With full-season teams now in to the second-week of their 2013 campaigns, clubs are starting to get a feel for their minor-league talent. Many re-buidling big league teams are preparing to call-up their top prospects in just a couple of more weeks, when arbitration rules will fall in their favor. Contending clubs like the Nationals are less inclined to make front-page moves so early in the season, but they too are keeping an eye on their young’ins. They’re trying to get a read on what these players are worth in preparation for a mid-season trade, and they’re definitely looking for someone who can contribute in the event they need to to patch a hole internally.
The Nationals, who are now 8-5 with their win over the Marlins on Monday night, are very comfortable with their Major League roster. Outside of a few bullpen/bench tweaks they might be preparing to make–like adding an effective left-handed relief pitcher for instance–they probably aren’t going to replace one of their veteran big leaguers with any of their prized prospects just yet. Of course, things will change quickly if one of their stars suffers a serious injury.
As Mike Rizzo proved last season with Bryce Harper, he isn’t afraid to call-up one of his young stars when the club needs a boost. There’s an outside shot that top prospects like Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin could be in the Majors by mid-summer, while other promising minor leaguers like Danny Rosenbaum, Christian Garcia, Eury Perez and Zach Walters could contribute earlier.
Two weeks in to the 2013 season, here are some of the notable performances from the Washington Nationals minor league system:
Anthony Rendon: Despite injuries, Rendon put together a strong debut campaign last year, and then tore apart the Arizona Fall League. This spring, the former number-one pick has looked even better, and is doing a fine job of convincing the Nats organization that he’s ready to start a star-studded big-league career. After Rendon posted a .375/.412/.875 line in 32 spring-training at bats, he’s continuing to dominate opposing pitchers while playing for the (double-A) Harrisburg Senators. He went 4-4 in Sunday night’s win vs. the Altoona Curve, and then followed by mashing a double and a home run in four at bats in the Senators’ victory over the Reading Phillies on Monday. In his last seven games he has now collected a hit in 11 of 22 at bats, and has railed 5 doubles and two home runs. Not only is he showing tremendous power and pure hitting ability, but his batting eye is all it was billed to be when the club drafted him. He has also collected six walks during his last seven games, and now has 11 on the season and his on-base percentage is sitting at a fat .490.
Rendon now ranks second in the Nationals’ high-minors in hits (14), on-base percentage (.490) and RBI (13), and he’s within the top-five in batting average, home runs and slugging.
When Rendon has been healthy during his brief pro career, he has hit like one of the game’s elite prospects. He has consistently mashed against much older, more advanced pitchers in the AFL, spring training and in double-A. There’s a lot of reason to believe that he’d succeed in an everyday big league role immediately. But because the Nats’ infield is so packed with talent–armed with a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa–they have little reason to push him. But for sure, if any of these guys gets injured, or if Espinosa sputters just a little bit, the front office will pull the trigger and promote Rendon.
Jason Martinson: I haven’t always been a believer, but the more I see Jason Martinson, the more I like him. A twenty-four-year-old playing the Carolina League with Class-A Potomac, the former fifth-round pick is a little bit on the old side for his level, but not too bad considering this is still only his fourth pro season.
Martinson isn’t a blue-chip guy, but he’s quietly forcing his way in to the top-prospect conversation. The strong-armed shorstop mashed 19 homers and 45 extra-base hits in 433 at bats in the South Atlantic League in 2011, then followed with 22 more bombs and 40 more extra-baggers with Hagerstown last year. He was actually one of two minor leaguers in 2012 to score more than 100 runs and drive-in more than 100 RBI.
This season, Martinson looks to be picking up even more momentum. He leads the entire Nats organization with a .778 slugging percentage, and he’s tied with Zach Walters for the home run title with 4. Considering the Carolina League’s damp air, his power is even more impressive for a shortstop that projects to stay at the position at higher levels. His glove also has continued to play at a solid level. He has a .958 fielding percentage so far, and his plus arm strength helps him make tough plays. He’ll never hit for a high average, but his plate discipline has led to a career .351 on-base percentage.
Jeff Kobernus-- Kobernus was left unprotected by the Nationals this winter and was subsequently plucked from their system by the Tigers (via a trade with the Red Sox) in the Rule-V draft. But after posting a .591 OPS through 50 spring-training at bats, Detroit returned him to the Nats–along with $50,000 grand as compensation. So in the end, the Nats were no worse for wear.
Despite his weak spring training line, Kobernus has had no trouble handling his first taste of triple-A pitching. Through nine games, he’s now hitting an insane .533 with a .588 on-base percentage and a .700 slugging percentage. A plus runner, he also has five stolen bases in seven attempts, as well as nine runs scored. He’s tops in the Nats organization in both batting average and on-base percentage right now, and is second in slugging. In fact, his average is third in the triple-A leagues, and fifth in all of the minors.
The Nats’ second-round pick in ’09, Kobernus has always had nice athleticism and potential, but has rarely shown this kind of ability to put his tools to work on to the diamond. Over such a small sample size, there’s a very good chance that his early-season numbers are only a tease. But there’s also reason to believe that he’s starting to put it together, and could be close to contributing in the MLB as a valuable utilityman and pinch-runner.
Danny Rosenbaum: Rosenbaum was another guy that was Rule-V’d this winter. But unlike Kobernus’s situation, the notion of the Nats allowing a lefty like Rosenbaum to slip through their fingers was a little bit more troubling. No knock on Kobernus, it’s just that–considering Rosey’s talent and pairing that with the Nationals’ lack of left-handed bullpen arms–it was a much tougher loss in the short term.
Anyway, the southpaw put together a strong showing with the Rockies in big league camp this spring, primarily as a relief pitcher. He allowed four runs in 8 innings, but posted a 2.33 ground-out/fly-out ratio (5/1 vs. left-handed batters) and looked prepared to contribute in the Majors. Luckily for the Nats however, Colorado’s bullpen was already pretty strong, and they decided to return him to Washington rather than DL’ing him or working-out a trade.
Rosenbaum isn’t a hard thrower, and that largely explains why he’s often overlooked by prospect-heads and analysts. The fact is though, he’s been consistently above-average since entering pro ball in 2009, and has tallied a 2.81 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and 389 K’s in 512 career innings between rookie-ball and double-A. He’s a favorite of his coaches, for his willingness to take instruction and improve his game, but also for his flexible, team-first mentality. And sort of like former Nationals farm-hand Tommy Milone, he has learned to get outs using his smarts, command and an effective off-speed repertoire, rather than relying heavily on pure stuff. But make no mistake, he’s no soft tosser either, and can hit 91-92 MPH on the radar gun when he reaches back. If he gets the opportunity, Rosey should be a quality pitcher in the MLB, and could provide a quick, in-house answer for the Nationals’ current lack of effective left-handed relief.
So far this spring, Rosenbaum has looked very strong in two starts. While he has only struck-out three batters, he has allowed just 8 total base-runners and 1 earned run in 11 innings-pitched. More importantly for a guy that will likely start his MLB career in the bullpen, he has allowed only 2 of 16 left-handed batters to reach base, holding them to a .071 batting average. Adept at changing speeds and forcing batters to put tough pitches in play, he is also continuing to keep the ball ont he ground. He has induced three ground-outs for every fly-out, and allowed only three balls to leave the infield in his last start.
An Icy April
Michael Taylor: I like Michael Taylor a lot, and am very willing to chalk-up his underwhelming 2012 campaign to youth/a lack of pro experience, injuries and plain old bad luck. I’m sure the Nationals are too. After all, Taylor only turned twenty-two in March, and the club recognized that he would be a long-term player development project when they drafted him. But the fact is, Taylor’s poor performance out of the gate in 2013 won’t make his progression any easier as he repeats an assignment to the Carolina League. He has plenty of time to put it together, but if he doesn’t start to hit in a few weeks, then the pressure will start to mount as he tries to avoid a second consecutive down year.
Taylor has slumped badly to open 2013. Even though he went 2-5 Monday night against the Salem Red Sox, he’s still batting just .186/.255/.326 with only 8 hits and two walks (vs. 9 strikeouts) in 48 plate appearances. He leads the Potomac Nationals in playing time, but his batting average is the worst among their regulars, and he accounts for only three of their 36 extra-base hits. He’s also been thrown-out in three of four steal attempts, and has grounded in to two double-plays.
Taylor is an off-the-charts athlete with a surplus of tools. He’s blessed with top-shelf balance, running speed, bat-speed, arm-strength and overall athleticism. Though he was moved off the dirt in to centerfield only a couple of years ago, his incredible athletic gifts have allowed him to almost seamlessly develop in to one of the best defensive outfielders in the minors. At the plate, he still has a lot of work to do–particularly in terms of his approach and plate discipline–but his swing mechanics have come a long way over the past couple of years. He shows nice power, with 87 extra-base hits in 877 career at bats between low-A and high-A, and could become an above-average everyday player in the big leagues if he learns to work the count and find the barrel more often.
Kylin Turnbull: Coming out of Santa Barbara Community College, Turnbull was widely considered the nation’s best junior college southpaw heading in to draft day 2011. The Nationals liked his promising arm strength, and believed his big, broad 6’5″ frame offered plenty of upside. They ended up selecting him in the fourth round of the draft, and assigned him to the South Atlantic League to open 2012.
Thus far in to his career, Turnbull hasn’t been able to solve professional hitters, and isn’t showing the plus arm strength he did pre-draft. Last year, he got lit up, allowing 115 hits and 145 baserunners in 98.1 innings pitched overall. He posted a 5.18 ERA through 18 games (17 starts) in the South Atlantic League, while facing a lot of youngsters. His fastball velocity sat in the high 80’s, instead of the 91-94 MPH range the organization knows he’s capable of reaching, and his sinker and mechanics weren’t as good as promised.
Though he is assigned to the pitcher-friendly Carolina League to start 2013, Turnbull has continued to get rocked by minor-league hitters. In his season debut on April 8th, he yielded 9 hits and 7 runs (6 earned) in 4.1 innings, and struck-out just one batter. He was just as awful in his next start. The Lynchburg Hillcats smacked him around for 9 more hits on April 14th, and they got 11 total men on base (in 25 plate appearances) through 4.2 innings. Turnbull’s ERA now sits at 12.00. He has allowed 18 hits and 21 base-runners in 9 innings, and the 13 baserunners he has allowed to cross the plate makes his measly 2 strikeouts look even more pathetic.
As a left-hander with a big-league build, a strong arm and some sink on his 2-seamer, Turnbull still has plenty of potential. But judging by his recent performance, it’s safe to say that the odds are stacked against him at this point.
Sandy Leon: Leon is one of my favorite catching prospects, and I firmly believe he has the tools to be a quality everyday catching in the big leagues as soon as next season. A very polished defensive catcher, his arm strength, release and balance allow him to often post spectacular 1.8-second and 1.9-second pop times in games. He’s murder on the running game, and has nearly gunned down half of attempted base-stealers in his career. More than just a gun slinger though, he’s also a strong receiver. He’s strong at catching hard-throwers and blocking the plate, and has limited passed-balls and wild pitches throughout the past couple of seasons. Though he’s not a native English speaker, he communicates with his pitchers well and draws praise from his coaches for managing the game.
After breaking out last year, batting .322/.396/.460 in the minors and even earning a Major League debut, Leon hasn’t looked so hot this time around. He collected just two hits in thirteen at bats in big league camp this spring, and has remained ice-cold with the Harrisburg Senators so far in April. With a one-for-four performance on Monday night, he’s batting just .189/.268/.216 through 10 games. He has one extra-base hit–a double he hit on April 13th against Altoona–and he has struck-out six times and walked once in his last 20 plate appearances.
Things haven’t been any better for Leon behind the plate. He has thrown out 45% of attempted base-stealers in his career, and made a total of four errors and allowed just five passed balls in 61 minor-league games behind the plate in 2012. In 10 games this April, Leon has already made an error and allowed 3 passed balls. Base-stealers have also swiped 11 bags in 13 attempts off of him–an 85% success rate.
Other Notable Performances
Brian Goodwin: The Nationals second-best prospect to Anthony Rendon in my book, Goodwin is off to a solid start with the Harrisburg Senators. He’s batting .255/.333/.392, but before his 0-4 performance on Monday night, he was third on the team with a .784 OPS. He is also 12 for his last 37 (.316 batting average), and has reached base 16 times in his last 9 games (.341 OBP) as the lineup’s lead-off man.
It’s good to see Goodwin off to a strong start in double-A. Last year was his first in professional baseball, and he dominated the South Atlantic League, posting a .324/.438/.542 line in 58 games. But after he was promoted to the Eastern League as a 21-year-old last summer, he slumped a little bit. He recovered with a strong finish to the season and then got it together in the Arizona Fall League, where he ended up making the AFL Rising Stars team. Now that he’s back in double-A and performing well, against pitchers often four and five years older than he is no less, it gives him the foundation for another strong performance and another step closer to Washington.
Steven Souza: Selected by the Nationals 100th overall back in 2007, Souza has always had blue-chip tools. He’s long and strong, with a big arm, viscious bat-speed, and impressive speed for his size. The start to his pro career was ugly though, failing to eclipse a .650 OPS or a .243 batting average in his first three seasons, and playing horrific defense at third base. Making things worse, when he did finally start performing in 2010, he was promptly suspended 50 games that summer for PED use.
Souza overcame the early-career adversity, and raked in 2012–posting a sexy .297/.366/.572 line with 23 homers and 48 extra-base hits in 97 games between low and high-A. After a strong (but brief) showing in big-league camp this spring, he has proceeded to do what he proved so good at last year: beat-up on opposing pitchers. Through April’s first nine contests, he was leading the Senators with a .370 batting average, and his .528 on-base percentage and .667 slugging percentage both rank third in the entire system.
Souza was also playing a nice right field, with a couple of assists to his name already in 2013. Unfortunately however, he was placed on the disabled list yesterday after feeling some tenderness in his shoulder during batting practice. After starting the game against Altoona on Sunday, he left in the fourth innings.
Eury Perez: The fastest player in the Nationals organization and one of the elite burners in the minors, Eury Perez is on the verge of a Major-League job. The little speedster hit .314/.344/.361, stole 51 bases in 66 attempts and played elite-level outfield defense last year between Harrisburg and Syracuse.
Perez made his MLB debut last September, going a perfect 3-3 in base-stealing attempts as a pinch-runner. He then performed well in the World Baseball Classic, playing for the tournament champion Dominican Republic, and seemed to be on the brink of a call-up after he posted a .348 batting average in spring training. The front office decided to start him in triple-A however, and instead keep Chad Tracy on the MLB roster to start the season. But, Eury’s hot April and consistently eye-popping base-stealing and defensive play puts him high-up on Rizzo’s list for a promotion when there’s an injury or some persistent struggles in Washington.
In 7 games this April, Perez has hit .355/.375/.452 with only 3 strikeouts in 32 plate appearances. He also stole two bases in two attempts. On the down side, he was placed on the 7-day disabled list on April 14th, so his hot streak might be cooled a bit when he returns. Luckily though, the injury hasn’t been reported as anything other than minor.
Dixon Anderson: Drafted in the 9th round out of UC Berkley in 2011, Dixon Anderson is shaping-up to be a nice relief prospect. The right-hander has a hard 90-94 MPH sinker, a downer curve and a deceptive delivery. His mechanics make it difficult for opposing batters to get comfortable in the box, as he varies his timing from pitch to pitch.
The Nats have him in Hagerstown’s starting rotation right now, and he has been dominant early. Through 17.2 innings and three starts, he has allowed only 11 hits and one walk while striking out 18 batters–the most in the organization as of 4/16. He whiffed a career-high 9 batters over 6.2 innings against the Lakewood Blue Claws in his last start, and his fastball sat 92-94 throughout the game.
Robert Ray: A highly-touted, over-slot signing from the 2010 Draft, Robert Ray followed a strong professional debut in 2011 with a long, painful 2012 campaign in the Carolina League. It seemed like nothing was going right for Ray last season, as the lefty’s fastball velocity leveled-off in the high 80’s rather than continuing to climb, and his off-speed command disappeared as he lost confidence in his stuff. In 105.2 innings pitched, he allowed a horrific 122 hits and 49 free passes last year, as well as 14 home runs en route to a 6.56 ERA.
Through two strong starts this year though, Ray looks much fresher and smoother early-on. His change-up is back to it’s pre-2012 form, floating past the awkward swings of right-handers. His slurve has some bite and he’s keeping his fastball low and on the black while touching 92 mph. He now has 12 strikeouts in eleven innings pitched, and he has yielded only 2 walks and 8 hits. Of course, he still has plenty of room for improvement, and he’s still running a lot of deep counts right now. But the strong start is definitely encouraging.
A.J. Cole: Cole was looking like a future ace at times during his early pro career with the Nationals. But after he was shipped-off to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade last year, his stock fell somewhat. Cole got wrecked in the California League’s bone-dry air and ball-launching/low-gravity atmosphere in 2012. He gave up 60 hits and 7 homers 38 innings to begin last season, before the A’s demoted him to the Midwest League’s Burlington Bees. He pitched very well there, but after the A’s had watched him get beaten to a pulp in high-A ball, they were happy to send him back to Washington in the deal that put Mike Morse in Seattle.
Through 2 starts and 11.1 innings this season, Cole has been fairly mediocre. He has struck-out ten batters but has also allowed 13 hits and 15 total baserunners. Furthermore, while his fastball velocity continues to sit in the 92-94 MPH range, and he’s commanding his curveball and changeup well, opposing hitters are having little trouble finding the barrel. This isn’t an aberration due to sample size. It’s actually a career-long trend for Cole. Just as in past seasons, hitters are lofting ball after ball against him. Carolina League batters are putting one flyball in play for every groundball so far this season, which isn’t so hot for a top prospect when the minors’ average hovers around 1.5 G/F. And, his outs come almost three times more often via air than off the dirt (MiLB average is about 1.2/1).
Cole’s early performance seems inconclusive. The numbers are nice, but a bit suspect. At the least, he doesn’t look a whole lot different than he did during his mediocre 2012 campaign. His stuff is clearly plus for his age and level, but he isn’t filling-out very well, and his frame appears relatively frail next to many of the other Nats’ pitching prospects. He’s also giving up way to many flyballs for a right-hander with plus velocity, and polished control over off-speed stuff. And while he’s not giving up a ton of round-trippers and gappers, the Carolina League’s thick air can be very forgiving on fly-ball-prone pitchers.