|Original Published Date: November 26, 2019|
The Nationals have produced several stars in recent years (Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Victor Robles to name three), but today, they find their minor league system in transition. They do have Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia at the top of the list with both possessing impact potential at the highest level, especially Kieboom. After that, the system thins quickly with a lot of number four starters and young positional players that need development.
That said, they seem to find a way. Whether it’s developing players to play on their Major League team or using those players as trade bait, they’ve been contenders for years and I expect that to continue. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve spent liberally in free agency, particularly in improving their pitching staff.
Prospect Quick Shot
- Top Prospect: Carter Kieboom
- Biggest Mover: Tim Cate
- Emerging Prospect: Reid Schaller
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1. Carter Kieboom (SS)
- Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 2B
- Tools Summary: Plus hitter with average power and some speed.
Carter Kieboom moves up to the top prospect in the Nationals organization. It shouldn’t be for long as he’ll likely spend most, if not all the 2020 season in Washington. While his first exposure to the Majors did not go well (.086 in 35 at-bats), I fully expect him to have more success with the ceiling of a full-time regular.
Kieboom is a hitter first with average power and enough speed to steal 5 to 10 stolen bases annually. He struck out 19.5% of the time while walking 10.5% of the time. While he hit 16 home runs, I don’t see him building on this too much. However, it seems like 15 to 16 home runs in the minor leagues turn into 20 to 25 in the major leagues, so I would not be shocked if he hit low 20s home runs annually.
While he’s primarily played shortstop in the minor leagues, a move to second makes sense. First, he’s blocked by Trea Turner and second, he’s arm strength and footwork are better served at the keystone than short. In fact, he played multiple games there in 2019 and looked solid.
2. Luis Garcia (SS)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 2B/SS
- Tools Summary: Plus hitter with a little bit of speed and power. The upside is more 15-15 but with a high batting average and low on-base percentage.
The Nationals continue to push Luis Garcia quickly through the system. He played the entire 2019 season in Double-A as the youngest player in the Eastern League. Considering how young he was, he played very well slashing .258/.282/338. However, if you look at the stats without the benefit of his age, it wasn’t very good. He’s still a very aggressive hitter and is not showing any power. It makes you wonder why the Nationals continue to push him so hard.
He’s an elite prospect who is a hit first player with a swing that is more geared to doubles than power. But having him repeat Double-A in 2020 wouldn’t be the worst thing for his development. I had a chance to see him in the Fall League and while the swing is promising and he’s a fine defender, the approach needs maturing. Working on that would, in my opinion, improve his chances of success in the big leagues. There are so many cases of young players who get over-promoted and then lose favor with teams and are never heard from again.
The ceiling is a full-time regular in the big leagues, either at short or second with a chance to go 15-15 and hit for a high average but a low OBP.
3. Jackson Rutledge (RHP)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP or High-Leveraged Bullpen arm
- Tools Summary: Great size with an 80-grade fastball. Delivery concerns could push him to the bullpen but, he’s got a great arm.
The Nationals selected Jackson Rutledge in the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft (Pick #17). While he only pitched in Junior College, Rutledge has the size and stuff that attracted a lot of attention during the spring. When I say size, we are talking, SIZE. He’s 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds with a fastball that can touch the upper 90s. You can argue based on physicality and pure stuff; he should have gone higher. The control is still a work in progress, but the floor is likely a back of the bullpen arm.
The other thing I should note is when looking at his delivery, he doesn’t get great extension. I’m not certain that he short arms the ball, but based on reviewing video, it looks that way to me. Hopefully, the Nationals will address this early as with more extension, not only will his stuff likely play-up but he reduces his chance of injury.
4. Sterling Sharpe (RHP)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
- Tools Summary: Extreme sinkerballer with intriguing upside.
I had a chance to scout Sterling Sharpe before his oblique injury this past season and was really intrigued. At 6-foot-4 and only 185 pounds, he’s tall, thin and athletic with a simple delivery. His primary pitch is a sinker that generates a ton of ground balls – well over a 2:1 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. He shows a feel for a change-up with a slider as his primary breaking pitch. His athleticism allows him to repeat his delivery and throw strikes. Also, he has an exaggerated leg extension that with his frame, really provides an interesting look to batters.
With his size, you would expect at some point for him to put on weight and add velocity. If that happens, he could be a late bloomer in the mold of Charlie Morton. I’m not predicting that outcome, but remember, Morton didn’t really hit his strides until after he turned 30. I do believe there is something there with Sharp that Dynasty League owners need to monitor.
5. Mason Denaburg (RHP)
- Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP
- Tools Summary: Athletic with a great arm but has not been able to stay healthy.
The Nationals have never shied away from high-end talent with questionable medicals. In fact, they seem to thrive on drafting kids that had just had Tommy John surgery or would need it soon (Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde to name two). Mason Denaburg was another kid who dropped at the draft table in 2018 due to a bicep injury. When he dropped to the Nationals at pick 27, they jumped on him.
After dealing with some bicep soreness, Denaburg finally made his professional debut in the GCL and it didn’t go well. In seven games he pitched to a 7.52 ERA striking out 19, walking 14 in 20.1 innings. The Nationals pulled him after an early August game when he couldn’t get out of the second inning.
He’s athletic with a fastball that can touch the upper nineties and a curveball and change-up that both flash plus. He needs to get out and pitch and candidly pitch well to prove to the Nationals and the baseball world that his injury issues are behind him.
6. Tim Cate (LHP)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP
- Tools Summary: Solid stuff with plus control.
Tim Cate had a very nice season splitting his time between Low and High-A. While he doesn’t have an elite arsenal, he does have a fastball that sits in the low 90’s with a curveball that will miss bats. The entire arsenal does play up because he pounds the strike zone. In 25 starts across both levels, he kept his free passes down to two per nine. It’s not a newfound skill as he showed great control in 2018 as well.
It’s easy to label Cate as a command and control lefty, but I think his stuff is more than that. The fastball, while it’s not explosive and tops out at 93 MPH, is good enough to set up his secondary pitches. The fact that he can work the corners helps the entire arsenal play up. The ceiling for me is number four starter, or perhaps a little more.
7. Wil Crowe (RHP)
- Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
- Tools Summary: Strike thrower with average stuff.
Wil Crowe was assigned back to the Eastern League to begin the 2019 season and had a solid season. In 16 starts, he pitched to a 3.87 ERA striking out over eight per nine while limiting his walks to just two per nine. In early July, he received a promotion to Triple-A and things went poorly. In 10 starts in the PCL (yes, the Nationals Triple-A affiliate is 2,800 miles from D.C.), he pitched to a 6.17 ERA striking out 6.8 per nine and walking 4.3 per nine. The results were not unexpected as he doesn’t have the plus stuff to deal with the difficult pitching environment of the PCL.
Crowe gets by with locating his pitches and throwing strikes. If he can do that, his ceiling is a number four starter. If he doesn’t, he’ll likely get hit hard and will settle into a swing starter or a middle reliever. He should see considerable time in Washington next season.
8. Drew Mendoza (1B)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 1B
- Tools Summary: Size and strength but tools do not suggest an impact performer at the highest level.
The Nationals drafted Drew Mendoza in the third round of the 2019 MLB Draft after attending college at Florida State. At 6-foot-5 and a listed 230 pounds, he’s a big kid with a simple swing that on first look, appears to be able to hit and hit for power. However, when I saw him, the bat speed wasn’t great, and he expanded the strike zone. Granted, I saw him in late August so perhaps he was just worn down from a long season.
He played third in college but appears to have moved full-time to first base. The position change will put pressure on his bat and while I think he’ll make it to the Majors; I don’t see an impact performer. A good baseline would be a .250/.340/.450 hitter with 15 to 20 home runs.
9. Yasel Antuna (SS/2B)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 SS/2B
- Tools Summary: Highly thought on International signee but two years of injury has cast doubts on his ultimate ceiling.
The Nationals spent nearly four million dollars to sign Yasel Antuna in 2016 and after his professional debut in 2017, it looked like they had hit on an impact player. He walked nearly as much as he struck out in rookie ball and while he didn’t hit for a ton of power, he showed great bat speed. Unfortunately, he was overwhelmed in a full-season assignment to Low-A in 2018 and then his season ended early when he injured his elbow, which eventually required Tommy John surgery.
He only appeared in three games in 2019 in early July and then missed the remainder of the season.
After three years, we are still not sure what we have with Antuna. The International scouting report was strong enough to warrant a huge signing bonus and his initial professional debut was great. However, injuries and a poor showing in Low-A have slowed his development to the point, that I’m not sure what his ceiling is.
10. Tres Barrera (C)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Backup catcher
- Tools Summary: Defensive first catcher in the mold of Martin Maldonado.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2016 MLB Draft, Tres Barrera got a chance to show his wares in a late-season call-up to the big leagues. He only played in two games, but he at least got his feet wet after playing well in Double-A for the entire season. In 100 games in Harrisburg, he hit .253 with a .320 OBP with nine home runs.
He’s a defensive-first backstop with enough bat-to-ball skills to be a solid backup catcher in the big leagues. Martin Maldonado is a good comp for the type of big-league player he could become.
11. Ben Braymer (LHP)
- Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 75 SP
- Tools Summary: He doesn’t have overpowering stuff but has enough pitchability and control to see starts in the Major Leagues as a back-of-the-rotation or swing pitcher.
Ben Braymer split his time between Double and Triple-A and had an uneven season. He was very effective in 13 starts in Double-A where he pitched to a 2.51 ERA striking out nearly eight per nine while walking just over two per nine. But in the difficult PCL, he pitched to a 7.20 ERA with over five walks per nine.
The Nationals have moved Braymer slowly through the system, using him as both a starter and reliever. While he doesn’t have an overpowering arsenal, it should be good enough to get Major League batters out. He turns 26 in April and therefore, he should see considerable time in Washington in 2020. The arsenal and delivery point to a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever.
12. Telmito Agustin (OF)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF
- Tools Summary: A little speed and power, but he hasn’t been able to repeat his early success at controlling the strike zone.
I got very excited about Telmito Agustin when he got off to a blazing start to the 2018 season. He was showing power, speed and a great understanding of the strike zone. He got hurt in July and clearly, the small sample size caught up to him because he’s been very ordinary since.
In 116 games in High-A last season, he hit .240 with 10 home runs and nine stolen bases. So, a little bit of speed and power…good. However, he also struck out 25% of the time and walked 6.9% of the time and that led to a sub-.300 OBP. The Nationals will likely promote him to Double-A to begin the 2020 season, but if he doesn’t improve his ability to control the strike zone, the ceiling is a fourth outfielder in the big leagues.
13. Reid Schaller (RHP)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: High-Leveraged reliever
- Tools Summary: Solid stuff but delivery points to a bullpen role, but it could in a high-leverage role.
Drafted in the third round of the 2018 MLB Draft, Reid Schaller season got off to a late start due to an oblique injury. He didn’t make his first appearance until June and was wild over his first five starts before finally settling down. Because of his injury and early ineffectiveness, he spent the entire season in Low-A, which at his age was not the original plan.
He has solid stuff with a fastball that will sit in the mid-90s, but his delivery has a lot of effort and it’s causing him to not throw consistent strikes. This should lead to a move to the bullpen at some point where he could be a lot more interesting as a fantasy asset. In fact, his 95 MPH fastball should improve a grade and with an improving slider, he could develop into a high-leveraged reliever.
14. Seth Romero (LHP)
- Highest Level: DNP ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 with extreme risk
- Tools Summary: Promising arsenal but injuries and disciplinary problems have been the story so far.
We’ve written extensively about the journey of Seth Romero at Prospect361.com. We encourage curious readers to go through the archives and read about the disciplinary and injuries that have plagued the Nationals 2017 first-round pick.
He spent the entire 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and assuming he returns to health and can stay out of trouble, he has premium stuff that should be able to get big league hitters out. There’s a long way to go on many fronts and it’s difficult at the juncture to recommend him in Dynasty Leagues. That said, owners need to continue to monitor as there is upside.
15. Israel Pineda (C)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 Catcher with extreme risk
- Tools Summary: Was not able to build on a promising 2018 season. Nice swing with potentially plus power future potential. He has a long way to go.
Israel Pineda couldn’t build on his 2018 campaign where he showed an ability to hit with encouraging bat-to-ball skills. The Nationals challenged him to a full-season assignment like they do with many young players and he was overwhelmed. He struck out at a 25% clip, striking out four times as much as he walked. He did have a strong August and that gives hope that 2020 might be a better season. The feedback I received from evaluators as they liked the swing and believe there is plus power and the ability to hit.
He could use more time in Low-A, so hopefully, the Nationals will send him back to Hagerstown to begin the 2020 campaign.
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