July 29, 2014

Washington Nationals Minor League Update for the Week of 4/21/13

Welcome back to District Sports Page’s weekly Minor League Update. Throughout the regular season we will continue to post up-to-date stats and brief scouting reports on the hottest and coldest prospects in the Nationals’ minor league system. We also will track the progress of top-rated players, and give injury and suspension updates.

So far this season, the Nationals’ minor league system has continued to be one of the most productive and exciting in pro baseball. Flashy young stars like Brian Goodwin and Anthony Rendon are off to loud starts, while an arms race of young pitchers has torn-through opposing lineups, resulting in heaps of strikeouts.

Things got even more interesting on Saturday though. The Nationals announced that they had promoted Rendon, who is widely considered one of the premier prospects in minors, to Washington to make his highly anticipated MLB debut. While the former  Dick Howser Award winner was originally slated to spend at least the first few months of the regular season in the minors at double-A Harrisburg, Ryan Zimmerman’s recent injury and Rendon’s hot-hitting apparently forced the front office’s hand. Regardless, this is yet another exciting development in a system full of exciting developments. Rendon follows a long line of homegrown stars on the Nats big-league roster, graduating after the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen, Bryce Harper and others.

Though Rendon’s promotion has grabbed the attention of the Nats faithful, the club has plenty of other thrilling minor-league storylines. Here are a few of them–hot off the presses:

Hot Streaks

Taylor Hill

Last 10 Games: 2 GS, 13 IP, 0.69 ERA, 0.461 WHIP, 13 K

The Nationals have some prospects off to hot starts this season, but none of their minor league arms have been as dominant has Taylor Hill has been over his past two starts. Since stepping on to the mound on April 9th against the Salem Red Sox for his first start of 2013, Hill has dominated opposing hitters, and has managed to improve with each of his starts. He yielded only two runs in five innings against Salem in his season debut, and then held them to one run and four hits through six innings on April 15th. Then in his Saturday start, he did even better. In the first game of Saturday’s double-header, Hill tossed a seven-inning, complete-game shut-out against the Carolina League’s top team–the Frederick Keys. He whiffed seven batters without walking anyone, and if it wasn’t for Connor Narron’s single in the fifth frame, he would’ve made history with a perfect game.

After yesterday’s one-hitter, Hill is now 3-0 in his three starts, with a 1.42 ERA and an 8/1 K/BB ratio. He leads Washington’s system in wins, and he is second to Robbie Ray on the P-Nats with 16 K’s. He also paces the Carolina League with 19 innings pitched, and he ranks second with a 0.79 WHIP, and fifth in ERA.

Drafted in the sixth-round of he 2011 Draft by the Nationals, Hill has the frame of a power pitcher but the repertoire and feel of a finesse guy. At Vanderbilt, he established himself as one of the most reliable starters in the NCAA while pitching alongside future top draft picks Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, Sam Selman, Jack Armstrong and Navery Moore. And, he helped lead the Commodores to an SEC Championship.

Standing at a solid 6’4″, Hill spots his heavy 88-92 mph fastball to both sides of the plate with extraordinary ease, and jams lefties with a hard cutter. He has been pitching more aggressively this season, and appears to have started relying on his heater more than he did last year. What makes him a strong prospect is his command though, which is top-notch for his age. He maintains his velocity and throws strikes in to the late innings of his starts, and can also spot multiple off-speed pitches. The best of them are his low 80′s slider and fading changeup, and he throws both for strikes, with solid movement. He’s probably not a future starter in the MLB, but his ability to command his fastball, change speeds and repeat his delivery gives him the opportunity to follow guys like Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard in to a successful bullpen career.

Nathan Karns

Last 10 Games: 2 GS, 1 W, 12 IP, 0.75 ERA, 0.58 WHIP,  21 K

A level-up from the Potomac Nationals, Nathan Karns nearly matched Taylor Hill’s one-hit performance with a gem of his own on Saturday. Taking the mound for the Harrisburg Senators (double-A), Karns faced-off against the Altoona Curve  in his third start of the young season. Leading up to that point, Nate had pitched two very different starts to open April–allowing 7 runs in his 3.2-inning debut, and then shutting out the Curve through five innings on April 13th. Considering this is the twenty-five-year-old’s first taste of double-A, and Major-League veteran Francisco Liriano was taking the mound for the Curve, it was hard to know what expect from Karns.

Karns looked shaky in the game’s first inning, allowing back-to-back two-out doubles to Matt Curry and Andrew Lambo. But then he got it going, yielding only one more baserunner–via a walk–the rest of the game. In the seven-inning contest, Karns struck-out 13 of the 20 remaining batters he faced, and retired 19 of them total. If you don’t fully realize how filthy that pitching performance is, then go ahead and read the previous sentence one more time. Absolutely untouchable, he ended up firing a complete-game two-hitter, allowing only that one earned run from the first inning while striking-out a career-high 13 batters

After getting lit-up in his season debut and his first taste of double-A, Karns has allowed just five hits and seven total baserunners in his last two starts. In that fifteen-inning span, he has punched-out an outstanding 21 batters, giving him 24 for the season. That total ranks him fourth in the Eastern League, but second among starters who haven’t made their fourth start yet.

A labrum-surgery survivor, Karns has looked better and better since returning to the mound in June, 2011. After establishing himself as a legitimate top prospect last year, Karns appears ready to take another step forward this season as the organization loosens the reigns on him a bit. His fastball is sitting firmly in the 91-94 mph range right now, and his power-curve has quickly developed in to a back-breaker. His changeup has taken a backseat to his two-pitch mix, but that’s okay when he shows he can pitch so efficiently. If he can continue to spot his heater in the lower-half of the strike-zone and and he repeats his newly simplified mechanics, he has the opportunity to earn some quick promotions moving forward. Ultimately, he could be a very solid mid-rotation starter or a lights-out late-inning reliever.

Robert Ray

Last 10 Games: 2 GS, 12 IP, 1.50 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 14 K

This is the second straight week that Ray has been written-up in a Minor League Update, and he continues to be on the right side of the page. After tossing a six-inning gem against the P-Nats’ Carolina League rival Frederick Keys on Sunday afternoon, Ray sits atop both the Nationals’ minor league system and the Carolina League with 26 strikeouts and 23 innings pitched. He has also held opposing lineup’s to a .191 batting average, which ranks third among Nats arms in the minors.

The Nationals drafted Ray in the 12th round of the 2010 Draft and signed him to a well-over-slot $800k bonus. Coming off a spectacular senior season at Brentwood High School, when he threw three no-hitters, he was immediately facing high expectations in the pro’s. The southpaw responded well and put together a strong season in 2011, while pitching for the Hagerstown Suns. But, he then seemingly took a big step back when he struggled mightily through his assignment to the Carolina League last year. Opposing hitters knocked him around to the tune of 122 hits and 171 baserunners in 105.2 innings, and his command and mechanics deteriorated.

So, it’s good to see Ray getting off to a strong start this April, especially after returning to Potomac for a second go-round. With 10 walks issued in 23 innings, he is still running a lot of deep counts. But considering he only turned 21 last October, the return of his two-seamer’s movement and velocity is a very good sign. He’s no longer trying to over-throw, and appears content relying on his command to miss bats. And while he might not live up to his pre-draft billing as the lefty with 94 mph heat, he could carve out a very nice career in line with Ted Lilly or Jason Vargas. His heavy fastball has been very effective in the 88-90 range so far this year, and he has done a fine job of working the edges of the zone. If he can make further improvements with his changeup and already-solid slider, he could be a very strong three-pitch lefty.

Chris Marrero

Last 10 Games: .353/.421/.765

After drafting Marrero out of high school with the 15th overall pick of the ’06 Draft, then Nationals’ general manager Jim Bowden and team president Stan Kasten inked him to a $1.625 million signing bonus. Believing he was a future All-Star slugger, they put him on the fast track and kicked off his pro career immediately by sending him to short-season ball that summer. Bowden told the media at the time that he believed Marrero was a top-10 draft talent and could get to the MLB quickly.

Seven years later, Marrero is still toiling away in the minors. The former blue-chip high school third baseman with a big arm and big power is now considered a first-base-only guy. And considering the Nationals have Adam LaRoche manning the position in the MLB, and the likes of Tyler Moore, Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole ahead of him at the position on Rizzo’s organizational depth chart, he’s essentially blocked. But, he’s still only 24 years old, and if he hits like he did in 2011–when he was on track for a big league bench job before he tore his hamstring–he could still make good on his once phenomenal promise.

After a so-so spring training performance, Marrero opened the season on a cold streak, managing just two hits in his first 16 at bats with triple-A Syracuse. In the last two weeks though, he has completely turned it around. He has 8 hits in his last fifteen at bats, spanning four games, and has gone yard three times. After going two-for-four on Sunday against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders, he’s now batting a monster .379/.439/.784 since April 9th, when he collected his first two extra-base hits of the season.

Marrero leads all Nationals farmhands in slugging with a .714 mark, and RBI (15). He’s also tied with P-Nats’ Jason Martinson for tops in the system with 5 homeruns.

An Icy April

Caleb Ramsey

Last 10 Games: .161/.250/.161

Ramsey was undrafted out of high school, but proved himself as a quality draft prospect during his career playing for the Houston Cougars. In four seasons he totalled a .320 batting average and a very impressive .394 on-base percentage over 854 plate appearances. However, despite his broad, football player’s 6’3″ frame, he only hit 7 home runs in college and didn’t get selected until the 11th round of the ’11 MLB Draft.

Ramsey made a strong debut in full-season ball last year while playing for the Hagerstown Suns. He hit .294/.352/.420, and ranked among the South Atlantic League top-ten in triples, hits and runs scored by season’s end. This April, he earned an assignment to the Potomac Nationals in High-A to open 2013.

Ramsey ran out of the gate to begin April, collecting 6 hits, belting two home runs and driving in 7 RBI in his first four games. Since then though, his bat has gone ice-cold. He has just five hits–none going for extra bases–and a .162 batting average over his last ten games heading in to Monday. On the bright side, he still is walking at a decent clip and avoiding strikeouts, so he should be able to work out of his slump relatively soon.

 

Destin Hood

Last 10 Games: .125/.263/.188

No doubt about it, Destin Hood is a tremendous athlete. In high school, he took home honors as Alabama’s 2008 5A Player of the Year on the baseball diamond, and was rated as a four-star football recruit by Rivals.com.  When the Nationals drafted him in the second round of the 2010 draft, they believed he was a top-20 talent, and that even if he was relatively raw, his pure athletic ability would eventual lead to a very productive Major League career.

So far, Hood has largely made good on his promise. After putting together a strong early pro career, he broke out in 2011 with a .276/.364/.445 batting line as a twenty-one-year-old in the Carolina League. He set career highs in multiple categories including home runs (13), extra-base hits (47) and RBI (83), and he seemed to be picking up momentum. Last year though, Hood’s rise came to a screeching halt upon his promotion to the Harrisburg Senators. After nagging injuries cooled his hitting out of the gate,  he struggled to hit the more advanced double-A pitching throughout the early-summer. He picked it up a little bit at the midway point, but finished the season with a disappointing .242/.301/.339 triple-slash line.

Hood’s trying 2012 campaign in Harrisburg gave him a lot of reasons to start off his 2013 season strong–especially after the Nats player development team had him repeat the assignment to double-A. But so far, it has only been more of the same for the young outfielder. Through 17 games he is batting a lowly .220/.313/.305 and his batting average is worst among Harrisburg’s regulars. His recent production has absolutely bottomed-out, and he has more than twice as many strikeouts (9) as he has hits (4) over his last ten games–leading to a horrid .125 batting average and a .188 slugging over 32 at bats.

 

 

Other Notable Performances

Anthony Rendon: Rendon’s torrid hitting in Nationals’ big league camp suggested he was well-prepared to make his Major League debut sometime this season. Then, the former top pick’s performance with the Harrisburg Senators in April even furthered his case. Through 65 plate appearances, he was hitting .292 with 6 extra-base hits and a .500 slugging percentage. His fourteen walks was also the best total in the Eastern League heading in to Sunday, and he was getting on base at a superb .462 clip.

Excited about his talent, the Nationals were obviously preparing to promote Rendon to the big club sometime this season. They probably didn’t plan for his debut to be so early in the season however. On Saturday, after placing Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day disabled list, the team promoted Rendon to the active roster. He arrived in New York on Sunday morning and suited up for the Nats’ afternoon contest against the Mets. Starting his first game in the show, but hit the ball hard a couple of times and also made a pair of slick defensive plays at third base.

Brett Mooneyham: Through three starts, Brett Mooneyham, the Nationals’ third-round pick in the last June’s draft, has allowed only one run and four hits over 14.1 innings pitched. He is tops in the organization in ERA (0.62) and opponents’ batting average (.089 BAA), and his 0.907 WHIP ranks fifth. In the midst of a no-hitter during his last start on April 17th, unfortunately Mooneyham left the game in the fifth inning due to “arm discomfort” and  was subsequently placed on the 7-day disabled list.

Taylor Jordan: After going winless despite two quality starts to open the season, Jordan earned his first win on April 17th against the Salem Red Sox. The hard-throwing righty tossed seven shut-out innings, allowing six hits while striking out five. His ERA now sits at 0.95 on the season, which is second in the entire organization, and he’s whiffed 15 batters while issuing only three free passes.

The Nationals took Jordan out of Brevard Community College with the first pick of the ninth round back in 2009, and they signed him to a bargain-basement $99k bonus. The lanky right-hander has always shown impressive stuff, and after a solid couple of seasons in rookie and short-season ball, he appeared to have turned a corner in 2011. He posted a 2.48 ERA through 17 starts in the Sally League, and earned All-Star honors. Unfortunately though, he went down with elbow pain in July and subsequently had Tommy John surgery a couple of weeks later. He didn’t return to the mound for regular-season action until mid-way through last summer, but when he did, his arm was clearly re-invigorated.

Since returning from surgery, Jordan has looked better from ever, and is now pitching like a top-prospect. His hard, running fastball is sitting consistently in the low 90′s and scraping 95-96 mph often. A solid pitch during his brief Juco career, his slider is now flat-out nasty at times, and he’s getting plenty of whiffs and handle-breaking groundballs with the one-two punch. A strong athlete, his control continues to be solid and he’s able to fight through swings with his plus stuff. Unfortunately though, his violent arm-action will always make him prone to injury, so his future probably resides in the bullpen.

Brian Goodwin: Goodwin is one of my favorite prospects–not only for his five-tool talent and sweet left-handed swing, but also for his playing style. To go with star-level athletic ability, he approaches the game with the intensity and work-ethic of a ten-year Major-League veteran. The combination has afforded him a lot of success to begin his pro career, and his coaches are confident that he has a very bright future.

Drafted in the supplemental round in June 2011, Goodwin put together a very strong debut season last year despite aggressive assignments. He tore apart South Atlantic League for the first-half of the season, batting .324/.438/.542 in 58 games. After the Nats promoted him to double-A he did slump a bit, but managed to finish the season on a strong note and posted a very impressive .280/.384/.469 combined line. He did more good work in the AFL, and even went 2-4, and crushed a homerun off of Kyle Gibson in the AFL Rising Stars Game.

After the Nationals returned him to Harrisburg to open 2013, Goodwin has gotten off to a strong start. He’s hitting .254/.342/.433, and he leads the Eastern League with three triples. Continuing where he left off in the AFL, he’s hitting with a lot of power, and has belted seven extra-base hits already. On the base-paths he’s using his blazing wheels to also swiped four bases in five attempts.

One of the more important improvements that Goodwin needs to make in order to reach his full potential as a superstar center fielder, is his ability to hit left-handed pitching. Blessed with premium hand-eye coordination, he has developed a very fluid swing over the past off-seasons, and he generates plus bat-speed. So, combining his hitting skills with his very polished approach at the plate continues to lead to nice batting lines. However, he has shown a pretty substantial platoon so far in his career. Last year, he posted an .884 OPS vs right-handers with a .414 on-base percentage, but against lefties, he hit a more modest .246/.313/.438 (.751 OPS). He also struck-out 9% more often against them, and walked half as often.

So far this season, Goodwin has continued to struggle making contact against left-handed pitchers and timing their breaking stuff. Once again, he is having little trouble hitting the ball hard while facing righties, posting a .269/.356/.462 against them and getting the ball off the ground almost 75% of the time. When he faces southpaws though, his triple-slash line plummets to a meager .200/.294/.333 and he’s either struck-out or grounded-out two-thirds of his plate appearances against them. Of course, a platoon split is nothing too alarming for a second-year pro player. But for Goodwin to become the premium hitter he has the opportunity to be, he’ll still need to close that gap.

If you would like to participate in our monthly Nationals Prospects Chat, send all of your prospect-related questions to Ryan Kelley (rskelley@baseballnewshound.com), or contact him via Twitter @BBNewsHound.

Comments

  1. A couple of quick notes on Ray and Hill’s outings this weekend…

    One of the things I noticed yesterday with Ray is that he seemed to be working at a lower velocity in order to get better command. Yes, he walked four, but unlike last year, that seemed to be a byproduct of not giving in (i.e. throwing his pitch with a base open).

    Perhaps it was the “fading change,” but Hill’s breaking pitch was the best I’d seen him thus far in a handful of outings. Mostly, though, it was a relief to see him not serve up single after single and hope that the next groundball will find a fielder.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Luke, thanks for the input. I’ll miss not being able to head out to the minor league parks once in a while this summer since we’re in Idaho now.

      • Not even to Spokane? That’s a shame.

        • Dave Nichols says:

          Oh, we’ll make it to Spokane to see the Indians a few times, I bet. We’ll just miss Potomac, Hagerstown and Harrisburg. Been treated very kindly at all three parks the last few years.

    • Hey Luke, I agree. Taylor Hill is a guy that needs toughen up an learn to pitch aggressively. Last year, he got knocked around a bit, but in his defense, it was his first full season in the pro’s. He has very average velocity, but his fastball command is above-average and he throws quality strikes out of the stretch. That alone isn’t all that common in A-ball. At Vandy, he had little trouble missing metal bats while facing very stiff competition. And for much of his career, he out-pitched blue-chip guys like Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin. A lot of his success was due to the fact that he throws multiple off-speed pitches for strikes, and amateur hitters tend to struggle with that kind of thing. He was very good at adding/subtracting from his curve, and getting hitters out in front with his splitter/change.

      When I saw Hill pitch on April 9th, he wasn’t doing a whole lot of that, but he was cutting his heater on the hands of Salem’s left-handed hitters, jamming Cecchini, de la Cruz and Swihart (hitting from the left-side) pretty well. His change and curve both looked good, and he was getting more swing-throughs than I had expected for a guy that looked so mediocre last year.

      But, I don’t think Hill has a whole lot of upside as a starter, even though he has nice command, clean mechanics and a deep repertoire. I do think though, that he could follow Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard in to the bullpen and be a very effective multi-inning reliever if he really puts it together.

      As far as Ray goes, the book is still out on him. As I said in my scouting report on him this spring, I never believed that he was going to be a guy that throws 94 MPH regularly–because that rarely happens when a prospect barely touches 90 in high school showcases as a senior. But, I don’t think he needs to either. He has very simple mechanics, and he has little trouble throwing his fastball to both sides of the plate. His slider has always been strong, and his changeup is a good third pitch. That’s enough for a lefty to be a good prospect, and I think he has some Tommy Milone in him if he gets it together.

      But, what has struck me about Ray is that he continues to go to a lot of deep counts, which is never a good sign for a top prospect facing A-ball hitters. Especially a southpaw. He had that problem last year–and yes sometimes you do need to give in with nobody on–but the Nationals don’t believe he is a guy that should be giving in very much. They don’t teaching pitching to contact, but they also don’t teach their top arms to pitch around hitters so early. Don’t forget, he is a lefty that was billed to be one of the top high school arms in the country when he was drafted. He tossed three no-hitters as a senior and created a lot of buzz at the PG Nationals Showcase when his fastball suddenly jumped to 92-93 mph.

      When I saw him pitch in August of 2011, Ray simply wasn’t having that problem. He had his fair share of walks, but he was also dispatching hitters with little trouble. Right now, he’s getting a of strikeouts, but he’s turning in to nibbler. If he develops Milone’s kind of command and feel (and he has the opportunity to pitch in forgiving parks), then that’s fine. Otherwise, you’ll have a guy that can’t get out of the third inning at higher levels.

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