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2023 Nationals System Review: Top-Heavy, Pitching-Light

Except for the Arizona Fall League, Nationals baseball is done for 2023 at the Major League and Minor League levels. The Nats’ farm system ranking continues to climb in year three of a significant rebuild. However, it is not an elite system at this point and there are some troubling signs.


As it has been for the past decade under Mike Rizzo’s stewardship, the Nationals’ system remains a top-heavy operation, with most of the best players being trade acquisitions and 2023 draftees. Internal development had some hits, which we will get to shortly, but plenty of misses, which we will also discuss in detail. When you evaluate players who began the season in the system, there was a lot of regression, hence the everlasting lack of quality depth.


However, there is some elite talent in this system like we have not seen in quite a while. If things work out well, there is more than enough build a consistent winning team again if ownership returns free-agent spending to previous levels. That seems anything but a sure thing nowadays.


In evaluating the trajectory of Washington’s farm system, I’m going to put players in the following tiers based on 2023 progression: Significant Risers, On Track, Concerning and Uh Oh. I always believe in getting bad news first, so let’s begin with what went wrong in 2023, and from whom.


Uh Oh


OF Elijah Green – Green was a polarizing prospect when taken fifth overall in the 2022 Draft, a young kid with elite tools and major swing-and-miss concerns. If you drew up a worst-case scenario for Green before the 2023 season, that’s how it played out.


The strikeouts were abundant (41.6 K%) in Low A, but even more concerning is he hit for absolutely no power (.327 SLG, .109 ISO). He did make hard contact when he put the ball in play, but often on the ground (47.2 GB%). Not to mention he missed half the season with a hybrid injury/mental break. It’s not time to give up, as Green displayed elite athleticism in the field and on the bases, while making hard contact and drawing a lot of walks. But there is no track record of anyone striking out at such a prodigious rate in Low A and becoming a good big leaguer.


OF Jeremy De La Rosa – Once considered a potential long-term piece of the Nats’ future outfield puzzle, De La Rosa is now firmly buried on the organizational outfield depth chart. He’s also the second player in three seasons to get added to the 40-man roster then fail to hit their way out of A ball in the ensuing season. Yasel Antuna is not the company you want to keep.


1B TJ White – A fifth-round pick in 2021, White had a quick ascension and had become one of the more interesting prospects in the Nats’ system. But other than one midseason hot streak, 2023 was a nightmare for White. First, he outgrew the outfield and moved to first base, putting much more pressure on his bat. Granted, White was very young for High A and we know the challenges Wilmington presents, but a .557 OPS from a slugging first baseman isn’t going to cut it. He strikes out a ton, though he does walk a lot, too. He will have to become a big-time home run guy to have a chance going forward and that hasn’t played out thus far.


OF Brenner Cox – Cox was on most preseason Nats top-30 lists, including mine. Uhhh, that didn’t last long. He struck out at the same rate as Elijah Green but posted an OPS more than 200 points worse, prompting a demotion to the FCL, where he performed worse than the previous summer. Cox is a great athlete and was always a long-term project, but for now, he’s not really on the map until he proves otherwise.


SS Armando Cruz – Cruz was always a defensive wizard you hoped would progress offensively. He has not. His .517 OPS was one of the worst marks in the entire system. At some point, Cruz has to show something, anything, with the bat and at this point I have little reason to believe he will.


LHP Matt Cronin – While Cronin’s star had started to fade a little before the 2023 season, he was still a guy on the radar to play a role out of the bullpen in short order. A string of rough performances and a back injury later and a guy who once was considered the potential closer of the future is more an afterthought.


Concerning


OF Robert Hassell III – You could make a strong case for Hassell to be on the “Uh Oh” list, but ultimately, I decided to give him some leeway due to his hamate injury a year ago. That said, Hassell was one of the best prospects in baseball at the time of the Soto trade and he has never come remotely close to fulfilling that promise in the Nats’ system. His strikeouts rose to an alarming rate in 2023 and he didn’t hit enough to overcome it. Next year is huge for him, but he is now trending more toward a fourth outfielder role than a pillar of the future.


LHP Jake Bennett – Before a midseason injury that led to Tommy John surgery, Bennett was easily the best pitcher in the system this year. Now, his timeline is significantly pushed back, and it will be at least two years before we know if he’s a major part of the future. This is a significant setback for a pitching-starved organization.


C Israel Pineda – Pineda has the cannon arm and raw power bat to become a good complement to Keibert Ruiz behind the plate. But an injury-filled 2023 allowed Drew Millas to pass him on the depth chart. He has a lot of work in front of him.


RHP Andry Lara – Lara is trending toward becoming another international flop for the Nats. At one time a consensus top-10 prospect in the system, Lara was incredibly disappointing in 2023 despite pitching all season in a pitchers’ paradise in Wilmington. The bright spots were few and far between, but age is still on his side for now.


RHP Cole Henry – Henry is an injury case. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is no joke. Henry returned to the mound this season and showed flashes of the stuff that made him a top prospect in the first place. But he just cannot stay healthy and is now on a reliever trajectory, which is the right call.


SS Kevin Made – Made came over with DJ Herz in the Jeimer Candelario trade with the Cubs and played like the declining prospect to which he was billed. He has the athleticism to stick at short, but like Armando Cruz, eventually you have to hit. And Made did not hit.


OF/1B Roismar Quintana – Despite a fairly strong finish to the season, Quintana is a major question mark going forward. Injuries and additional weight prompted a move to first base, where Quintana will have to slug a lot better than .346 to be a factor going forward.


OF Jared McKenzie – Granted, McKenzie never profiled as more than a potential backup outfielder, but after a poor 2023, he’s more just a face in the crowd right now.


On Track


OF James Wood – This one’s pretty easy. Wood broke out in 2022, was a helium prospect at the time of the Juan Soto trade and entered 2023 with sky-high expectations. Wood lived up to that billing this season. He had some strikeout issues, but nothing overly concerning, in my opinion. He could have finished the season at Triple-A Rochester if they wanted to push him, and he could be a candidate for the Opening Day roster in 2024 due to MLB’s Prospect Promotion Incentive. Wood is a potential superstar.


OF Dylan Crews – When the Nats got the No. 2 pick in the first year of the Draft Lottery, the Dylan Crews dream seemed dead. But a historic season from college teammate Paul Skenes allowed Crews to fall into the Nats’ lap after all. After dominating Low-A pitching, Crews skipped High-A Wilmington and went right to Double-A, where he posted pedestrian numbers with bad batted-ball luck. He’s still an elite prospect who should be in D.C. relatively early next season.


RHP Cade Cavalli – Cavalli missed 2023 with Tommy John surgery but is on track to rehab in the minors next spring and should be good to join the big league rotation in June or July.


RHP Jackson Rutledge – I remain higher on Rutledge than many, believing he has good enough stuff to be a part of the rotation moving forward. Big guys like him take several years to thrive sometimes. It might be a bumpy ride, but he can help.


OF Cristhian Vaquero – Admittedly, I am not as sold on Vaquero as many seem to be. He is a good athlete with good contact skills and strike zone awareness for his age. But he remains extremely slight of build and does not hit the ball with any authority. There’s plenty to like, but he’ll need to get stronger.


LHP DJ Herz – Herz was as advertised since coming over in the Jeimer Candelario trade. Herz possesses a funky delivery that leads to lots of strikeouts … and walks. He’ll be added to the 40-man roster this winter and should factor into the Nats’ bullpen plans next season, despite remaining a starter in 2023. The Nats have not done a good job transitioning players like Herz to relief roles.


RHP Jarlin Susana – Statistically, 2023 didn’t go great for the young fireballer who came over in the Juan Soto trade. However, Susana was incredibly young to be pitching in full-season ball and I’m not too discouraged by the bumps in the road. He does need to take a step forward in 2024.


UTIL Jake Alu – He’s not technically a prospect anymore, but Alu did make it to the Major Leagues as hoped this season. He didn’t wow and his lack of any carrying tools sets him up to be a AAAA player who bounces around between the minors and majors for a few years.


RHP Zach Brzykcy – Like Cade Cavalli, Brzycky missed 2023 due to Tommy John surgery. But as a reliever, his road to the majors could be quicker. I still think there’s a potential MLB closer here.


LHP Mitchell Parker – Parker is similar to DJ Herz in that he gets a lot of strikeouts from the left side despite pedestrian velocity. He also walks a ton of batters and will likely transition to the bullpen. He needs a better offspeed offering, but there’s the makings of a lefty big league reliever.


LHP Dustin Saenz – Saenz is what he is: a pitchabilty lefty who finished strong at AA and has a chance to make it as a bulk reliever/spot starter who throws strikes.


RHP Luke Young – An over-slot signing from the 2022 Draft, Young flashed promise with inconsistency at Low-A Fredericksburg and is worth monitoring going forward.


2B/CF Darren Baker – A fan favorite to many thanks to his father, Dusty, Baker has a very narrow path to the majors due to a lack of power and defensive flexibility. But he has a chance and seems likely to get a look at some point.


Significant Risers


3B Brady House – House only falls into this category because we had to wait and see how he recovered from a back injury that destroyed his 2022 season. Well, turns out he is just fine and back among the top prospects in the game, advancing from Low A to Double-A with a trip to the All-Star Futures Game in between. He’s on the horizon now and it would surprise me none if you told me in 2-3 years that House is a better player than James Wood and Dylan Crews. House has immense potential.


3B/1B Yohandy Morales – Morales was expected to get drafted in the middle of the first round but stunningly fell to Round 2, where the Nats immediately pounced. Morales fell due to concerns about his approach at the plate and likelihood of moving to first base. But Morales flew through the Nats system, advancing to Double-A before season’s end. He raked and raked and raked despite not hitting a single professional home run. Those will come. He is on a fast track and could be the solution to the Nats’ lack of a power-hitting first baseman.


OF Daylen Lile – Lile, like 2021 Draft mate Brady House, was another exciting player returning from injury in 2023. Despite a late-season prolonged slump at High-A Wilmington, Lile was fantastic overall and I have zero concern about that blip. He could always put the bat on the ball, but this year Lile showed improved pop in his left-handed bat and improved athleticism on the bases and in the field. I don’t know if he qualifies as a “sleeper,” but he has the skillset to be an everyday corner outfielder.


INF Trey Lipscomb – Lipscomb, the Nats’ third-round pick in 2022, made a big leap forward in 2023 and emerged as one of the best pure hitters in the system. The Nats also smartly moved him off third base exclusively and moved him around the infield. There’s an opening at second base with the team seemingly down on Luis Garcia. Lipscomb can really hit and has the raw strength to hit 15-20 homers when all is said and done, but he doesn’t draw walks at all.


OF Andrew Pinckney – The Nats’ 2023 Draft class was largely viewed through the prism of a Big 3 consisting of Dylan Crews, Yohandy Morales and Travis Sykora, but Pinckney forced his way into the conversation, joining Crews and Morales in Double-A at season’s end. Pinckney was an under-slot college senior signing from Alabama, but has a much louder skillset than a typical senior sign. Pinckney has legit tools. Known as a free swinger, Pinckney showed an impressive ability to keep that under control in his pro debut without sacrificing power. The early returns on this pick are very positive.


RHP Jake Irvin – Irvin was a welcome surprise this season. I have liked him as a potential reliever whose stuff could play up in shorter stints, but he surpassed all expectations this season. Irvin earned a quick promotion to the big leagues and stuck around the rest of the season, even becoming the team’s best starting pitcher for stretches. He may end up being a reliever in the long run, but he more than held his own in the rotation and will get an opportunity to prove he can stay there.


OF Jacob Young – One of my favorite Nats prospects, Young advanced from the fringe of prospectdom in Low A in April to Nats starting center fielder in September. Who the heck saw that coming? He acquitted himself well in D.C. And while he won’t be able to hold off James Wood and Dylan Crews, Young has a great bench player profile and should be a solid contributor for several years.


C Drew Millas – Millas has always been noted for his defense behind the dish and his athleticism for the position, but his bat was a longstanding question mark. Millas alleviated that concern this season and took advantage of injuries to Israel Pineda and Riley Adams to earn his chance in the majors. His defensive ability is a good complement to Keibert Ruiz.


3B Jorgelys Mota – Mota signed for $250K in the same signing class in which Cristhian Vaquero signed for $4.9 million. But you could argue Mota is a more compelling prospect right now. Mota forced his way to full-season ball this summer despite being months removed from his 18th birthday. We’ll find out more next season, but Mota has helium potential within the Nats’ system.


C Maxwell Romero Jr. – Romero posted the best season in the Nats’ system that no one is really talking about. Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Romero ranked ninth in OPS, and fourth in both wOBA and wRC+. He also threw out 30 percent of would-be base stealers. He has immense power that comes with a lot of strikeouts and walks. He needs to show it at higher levels, but he has a chance.


LHP Andrew Alvarez – I have always liked Alvarez as an off-the-radar guy I could envision having a productive Major League career. The consistency isn’t always there, but he nearly threw a no-hitter vs. a loaded Rays affiliate this season and was rewarded as the Nats’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.


There are other system depth players in the system worth monitoring, as well as some extremely young players with whom it’s too early to make a real evaluation. But this is a pretty comprehensive overview of the key players.


Overall Review


All in all, it was an interesting year down on the farm. The team had a good string of successes with the development of potential role players while the impact performers are still a year away. Usually, the big guns arrive and you try to fill out the roster around them. But in the Nats’ case, the potential role players are starting to fall into place first.


As things currently stand, there is immense pressure on the cream of the crop within this system to pan out, because there is a clear delineation after the top six guys – Wood, Crews, House, Morales, Cavalli and Lile. You should feel good about that group, but these things rarely play out as expected. Not all of them will pan out. That is a near certainty.


Although things are rosy at the top, the extreme declines of Elijah Green and Robert Hassell III, as well as Jake Bennett’s ill-timed surgery, are equally as discouraging. Things will feel a lot different next year if Green starts to get the strikeouts under control and Hassell proves 2023 was an injury blip. It’s also important to note that new rules prohibit the Nats from drafting higher than 10th next summer in what is already considered a very weak Draft class. So, they won’t be adding any premier talent via that route.


Perhaps most alarming is the dearth of intriguing arms behind Cade Cavalli. There is a lot of pressure on Cavalli to become a front-rotation guy. Bennett was on track to get to the big leagues quickly as a back-rotation reliable lefty. But now he is a complete question mark who we won’t hear from for quite a while. Even if Cavalli pans out and Rutledge makes it as a back-rotation guy, it’s evident the Nats are going to have to acquire top-rotation talent via free agency or trade once they decide they’re ready to contend again.


It would appear this team is trying to replay the path they took last decade in hitting on a couple young superstars then filling in the pieces around them externally. This is not an ownership-front office combination that is going to become an analytically focused player-development machine. It’s obvious they’re not interested in that and don’t know how to do become such a franchise anyway. This is a viable path forward, though a narrower one.


What we’re left with is a team that has a path back to contention due to the extremely high upsides of Wood, Crews, House and Co., but little high-end talent otherwise. Ownership will have to spend big, and Mike Rizzo will have to pull off some more trade magic to fill out a winning roster. And given recent curious decisions by Mark Lerner, it’s certainly fair to doubt that free agent spending is going to return to previous levels. This thing could go either way.

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