The Washington Nationals are a tough team to generate a top prospect list for. The Nats have been prolific drafters in recent years, and haven’t shied away from promoting their top youngsters to the big league roster. The result is a minors system which still has some high-end talent, but lacks depth.
1. Lucas Giolito – RHP
The Nationals took a shot on high schooler Lucas Giolito in the 2012 draft, grabbing Giolito with the 16th overall pick in spite of concerns surrounding elbow issues he suffered in high school. Naturally, in his professional debut, Giolito blew out his pitching arm, requiring Tommy John surgery, and causing him to postpone his professional career by 18 months. However, Giolito has recovered from TJS and sits atop the Nationals farm system.
Giolito is a big power pitcher, checking in at 6’6″ and weighing around 250 lbs, and he’s got skills that make scouts drool. He’s got a plus plus rated fastball that consistently tops out at 100 mph. He pairs that with a second plus pitch, a hard curve which generates swinging strikes. He’s also been working in a changeup which is at least average. In his pro debut last year, he notched around a strikeout per inning while allowing few walks between rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League and short-season class-A Auburn. He projects as a true #1 ace starter. The only question marks remaining are whether he can develop his endurance to live up to the role, and whether his surgically repaired elbow will hold up.
The best news? The kid is still only 19 years old. While the Nationals will likely take their time with this one, I can envision a scenario where he gets a brief cup of coffee at the end of 2014. Look for a full fledged MLB debut in 2015.
2. AJ Cole – RHP
Another top-tier pitching prospect, this is Cole’s second stint in the Nats farm system. The Nationals traded Cole to the Oakland A’s in the Gio Gonzalez deal, only to trade back for the talented young pitcher in a three team deal which sent Michael Morse to Seattle. Cole’s a tall, lanky righty, standing 6’4″ but only weighing in at 181 lbs. Still only 22, he’s got a plus fastball which can reach 97 m.p.h. and has good late action. He pairs the fastball with a curve and changeup, both of which are strong and developing pitches.
Cole had an outstanding performance at AA Harrisburg last year, posting a 2.20 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 49 Ks in 45 IP. Look for this 22 year-old to make his MLB debut in 2015 as well, but don’t be surprised if he gets called-up in lieu of Giolito toward the end of 2014.
3. Matt Skole – 3B/1B
Matt Skole is a big-time power hitting prospect to go with the Nationals big-time power pitching arms at the top of the system. Skole was the top-rated prospect in the Nationals system in 2012, but unfortunately suffered a freak elbow injury which limited him to 5 ABs at AA Harrisburg last season. Skole put in a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League and appears to be 100% recovered heading into 2014.
Drafted out of Georgia Tech in 2011, Skole has flashed prodigious power at each minor league stop he’s made. At Class A Hagerstown in 2012, Skole posted an eye popping 1.014 OPS and a .289 ISO, while walking in a phenomenal 22% of his plate appearances. He’s also shown the ability to hit for average, batting .290 across all levels in 2011 and .291 across all levels in 2012. However, Skole’s a weak defender with limited range, and his path to the bigs seems blocked with the Nats preparing Ryan Zimmerman for a move to 1B in 2015, with Anthony Rendon sliding back over to his natural 3B position. That being said, Skole’s too talented to keep in the minors if fully healthy, and the 24 year old should get a crack at regular at bats starting in 2015.
4. Michael Taylor – CF
When Denard Span cedes his CF/lead-off role with the Nats, a platoon of athletic youngsters are ready to take his place. I’ve got Taylor slightly ahead of Brian Goodwin, but its really a toss-up between the two 23-year-olds at this point. Taylor was drafted as a SS out of high school, but has since shifted to CF. Taylor is widely regarded as the best defender in the Nationals farm system, giving him a tool which could lead to big league playing time sooner rather than later.
Taylor has fantastic speed skills, stealing 51 bags in 58 attempts in 2013 in his second stint at High-A Potomac. In addition, Taylor started flashing some power as well, hitting 10 HR in 509 ABs and posting a .163 ISO. Given his defense (Matt Williams rates him an 80 defender on the 20-80 scale) and speed, I think Taylor sees CF playing time in DC before Brian Goodwin.
5. Brian Goodwin – CF
If Michael Taylor doesn’t take Denard Span’s spot in CF in the near future, then its likely because Brian Goodwin beat him to the punch. Goodwin is a 5 tool prospect that the Nationals drafted out of the University of North Carolina in the 1st round of 2011. Goodwin has displayed good raw power, plate patience and defensive instincts in CF, but his best tool is likely his speed. He projects to be a 20/20 guy if he puts it all together.
However, Goodwin has struggled at Double-A Harrisburg thus far. Goodwin posted a .252/.346/.407 slash line in 2013, with a slightly above average ISO of .155. Even more troubling, Goodwin only stole 19 bags in 457 ABs, and his SB success rate was poor at 63.3%. Goodwin’s plate patience was excellent, however, with a 13% walk-rate. This bodes well for the future leadoff hitter, who could see a major league call up as soon as late 2014.
6. Sammy Solis – LHP
Another pitching prospect recovering from Tommy John surgery, Solis has the makeup to be a middle-rotation starter in the MLB. Solis missed the entire 2012 season due to TJS, but bounced back well in 2013, leading the Arizona Fall League in strikeouts. The big left-hander stands 6’5″, 250 lbs., has good mechanics and natural movement on his fastball which sits in the 92-94 mph range. He combines the fastball with a plus-plus wipeout curve and a developing changeup.
Solis throws a ton of strikes and has shown the ability to generate Ks everywhere he’s pitched. The big question with Solis is his health and durability. He’s yet to throw a complete game professionally at any level. And at 25, his MLB window is starting to close. Look for the Nats to try him out in the bullpen first, but don’t be surprised if he’s starting games for the big club in 2015. If he can stay healthy, that is.
7. Steven Sousa – OF
Another athletic outfielder in the Nationals system, Souza has flashed excellent power skills in the past couple of seasons in the minors. Souza checks in at 6’4″, 225, and shows excellent bat speed combined with a shortened stroke. He slugged .557 in 273 ABs at AA Harrisburg last summer, posting an excellent .948 OPS. His raw power was definitely on display, posting a .256 ISO and a 48% extra-base hit percentage. Souza posted a similar line in 2012 between single-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac, slugging .576 and .560 respectively and hitting 23 combined home runs. Souza also shows good base-running instincts, stealing 20 bags on 26 opportunities at Harrisburg in 2013. He’s a 20/20 threat in the big leagues who has a big enough arm to play RF.
Character questions have blemished Souza’s minor-league track record. In 2010, he served a 50-game suspension for PEDs. In 2011, he left the Potomac Nationals after an argument with his manager. That being said, Souza has posted two consistently strong years, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this power bat called up to the Nats sometime in 2014, with the opportunity to win a starting corner-outfielder job after Jayson Werth has moved on from the club.
8. Jake Johansen – RHP
Johansen was drafted by the Nationals in the 2nd round in 2013 out of Dallas Baptist. Johansen is a tall, right-handed power pitcher out of Allen, Texas with big time upside. His fastball is a plus-pitch which reaches 96 m.p.h., and he also throws a curveball, slider, and changeup, all of which flash plus potential at times. He was excellent in his professional debut at Low-A Auburn last summer, posting a 1.07 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 9.4 K/9 in 42 innings of work. This 23 year-old has the stuff to be an impact arm at the major league level in the near future.
At 6’6″, 235 lbs, Johansen is another big power pitching prospect, and looks to have a prototypical closer’s frame. However, the Nats plan on building his endurance and developing him as a candidate for the starting rotation. His fantasy value moving forward will be largely dependent on the role that the Nationals steer him toward, but he has the potential to make a big league debut in 2015.
9. Austin Voth – RHP
The 22 year-old Austin Voth was drafted in the 5th round of 2013 out of the University of Washington. Although not as big as some of the Nationals other power-pitching prospects, Voth impressed in his pro debut last season. Voth displayed a good pitch mix with a repeatable delivery, and threw a ton of strikes. He’s got a fastball that sits in the 92-94 m.p.h. range, and complements that with a plus slider and an effective changeup which could develop into a plus pitch in its own right.
Voth was a teammate of Johansen’s at Low-A Auburn, and he was arguably more impressive. Voth posted a 1.49 ERA and 0.83 WHIP, posting a great 12.5 K/9 and miniscule 1.2 BB/9 in 30 innings before being promoted to Hagerstown. He might not bring the same gas to the table as the other Nationals pitching prospects, but his sub-2.0 walk rate has shown a willingness to throw strikes that I think will carry him far. Still only 22, look for Voth to progress to the big club in 2016.
10. Zach Walters – SS
Zach Walters doesn’t look or play like a prototypical shortstop. At 6’2″, 220, Walters has the frame of a corner infielder. He’s also got plenty of pop in his bat, displaying a compact power stroke which has developed into plus power over the past season. Walters hit 29 HR in 487 ABs at AAA Syracuse last season, posting a .517 SLG, .265 ISO, and an eye-popping 54% extra-base hit rate. However, Walters does not display a strong plate-patience profile, posting a miniscule 4% BB-rate. Combined with a below average contact rate (72%) Walters’ ability to hit for average will always be in question.
The 24 year-old Walters has carried his hot bat over into early spring training with the Nationals. Walters has a plus arm, but has below-average range and has been extremely error-prone thus far in his career (31 errors in 104 games at SS for Syracuse last season) Walters has seen time at SS and 3B with the Nationals so far this spring, and is also capable of playing a corner OF spot due to his great arm. He had a brief (8 AB) call-up last September, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him make the big club out of spring training as a utility man.