Robles’, they are very different prospects. Soto doesn’t have the same loud, up-the-middle tools, but he may have shown an even more advanced bat in the New-York-Penn League. There’s a potential plus-hit/plus-power combo here with a good approach for his age.
The Bad: As lovely as the finger lakes are in the Summer, Auburn is a long ways from the majors. The game power is mostly theoretical at this point and Soto is limited to right field. He should be fine there long term as an average runner with enough arm for the position, but he is going to have to hit a lot.
The Irrelevant: Speaking of Auburn, since he was only there a week, we doubt Soto had time to visit the William H. Seward Museum, where Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians as Secretary of State.
OFP 60 — Your prototypical good everyday right fielder
The Risks: Soto just turned 18. He hasn’t played outside of short-season ball yet. It’s a corner outfield profile. There’s extreme risk here even accounting for the advanced bat.
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: If you’re going to gamble on players who are younger than the first Harry Potter book, they better have big-time offensive potential. Fortunately Soto does, and this type of hit-tool-first profile is one I prefer to gamble on in fantasy. He’s too far away to be a top-100 prospect yet, but now is a very good time to get in on the ground floor.
5. Erick Fedde, RHP
The Good: Fedde found more velocity this year as he got further away from his 2014 Tommy John surgery. He sat in the mid-90s and touched higher, and his slider flashed plus. The fastball has enough life to be a swing-and-miss offering in the majors and the slider has a good chance to get to that point as well. At it’s best it features violent late, two-plane break. Fedde also has close to an ideal starting pitcher’s build.
The Bad: However, there is enough effort in his delivery to make you wonder if he will have the stamina/command profile to be a 180-inning arm. The changeup is still a work in progress, but can show split-like action at times. The slider is inconsistent and can be more of a chase pitch. He was a little bit old for A-ball for whatever that matters (I don’t think all that much).
The Irrelevant: Fedde was also an all-state soccer player in high school, leading Las Vegas High School to a state title his junior season.
OFP 60 — No. 3 starter
The Risks: Fedde has cleared every marker on his TJ recovery, and with his potential plus fastball/slider combo, he should find a major-league role of some sort. However he is still a pitcher (with a Tommy John already on his C.V.)
Major league ETA: Early 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Fedde has flown under the radar a bit for a first-rounder, but he’s emerged as a solid, if unspectacular, dynasty pitching prospect. The lack of front-of-the-rotation stuff means he’ll get lumped in with a bunch of other mid-rotation starters in the mid-minors, but that might sell short his upside as a no. 5/6 fantasy SP in the Jerad Eickhoff mold. That might not get your heart racing, but you’ve started a lot worse. It’s a bit early in the process for me to tell exactly, but Fedde should be a back-of-the-top-100 prospect.
6. Carter Kieboom, SS
The Good: While not quite on the level of Moniak or Rutherford, Kieboom featured one of the best hit tools in the 2016 prep class. Despite a very open stance, long stride, and slight hitch, he always seems to find the ball with the barrel. He has a lean, athletic frame that could add pop as he adds strength in his twenties. His arm will play at either spot on the left-side of the diamond.
The Bad: Kieboom played shortstop in complex ball, but most think his ultimate defensive home is at third base once he fills out. It takes a bit of projection to see him wringing the expected corner infield-power profile out of his swing at present, so he may end up a bit of a tweener or utility type unless he really hits or adds average game power as he ages.
The Irrelevant: Confidential to @70mphfastball: Kieboom’s pro future was always going to be at the plate, but he was also a switch-pitcher in high school.
OFP 55 - Solid everyday third baseman
The Risks: High, but about what you’d expect for the profile. A future corner role will put pressure on the power to come, and the developmental time here is significant.
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Kieboom isn’t one of the premier dynasty prospects from the last draft class, but his bat is decent enough that you might consider him if your league rosters 200-plus prospects. Don’t bank on using him at shortstop, but Kieboom has the potential to serve as a low-end starting third basemen or a passable CI who’ll do more for your average than he will your power stats, assuming that he’s actually a baseball player and not, as his name suggests, an adult movie star.
7. Dane Dunning, RHP
The Good: Shows strikeout potential, reliable command of his low to mid-90s fastball with late life. Clean mechanics paired with a deceptive delivery created by a late break in his hands pair well with his effective changeup.
The Bad: Having pitched out of the bullpen due the Gators’ overstocked pool of arms, there are legitimate questions as to how Dunning will hold up as a starter. His 11-5 curveball hasn’t shown the promise of his other pitches, and failing to get a handle on it could force a permanent relocation to the pen.
The Irrelevant: Dunning will often pitch wearing those strange hybrid glasses/goggles. Word is still out on his bespectacled splits.
OFP 50 — Fourth Starter or set-up man
The Risks: Without much starting experience, Dunning may have trouble pitching deep into games. Failing to command his curveball would limit him to a fastball/change repertoire that would function fine out of the bullpen but likely prevent him from starting. Also, he’s a pitcher. —Will Haines
Major league ETA: 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Think of all the other things you could do with a roster spot instead of wasting it on a potential back-end starter who’s several years away. You could hold on to a sleeper closer candidate. Maybe stash a speedster who can pad your SB totals when your starters are sitting. Heck, you could get really crazy and even use it to stream a back-end starter who could help you right now, rather than one who might help you years down the line. You can pass on Dunning.
8. Anderson Franco, 3B
The Good: Franco is a strong kid with plus raw power he derives from length and strength. He has the arm and hands to stick at the hot corner.
The Bad: Franco lost significant developmental time this year and was limited to just 24 games in the complex due to a back injury. There are questions about how his approach will fare against higher level arms and in games he can have more of a one gear swing.
The Irrelevant: If Franco does stick at third base, he will only have to beat out Scott Brosius as best third baseman born on August 15th.
OFP 50 — Bat-first regular at third base
The Risks: Extreme. Franco has yet to play in full-season ball and there are already questions about his hit tool. He may end up at first base long term, putting a lot of pressure on the offensive profile. Back injuries are less than ideal and can linger.
Major league ETA: 2021
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: You can bury Franco deep on your sleeper list somewhere. Check in on him periodically to see if his offensive tools are starting to translate at higher levels, but there is such a thing as being too early, and you will be if you pick Franco up right now.
9. Andrew Stevenson, OF
The Good: Stevenson is a gazelle in the outfield. He boasts plus-plus run times and flashes enough leather to entice Chris Berman. His speed and glove will carry the profile, though he shows the potential for a solid-average hit tool thanks to good hands and an ability to control the barrel. Pair that with a steady approach and the ability to recognize spin, and you have the makings of a high-floor player.
The Bad: High-floor players can often translate to “probably fourth outfielder” and that’s what Stevenson is. Despite the impact tools above, his game is limited by well below-average raw power that plays down in-game because he doesn’t incorporate his lower half into his swing. His value in the field is mitigated by a poor throwing arm and at-times overly aggressive routes.
The Irrelevant: Prior to his participation in the California/Carolina League All-Star Game (held on the west coast this year), Stevenson had never traveled to California.
OFP 50 — Average outfielder
The Risks: While his glove and legs will carry the profile, the risk in Stevenson is that there’s not going to be anything to carry in the upper levels. Upper minors pitchers will attempt to exploit him on the inner half where he has little chance of doing any damage due to his minimal power output. If he becomes an automatic out, he won’t see the field, thus losing any chance to accrue value. —Craig Goldstein
Major league ETA: Late 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Stevenson’s speed might make him somewhat interesting once he’s closer to the Majors, but his lack of other tools and distance from the show conspire to make him a fantasy non-factor for the time being.
10. Sheldon Neuse, IF
The Good: Neuse was one of the better two-way college players in this year’s class, serving both as Oklahoma’s starting shortstop and closer. Arm strength is indeed his best asset, playing plus from the left side after delivering fastballs in the 93-95 range off the bump. His smooth right-handed swing is balanced and direct when he’s right, with an all-fields approach underlining an ability to turn and lift balls with average power potential. He exhibits an advanced command of the strike zone that bodes well for his on-base skills, and shows no glaring weakness in his game.
The Bad: The approach got too conservative in his pro debut, with a vast majority of his contact heading softly to the opposite field. He can be prone to over-swinging, particularly early in counts, and both the hit and playable power tools may never develop into outright assets. That may be problematic, as his mature body lacks for quickness or a ton of athleticism, and the physicality has already pushed him over to the hot corner. There are big-league tools here, just not much outside of the arm that really stands out, and it’s more of a second-division profile.
The Irrelevant: At least some of his signing bonus appears to have been invested immediately and directly in the procurement of a very large truck.
OFP 50 – Regular third baseman
The Risks: Relatively low on account of collegiate polish and breadth of skillset. He didn’t exactly hit the ground like Usain Bolt at a level where he may have been expected to excel after signing, but his solid-if-unspectacular projection remains wholly intact. —Wilson Karaman
Major league ETA: Late 2018/Early 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: If we ever get a Bat Signal about this guy the sender should immediately have their BP subscription revoked and should in its place receive a one-way ticket directly to the sun.
Others of note:
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
The Factor on the Farm
Austin Voth, RHP
The still a bit uninspiring
Drew Ward, 3B
Jesus Luzardo, LHP
Name of Note
Mariano Rivera, Jr, RHP
As a prospect, Mariano III is...well, not Sandman Mariano, at least not yet. He’ll sit 92-93, topping out at 95. There’s some natural cut to his four-seamer, but nothing like his pops had, and the command isn’t totally there yet. He’ll also feature a hard slider with some bite, and one could wishcast given the bloodlines those two pitches merging into a death-to-hitters cutter eventually. Yet, on a more basic level, this is basically the same “95 and a slider” future middle/setup relief profile one sees dotting all levels of the minors. Mariano III is fairly new to pitching, having come to it late in his college career, and it’s hard to forget who is father was, so maybe there’s a little more projection left than the normal fourth-round pick college reliever. —Jarrett Seidler
The Nationals farm system has graduated much of its best talent lately, and the most promising pieces left are still very young. The 25-and-under list is a weird mish-mash of people who have already won MVP awards at the major-league level and kids who haven’t seen tough competition yet. It’s a reminder that the organization was supremely lucky to have a consensus no. 1 overall pick at its disposal in 2010, as many of the draft hauls since then have been more challenging. The team did not have first round picks in 2013 or 2015 because of free agent signings. Give credit to the front office for rounding out these slightly leaner years with some excellent trades and international FA signings.
To start things off, have you heard of this guy before? For the sixth year in a row, Bryce Harper makes this list for the Nats. Also, did you hear his 2016 season was a disappointment? Guess that totally-untrue-but-possibly-true rumor of a nagging neck/shoulder injury was maybe/probably true. He’ll be just fine. Only a career-ender would jeopardize his spot on the top of this list. By the time he signs with the Yankees for infinite dollars in the 2019 offseason, at least one of the outfielders below will probably be in position to help.
Contrasting Harper’s disappointment was the arrival of Trea Turner, whose outstanding overall play came in spite of him playing an unfamiliar position in center field. He’s still a shortstop at heart, and GM Mike Rizzo may choose to buy an outfielder to enable the move back. The other big question for next year: will pitchers adjust and exploit the weaker swings on breaking balls?
Actually, you know what would enable Turner to move back to short? The 2019 version of Victor Robles starting in center. Robles has a first-division future with his combination of defensive skills and offensive upside. He doesn’t need much power to carry him to higher levels, but as his body matures we’ll see for sure if he hits more home runs than triples each year.
Meanwhile, the combination of Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Erick Fedde is going to win plenty of games for the franchise—although a lot of development is left for the last three in that list. Giolito, in particular, could use a rebound after looking uncomfortable in his first major league outings. The fastball sat 93-94 all year—instead of the 95-96 that he flashed in the low minors and helped him offset command woes. Lopez looks very tempting in relief, and Fedde likely will get a shot to start down the line.
Difo is tough to figure. He raced through the minors in 2015 before falling flat in a brief stint in the majors. He flashes major-league tools, including the ability to stay up the middle, and was even included on the Nationals post-season roster, memorably recording the final out of the NLDS against Clayton Kershaw. Still, the rose-colored ceiling is an average regular, and his positional flexibility makes him a prime candidate for the utility man role rather than a second-division regular.
Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom have a combined $3.5 million price tag, and it’ll be a few years before we see the returns on investment. Still, the patience has a good chance of being rewarded. Soto, especially, has projection for days and could shoot up prospect lists once there’s better proof of concept against professional competition. Kieboom also has a better shot than older brother Spencer at sticking with the big league club. —Dan Rozenson