Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TEAM #21 – Washington Nationals

We are expecting a major step forward from Norris this season

As was forecast last year (TEAM #25 – Washington Nationals), the Nationals’ system is making tremendous upward progress after years as the League’s aimlessly nomadic team. Getting the #1 overall pick two years in a row doesn’t hurt any, but keep in mind that the Nationals didn’t sign a first round pick in 2008 and both of their 2009 first round picks made solid Major League debuts in 2010, taking them off of this year’s list. The point being that the improvement is coming from more than just having the best pick. While the #1 picks have been a huge part of things, the Nationals have spent heavy on the draft for the last two seasons, signing A.J. Cole, Drew Storen and Sammy Solis—in addition to Strasburg and Harper—to million dollar plus contracts. Unfortunately, this was made possible because of legal and compliance problems that essentially gutted their Latin American scouting efforts after the Carlos Alvarez/Esmailyn Gonzalez fiasco. The Nationals have not signed a major prospect out of the region since.

On the Big League side, the Nationals are pursuing a peculiar track. After shedding nearly $35 million from 2010 payrolls by not signing or by trading players like Adam Dunn, Cristian Guzman, Josh Willingham, Willy Taveras and Matt Capps, the Nationals look to be actually increasing payroll by nearly 10% after deals adding Jayson Werth (likely a horrendous contract), Adam LaRoche, Tom Gorzelanny, Jerry Hairston and Rick Ankiel. In a division in which the Phillies and the Braves appear to be considerably better, and in a year in which their best pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) will miss due to Tommy John surgery, we find the strategy puzzling—to say the least. But let’s not dwell on the Major League roster too much, as the Nationals’ future clearly lies in the Minor Leagues. With a system headed by Bryce Harper, possibly as many as four Top 100 prospects, and three of the top thirty-four picks in what is shaping up to be an extremely strong 2012 draft, the Nationals are a team with their best days ahead.

Best Pick from 2010 – The Top 3 from last year’s list were pretty much consensus picks, so there is little to choose from there, even as Stephen Strasburg lived up to all of his hype. Our best pick was slotting Eury Perez at #8, as he was not an industry Top 10 selection coming into the year, but is pretty much a consensus pick now. Our #4 ranking this year, will still likely be higher than any other. We also were somewhat prescient when we warned on Justin Maxwell last year as we slid him all the way down to #17 and he had a miserable 2010 season.

Worst Pick from 2010 – This was actually quite difficult to come up with, as we hit the Nationals better than anyone in 2010. Having to choose one, we will go with Jeff Kobernus , who we actually had lower than the industry consensus at #9, but falls outside of the top thirty this season.

Grade A

1) Bryce Harper, RF -

When your hype includes the cover of Sports Illustrated—at age 16---it would be rather difficult for the reality to match it. However, there is few among the baseball world, after watching him at College of Southern Nevada this spring and in Arizona this fall, that doubt that the hype surrounding this 18yo is undeserved. A first rate defensive backstop, the Nationals are moving Harper from behind the plate in an effort to ensure the offensive production of their prized commodity. It is difficult to describe the raw tools possessed by Harper without sounding like a pre-teen girl prattling on about their favorite Jonas Brother, but that is just the facts that surround Harper. His power may rate as the best of any prospect currently in the Minor Leagues, as he belted 31 home runs and SLUGGED .987 this spring. Granted it was a mere 40 plate appearances in Arizona, but, as a 17yo, his AZFL SLG was .629. While his hulking swing that generates his massive power leaves him vulnerable, the quickness of his bat allows him to compensate for it and still make above average contact. Despite a 6’3”, 225lb, frame, Harper is tremendously gifted, athletically, and swiped 20 bases at Southern Nevada. While he’ll never be a burner, he will have plus speed for a right-fielder. As gifted as Harper is offensively, his talents defensively may be even more impressive. With his athleticism, and a fastball that has been clocked in the mid-90s, Harper could be a plus defender either behind the plate or at third base. The Nationals will, however, use him in right field where he covers significant ground and shows a plus-plus arm. We’d use the trite cliché of ‘the natural’ to describe Harper, except that his natural abilities are only part of his exceptional makeup, as he works incredibly hard at his craft and possesses a fierce competiveness in every phase of the game. We’d tell you that his comparables, given his age/level of performance show tremendous upside, but the reality is that there are so very few comparables in our 40-plus year database—and even among those that are similar Harper exceeds the overwhelming majority. This doesn’t mean to imply that Harper doesn’t have things to work on, as we expect more polished pitchers to take advantage of all of the motion in his swing and aggressive approach. Showing solid plate discipline is likely to be the factor that governs his advancement. While it is still a relatively closely guarded secret as to where Harper opens, our bet is that he receives the majority of his At Bats in the Carolina League (CAR), where he won’t turn 19 until the season is over. That said, it wouldn’t surprise us even slightly to see him in AA before the year is out and in the Majors around mid-season 2012—no later than early 2013. The hype is deserved.

Grade A-

2) Derek Norris, C (2010 Performance Scores – Power 71; Discipline 23; First Base Rate 79; Speed 54)

We had forecast this spring that Norris’ hamate bone injury was likely to depress his power output in 2010 and it was down roughly 20% from his 2009 levels. Consider this a one-year aberration that should correct itself in 2011, as Norris possesses plus power for a catcher. His ability to patiently wait for walks is among the best in the Minors. Norris’ ball striking ability is solid, as he sprays line drives to all fields. If it weren’t for all of those strikeouts—a 24% rate last year, up from 22% in 2009. With the graduation of Wieters, Posey and Santana to the Majors; what, for the last couple of seasons, had been a Minor League catching crop that showed strength and depth of historic proportions has thinned considerably. Not considering Montero or Myers, who are unlikely to play the position at the next level, Norris could arguably be the best backstop prospect remaining. While it used to be questionable as to whether he could defensively handle the position, Norris has made enough progress that it now seems likely he will reach the Majors as a backstop. With Wilson Ramos ahead of him, Norris has organizational competition. Look for him to begin 2011 in AA, with a chance of being in Washington in 2012.

Grade B+

3) A. J. Cole, RHP

We had Cole as a mid- to late-first round selection—one of the five premium prep arms available—entering June’s draft, so imagine the Nationals elation when he was still available with their fourth round pick. A fall that was purely based on signability, the Nationals gave him the mid-first round money, and looked to have significantly improved their 2010 draft class. With a projectable 6’4”, 180lb, frame, Cole uses a low-90s fastball as his swing and miss pitch. It may end up as a mid-90s offering. Add to that a potentially plus curve and a developing change and you have all the makings of a potential #2 starter. Look for Cole to open 2011 in full-season A-ball, with the potential to advance by mid-season.

4) Eury Perez, OF (2010 Performance Scores – Power 32; Discipline 68; First Base Rate 65; Speed 80)

We are fairly certain that we have Perez higher than most anyone, as we have for the last three seasons. Perez added a #14 Performance Score in the South Atlantic League (SAL) in 2010 to a #7 in the 2009 GCL and a #5 in the DSL and is quickly approaching the elite prospect level. Plus speed, a good eye and solid contact skills provide Perez with the ability to be a top of the order offense igniter. Defensively, he covers sizeable ground and possesses an arm that is adequate for center field. Perez’s main negative is a lack of power that projects to be of the 10-12 HR variety. 2012 is a critical year for Perez, who is likely to begin the year in the Carolina League. He will have to avoid the slow start that he experienced in 2010 if he is to continue his upward trajectory.

5) Danny Espinosa, SS (2010 Performance Scores – Power 64; Discipline 40; First Base Rate 53; Speed 67)

After 22 games in Puerto Rico, Espinosa had Hamate surgery that will likely slow his ascension to the eventual role of Nationals’ everyday shortstop. Penciled in as a likely opening day middle infielder before the surgery, while Espinosa is likely to return in time for spring training, we expect his offensive performance to be slowed—especially the plus power that he projects as a middle infielder. This may lead to him beginning the season in AAA where he can work on reducing that 23% strikeout rate. With average speed, contact skills and shortstop defense, Espinosa has the upside of an at least average everyday Major League middle infielder. With more than 100 Major League at bats already under his belt, his certainty factor is solid. Expect to find Espinosa regularly penciled into the National lineup at some point this season.

Grade B

6) Wilson Ramos, C (2010 Performance Scores – Power 43; Discipline 63; First Base Rate 34; Speed 33)

Acquired from the Twins in the Matt Capps deal, all told, Ramos had what must be considered somewhat of a disappointing 2010 season, as he went from being arguable one of the five best catching prospects in the Minors to being the second best backstop prospect on his team. Because of this, Ramos is likely a bit undervalued, at the moment, and has a chance to see considerable playing time in Washington this season behind the 39yo Rodriguez. With the exception of defense—where he excels—Ramos does most everything average, but possesses no plus offensive skills. His upside is that of an above average defensive catcher with a potentially average offensive skill set. He will enter 2011 battling Flores for the backup position and will likely be the favorite to hold the everyday position beginning 2012. While his ceiling is slightly higher, our guess is that Ramos spends a number of seasons as a #2 catcher on a Big League roster.

7) Sammy Solis, LHP

We had Solis pegged as a solid second round selection on draft day and therefore feel the Nationals received good value for the pickup—despite his $1 million bonus. Signing late, he pitched all of four innings before appearing in the AZFL, where we were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly he transitioned to the professional game. A large 6’5”, 230lbs, Solis possesses a low-90s fastball, but uses it primarily to set up a plus change. His breaking ball is developing, but he has the makings of a solid mid-rotation innings eater. The downside is that Solis lacks a dominant ‘out’ pitch, that limits his upside value. We expect Solis to begin 2011 in the CAR, with a chance to move to AA before the season is out.

8) Chris Marrero, 1B (2010 Performance Scores – Power 61; Discipline 57; First Base Rate 59; Speed 32)

Once considered the top prospect in the organization, the 2006 first round pick has slowly descended these rankings the last three seasons. It isn’t that his skill set has declined, it is more that it is clear that he will be limited defensively to first base, and his offensive skills have not advanced much. Still Marrero, possesses above average power to go along with average contact and strike zone management skills—all of which lead to a Top 20 Performance Score in the ESL in 2010. While it is possible that Marrero could still become an average everyday Major League first baseman, it is looking more likely that his role will be limited to a solid right-handed bench hitter. Marrero should begin 2011 in AAA, with a strong shot of getting to Washington this season.

9) Steve Lombardozzi, 2B (2010 Performance Scores – Power 72; Discipline 72; First Base Rate 60; Speed 50)

The prototypical ‘low-ceiling’, ‘high-floor’ prospect, Lombardozzi put up the best numbers of his career in 2010, posting the #16 Performance Score in the CAR before an even better showing in the ESL. Possessing no real plus tool, Lombardozzi makes up for it with a solid across-the-board skill set and a strong work ethic. His plate discipline skills are first rate and that bodes well for further development. Still just 22yo, there is little to reason to doubt that he can continue to evolve to the point of being an average everyday Major League second baseman—although a utility infielder role is more probable. Lombardozzi will return to the ESL in 2011 and should figure into that Desmond/Espinosa middle infield mix by 2012.

10) J.P. Ramirez, OF (2010 Performance Scores – Power 71; Discipline 69; First Base Rate 41; Speed 33)

Not powerfully built, Ramirez shows surprisingly strong hit skills, as he posted a Top 20 Performance Score in the SAL in 2010. The reason he doesn’t rate higher, is that Ramirez is likely defensively limited to left field—where the offensive bar is high. Ramirez possesses average power, and reasonable strike zone management skills. On the negative side, his speed is below average and, to this point, Ramirez has not shown the patience to reach base via the walk. Only 20yo, we can’t rule out enough development to become an average everyday Major League left fielder, but the likelihood is more of the 4th outfielder type. Ramirez will move up to the CAR to begin 2011.

11) Brad Peacock, RHP (2010– Dominance 62; Control 50; HRrate 33; Stamina 72)

The 22yo Peacock had a solid 2010 regular season, posting the #10 Performance Score in the CAR. But where he really made people take notice was his fall performance, out of the bullpen, in the AZFL—where he fanned 17 batters in 12 innings. Peacock possesses a low-90s fastball, that became a mid-90s offering in the AZFL and a plus curve. While not on par with the first two pitches, his change shows enough promise to make us believe that he could become a Major League #3/#4 type starter. That said, rest assured that the Nationals are keenly aware of his work out of the pen. With Peacock being on the smallish side, they have to be considering converting him to a reliever where he could make an impact as early as this season. Look for Peacock to begin 2011 back in the rotation in the ESL and it wouldn’t surprise us to find him in Washington before the year is out.

12) Tom Milone, LHP (2010– Dominance 69; Control 76; HRrate 63; Stamina 73)

The prototypical ‘crafty lefty’, Milone showed his usual solid stuff in 2010 on his way to a Top 10 Performance Score in the ESL. Milone might rank higher if he had more to offer than a high-80s fastball. The fastball looks faster though due to Milone’s plus change and solid curve. Combine that with superb pitchability, and you have a prospect that doesn’t have enough tools to predict success, but too much performance to not consider the possibility. The upside is only the very back end of the rotation, but it remains a distinct possibility. Look for Milone to begin 2011 in AAA and potentially be the first pitcher called up should need arise.

Other Potential Top 300 Prospects – None

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 and here This Week's Mailbag - Prospect Rankings Questions. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2009 season.

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