Thursday, December 10, 2009

TEAM #25 – Washington Nationals

Even with Strasburg in the system, the Nationals’ have one of the weaker groups of prospects

Sorry for the delay in getting the latest team posted. I will try to get #24 and #23 up before Monday. In any case, the Washington Nationals come in at #25. Despite the #25 ranking, things are looking up for the Nationals. Holding the #1 pick in the 2010 draft, one of the top two prospects currently in the game, and potentially seven players with a Top 150 ranking, there is actually strength here. The unfortunate problem is that there isn’t a lot of depth. And it’s that lack of depth that drives this ranking. On the bright side, the Major League roster has a number of younger ‘useful’ Big League arms. While most of the impact bats in the system remain a couple of years away, you can at least point to them. After a year where a number of their more ‘middling’ prospects had down years, the National fans will need to hold out for a couple of more seasons—but help is definitely on the way. One point to mention…as we get further down the list, the number of prospects that we profile should tend to grow, because we are profiling all prospects that rate a grade ‘B-‘ or better. In the Nationals’ case there are seventeen such prospects.

Grade A

1) Stephen Strasburg, RHP -

We have been following Minor League baseball for close to thirty years, and there is one thing we can say with absolute certainty about Strasburg—No player has reached professional baseball with as much hype, as much fanfare, or has been under a bigger microscope than Strasburg. That is likely due to the times within which we live more so than his considerable talent, but it is true nonetheless. Strasburg’s challenge will be in living up to the ‘hype’. To try to place some objective perspective on a professional career with a minimal track record, we will point out three things: 1) Strasburg was the #1 pitcher on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Baseball team that featured Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill of the Athletics—after his Sophomore year in college. That is the same Brett Anderson that posted a 4.04 ERA with a 150:45 K:BB ratio and a 1.28 WHIP in 175 innings as a 21yo Major League rookie this past season; 2) His dominance in his junior year at San Diego State where he went 13-1, with a 1.32 ERA and a 195:19 K:BB ratio in 109 IP was the most dominating performance by a collegiate pitcher since Mark Prior went 15-1, with a 1.69 ERA and a 202:18 K:BB ratio in 139 innings in 2001; 3) He made his professional debut in the AZFL, where he not only produced the League’s Top Performance score, but a score that, in the last four years, has only been eclipsed by Tommy Hanson in 2008. His average fastball speed in the AZFL was 97mph—repeat that was his Average fastball. That’s three pretty good names—Anderson, Prior and Hanson, and Strasburg has more upside than any of them. To try to make this as succinct as possible…He is already one of the Top 50 pitchers in all of professional baseball—perhaps Top 30. He has three pitches that grade out as plus pitches with two of them (his fastball and curve) of all-star caliber. His only downside is that he has had little experience with runners on base in his amateur career and could use some work on that and tightening up his fastball and Change control. He will be in the Nationals’ rotation at some point in 2010, and, if he remains healthy, should rapidly become one of the top pitchers in the game.

2) Derek Norris, C (2009 Performance Scores – Power 79; First Base Rate 77; Discipline 38; Speed 46)

We were one of the few places that had Norris as a Top 100 prospect last year, so Norris’ 2009 performance came as little surprise. Norris was clearly the best hitting prospect in the SAL this season, and the Nationals thought enough of the 20yo to send him to the AZFL this fall. Unfortunately Norris broke his hamate bone while preparing in Instructionals, and now just hopes to be ready for Spring Training. Norris’ offense has never been in question, as he has the potential to hit for plus power with above average contact skills. Offensively, his only negative is a tendency to strike out quite a bit (22% in 2009), but this is partially offset by an excellent walk rate. Norris’ real negatives are in his defense. While he made significant improvements in 2009, he still led the SAL in both errors and passed balls, among catchers. While the Nationals believe Norris can remain at Catcher, it is certainly less than a sure thing. However, our biggest concern is the hamate injury. While Norris may be ready to go by the start of the season, hamate injuries tend to lead to a decrease in power for at least a year. Pedro Alvarez had a similar injury and it took approximately 18 months for him to look like the same hitter. We don’t feel that it is a long-term concern, but certainly one that may lead to some developmental struggles in 2010. Make no mistake, Norris is being targeted as the Nationals’ future backstop. If he can remain behind the plate, he is certainly a high upside player. While he likely has enough bat to play elsewhere on the diamond, a move would significantly dim his outlook.

Grade A -

3) Drew Storen, RP –

We felt that the Nationals’ selection of Storen was based more on cost than talent when they nabbed him with the 10th overall selection last June. We didn’t even have him rated in the Top 50 prior to the draft, as he was a college closer that, while successful, was getting by on a low-90s fastball. While we expected him to be drafted in the first round, we hadn’t seen enough ‘stuff’ from him to project success for him as a Major League closer. We were wrong! After sailing through three Minor League levels by posting a 1.95 ERA, a 0.784 WHIP and a 49:8 K:BB ratio in 37 IP, Storen went to the AZFL, where he was arguably the second or 3rd best arm out there—averaging 95 MPH on his fastball and showing the ability to dial it up a couple of notches from there, with an equally impressive slider. We now have little doubt that Storen will eventually close—likely sometime in 2010.

Grade B+

4) Michael Burgess, RF (2009 Performance Scores – Power 70; First Base Rate 40; Discipline 28; Speed 55)

There has rarely been any question regarding Burgess’ power, however the jury is still very much split on whether or not that Burgess will show enough plate discipline, or hit for enough average to succeed at the next level. While we have the same questions, Burgess played the entire season as a 20yo in Hi-A, posted a .735 OPS, and cut down his Krate, in the second half of the season from 27% down to 23%. This provides us with an outlook that projects continued improvement in 2010, and an upside of an eventual power hitting Major League RF. Look for Burgess to spend 2010 in AA.

5) Chris Marrero, 1B (2009 Performance Scores – Power 60; First Base Rate 55; Discipline 40; Speed 33)

Marrero is an excellent example of how we differ from the traditional scouting community, but often arrive at the same conclusions. We have heard repeatedly about Marrero’s ‘bucket-step’ on his swing that will limit his ability to hit breaking balls at the upper levels. While we don’t particularly care about the specific mechanics that are limiting Marrero, we too are already worried about a player that is defensively limited to first base, that doesn’t necessarily project to produce enough offensively to become a Major League first basemen. The performance scores have never repeated his 2007 season, and while there is no denying his power upside, there is also no denying that he hasn’t shown the ability to produce enough total offense to forecast success at his position. If you look at his track record, there is enough to believe he can hit at the Major League level, but unless he is able to play a corner OF, his upside appears to be that of a reserve or platoon player. His AZFL season was encouraging, but Marrero will have to make a major upward move in AA in 2010 to alter our current perspective.

6) Ian Desmond, SS (2009 Performance Scores – Power 53; First Base Rate 75; Discipline 50; Speed 71)

The 23yo middle infielder had a breakout season in 2009, posting an .878 OPS between two Minor League stops, and then essentially duplicating it in 82 Major League At Bats. It has always been questions about his bat that had held back projections for Desmond. If he can prove 2009 was no fluke, the Nationals have found a middle infielder that has a plus arm, and enough range to stick at SS. If he offensively returns to previous form then we are looking at a capable utility infielder. In either case the floor is reasonably high. Look for him to start 2010 back in AAA, but he should make the Nationals’ roster at some point next season.

7) Danny Espinosa, SS (2009 Performance Scores – Power 73; First Base Rate 62; Discipline 30; Speed 77)

After the Nationals drafted Espinosa in the third round of the 2008 draft, he went on to post a solid, yet power lacking debut. Espinosa was skipped to Hi-A this past season and found his power. While he played in Hi-A as a 22yo, somewhat diminishing his performance, his AZFL showing may have been even better. The unfortunate part for us, is that when we think of Espinosa, we can’t help but get flashbacks of Bobby Crosby coming through the minors. This is an advanced collegiate player, putting up good numbers against younger competition. Yes, the floor on a prospect like this is high, but we aren’t convinced that there is much of a ceiling. Defensively he profiles as solid defender at either middle infield position. Offensively, we would like to see significant improvement in his 24% Krate. AA should provide a good test for him in 2010, and then we’ll have a better idea as to where exactly he fits.

Grade B

8) Eury Perez, CF (2009 Performance Scores – Power 46; First Base Rate 79; Discipline 76; Speed 71)

Perez followed up a 2008, where he finished with the 5th best Performance Score in the DSL, with the 7th best Performance score in the GCL in 2009. An athletically gifted CF, with plus skills at both speed and defense, Perez showed tremendous plate discipline and contact skills in 2009. While there isn’t a lot of power here, we could see him eventually developing 15 HRs per season ability. The Nationals are likely to challenge him with a full-season assignment in 2010, with the hope of developing him into a Major League top of the order hitter.

Grade B -

9) Jeff Kobernus, 2B

While we had Kobernus, with a Top 30 Performance score for his work at California this spring, we were somewhat surprised when the Nationals selected him in the second round of June’s draft. Kobernus is an advanced college hitter, who shows solid skills in all facets of the game. Our problem with him is that we don’t see any exceptional skill, and can’t help but feel that he is another of the high-floor, low-ceiling types. Kobernus struggled in a brief NYP debut last season before ending his season early with a knee injury. We don’t expect any lasting effects and should see Kobernus begin the year in full-season A-ball. While he could move through the system rapidly, we don’t see him as much more than former Nationals’ infielders Jamey Carroll or Brendan Harris.

10) J.P. Ramirez, OF (2009 Performance Scores – Power 59; First Base Rate 31; Discipline 72; Speed 39)

We had Ramirez as a 3rd or 4th round talent entering the 2008 draft. He slid to the Nationals in the 15th round because of his strong college commitment. The Nationals proceeded to give him first round money and eventually signed him away. While there are still plenty of things to like about Ramirez—namely potentially above average power and advanced plate discipline, his 2009 season also raised some significant questions. Defensively, Ramirez lacks the arm strength or foot speed to play anywhere except LF or 1B. At 5’10, 185lbs, he isn’t a prototypical first baseman. What that means is that his bat is going to have to carry him. While we like his bat, we aren’t certain that it is solid enough to make him a Major League regular at those positions. Ramirez will likely start 2010 in full season A-ball, and we will have to see him take a big step forward in 2010, or he is likely to plummet down this list.

11) Aaron Thompson, LHP (2009 – Dominance 41; Stamina 71; HRrate 48; Control 56)

We have rooted for Thompson since the Marlins made him a first round selection in the 2005 draft. Unfortunately, Thompson’s raw ‘stuff’ leads to the stereotypical ‘crafty’ left-hander designation. We still believe that Thompson, with his 90MPH fastball, has enough ‘stuff’ to fill-in the back of a Big League rotation. His make-up is first rate, and his pitching intellect is a plus. But the time is running out on Thompson. 2010 becomes a pivotal year, as while only 23yo, he needs to demonstrate the ability to dominate hitters. We have little doubt that Thompson will eventually be on a Major League roster, only to what degree he will have an impact.

12) Juan Jaime, RP (2009 – Dominance 80; Stamina 60; HRrate 50; Control 22)

You can consider Jaime to be the anti-Thompson, as he dominates hitters with a mid-90s fastball, but his secondary offerings are weak and he has significant control issues (he has walked nearly 6 batters per 9 IP over the last two seasons). While Jaime has a higher upside than Thompson, they are only six months apart in age, and Jaime trails him by two levels. Expect the Nationals to start Jaime out as a starter in Hi-A in 2010. At this time, we would be hard pressed to envision enough improvement on his secondary offerings to be much more than a middle reliever at the Major League level.

13) Paul Demny, RHP (2009 – Dominance 62; Stamina 63; HRrate 48; Control 39)

Forget about the 3-11 record or the 5.14 ERA last season and focus on two numbers…19 and 110. 19 is the age Demny was as he threw 105 Innings in the SAL last season. 110 is the number of strikeouts he had in those 105 IP. Demny, a 6th round pick in 2008, has a big arm that flings up a low-to-mid 90s fastball. Our fear is that his relatively weak secondary offerings, and questionable command, will eventually lead to a bull pen role. Demny is young and has projectable size. IF, he improves his command, he has the potential to be a mid-rotation innings eater. Otherwise, he has a strong probability to make it as a middle reliever.

14) Hendry Jimenez, 2B (2009 – Power 48; First Base Rate 79; Discipline 70; Speed 76)

Let me preface this by saying that 5’10”, 160lb, secondbasemen, playing in rookie ball, with limited power, don’t typically rate very high on prospect lists. But, due to the lack of strength in the Nationals’ system, that is where we find Jimenez. Jimenez has solid contact skills, advanced plate discipline skills, and plus Speed. He followed up a 17th best Performance score in the DSL in 2008, with the 14th best score in the GCL this past season. While we admittedly find it difficult to envision Jimenez’s profile succeeding through five more professional levels, there is enough to like here to rate in front of some more high profile prospects.

15) Marcos Frias, RHP (2009 – Dominance 50; Stamina 68; HRrate 49; Control 64)

Much like Jimenez above, it’s hard to envision Major League success for right-handed pitchers with Hi-80s fastballs. Still, as a 20yo, Frias demonstrated above average, across-the-board, Performance skills in the SAL in 2009. Frias uses a four-pitch repertoire, where his secondary stuff is actually better than his fastball. He commands all of his pitches well, and showed an advanced feel at a relatively young age. While this isn’t a profile that has a very high upside, we will be watching how well his numbers hold up in Hi-A in 2010.

16) Destin Hood, OF (2009 Performance Scores – Power 69; First Base Rate 45; Discipline 33; Speed 43)

Hood was a raw, athletic, two-sport, player when they drafted him in the 2nd round of 2008 and gave him first round money. His tool set is the kind that makes scouts drool. Unfortunately, they have yet to really manifest themselves into baseball production. Don’t get us wrong, there is tremendous athleticism, plus power potential, with plus speed here. Hood just hasn’t learned how to reach first base enough, fanning 25% of the time in the process. The Nationals will likely want to send the 20yo to full season A-ball this spring. Based on what he has shown this far, this would be a questionable move. While we like the upside with Hood, we are going to have to see more before we get excited.

17) Justin Maxwell, CF (2009 Performance Scores – Power 54; First Base Rate 65; Discipline 20; Speed 80)

Despite a fine showing in a September call-up with the Big League club, unlike the Nationals, we were actually higher on Maxwell coming into the season than we are now. This is mainly due to a strikeout rate that climbed from, an already high, 23%, the previous two years, to 31% in 2009. While Maxwell will likely compete for a starting OF job with the Nationals in Spring training, this is an already 26yo, who isn’t likely to have significant additional upside. Reality is that the current version just isn’t much more than 4th OF type skills.

Grade C+ Prospects –

18) Brad Meyers, RHP; 19) J.R. Higley, RF; 20) Jack McGeary, LHP; 21) Sandy Leon, C; 22) Stephen Lombardozzi, 2B; 23) Roger Bernadina, OF; 24) Estarlin Martinez, 2B; 25) Will Atwood, LHP; 26) Tom Milone, LHP; 27) A.J. Morris, RHP; 28) Steven Souza, 3B.

Grade C Prospects –

Luis Atilano; Gregory Baez; Evan Bronson; Marco Estrada; Trevor Holder; Nate Karns; Brandon King; Stephen King; Patrick Lehman; Marvin Lowrance; Jeff Mandel; Patrick McCoy; Adrian Nieto; Brad Peacock; Roberto Perez; Sean Rooney; Daniel Rosenbaum; Atahualpa Severino; Josh Smoker; Greg Veloz; Dean Weaver.

Feel free to post any questions and or comments. We will try to answer them in our weekly Mailbag segment.

You can find an explanation of our grades here Diamond Futures Annual Prospect Rankings Series and an explanation of our 2009 Performance Scores here Do-It-Yourself - Understanding Performance Evaluation. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2009 season.

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