After a one-year hiatus, the Arizona Fall League returns on Oct. 13. Before talking about whom the Nats might send to the league, here's a brief primer on how the AFL works. The AFL is comprised on six teams, with each team fielding a roster with players representing five different organizations. Each organization sends seven players to the AFL, with the roster mostly consisting of Double-A and Triple-A prospects. However, it's not as simple as every team sending the seven players it wants to send. There's an internal draft between the five clubs to ensure a full roster is built. This is to prevent one team from exclusively sending seven pitchers, for example. So in all likelihood, the Nats will send a player or two who isn't necessarily a top prospect. This year, the Nats' prospects will play for the Surprise Saguaros.
The below list is broken down into five position groups: starting pitchers, relief pitchers, infielders and outfielders. The Nats are thin on position players and would probably love to send seven pitchers if they could, but here are my top candidates from each position group.
(4) RHP Jackson Rutledge: This should be a no-brainer. Forget the fact that he spent the entire 2021 season in A ball and the Arizona Fall League typically consists of Double-A and Triple-A talent. Rutledge's talent level measures up. It was more or less a second straight washed-out Minor League season for the Nats' 2019 first-round pick, and injuries, blisters and underperformance resulted in an unsightly 7.68 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. Everyone knows he's better than that, and he finished his season at Low-A Fredericksburg on a high note, allowing three total runs over his last three starts. He needs innings, he needs to face better competition and the Nats need to get a better idea of what he needs to work on next year. He's only logged 73.2 professional innings, and this would be a great opportunity for him to get more.
(7) RHP Cole Henry: Somehow, Henry has flown under the radar this year. Perhaps due to Cade Cavalli's ascendance and the Nats' sell-off, Henry kind of quietly posted absolutely dominant numbers at High-A Wilmington, albeit with a 2 1/2-month layoff due to an elbow injury in the middle. The Nats' second-rounder in 2020, Henry posted a 1.88 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 13.2 K/9 with only 11 walks in 43 innings for Wilmington. He was completely unhittable at the end of the season, but like Rutledge, he could use more innings to make up for what he lost due to injury this season. He should start next year at Double-A Harrisburg and could move fast to the big leagues from there.
(24) LHP Seth Romero: We all know the story with Romero at this point. The Nats' 2017 first-round pick has not panned out thus far, but he has shown enough this year to intrigue you. Alas, he has only logged 35.2 innings this season and only 83 total since being drafted. He needs reps anywhere he can get them.
LHP Tim Cate: Cate is another guy who was highly drafted (second round, 2018), coming off a bad season, but finished on a good note. Sensing a theme here? Cate pitched entirely at Harrisburg this year, going 2-10 with a 5.31 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, fewer than a strikeout per inning and too many walks. On the flip side, he has a plus curveball that should be harnessed into some sort of Major League role someday. His lack of size and physicality may limit him to a reliever role down the road, but he's another guy who could benefit from the AFL experience.
RHP Jackson Tetreault: A seventh-rounder in 2017, Tetreault doesn't wow you on film, but he has a good track record of run prevention (3.76 career MiLB ERA) despite underwhelming K numbers and too many walks. He's skinny at 6-foot-5 and could fill out more. He recently was promoted to Triple-A, indicating the organization wants to see more.
(11) LHP Matt Cronin: It should probably come as no surprise that Cronin is another talented pitcher who missed extensive time this season due to injury and could use more reps. Cronin is a typical relief prospect in that he notches tons of strikeouts but also walks too many. He's a guy that should move fast and made it to Double-A this year. If not for midseason injury, I don't think it's crazy to speculate that he could have pitched in the big leagues this year. Barring injury, he will pitch in the majors next year at some point. A stint in the AFL would go a long way toward showing just how soon that could be. Cronin is potential big league closer down the road.
RHP Richard Guasch: First things first: Guasch has primarily been a starting pitcher in his Minor League career, but this is editorializing here to profile him as a reliever. Guasch, one of three players acquired from the A's in the Yan Gomes-Josh Harrison trade, was a starting pitcher in five of his six appearances at High-A Wilmington. However, he has been stuck in A ball as a middling starter with pretty good stuff. He doesn't go deep into games, he allows too many baserunners and he's 23 and probably needs to go to Double-A soon. His progress could be hastened by a permanent move to the bullpen, where he doesn't necessarily need to be pigeonholed into a late-inning role.
RHP Reid Schaller: The Nats' third-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2018, Schaller split his season almost exactly down the middle between Wilmington and Harrisburg. His numbers were comparable at both stops, with a solid 3.05 ERA at Wilmington. Drafted as a starter, Schaller is still learning to be a reliever. Like many relief prospects, Schaller posted more than a K per inning on average, but walked entirely too many (24 in only 44.1 innings). Reps, reps, reps.
(15) SS Yasel Antuna: There's no nice way to put it: Antuna stunk in 2021. Antuna, the team's biggest international bonus baby ever (tied with No. 9 prospect Armando Cruz), received rave reviews for his performance at the alternate site in 2020. He opened the team's eyes enough to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft and put him on their 40-man roster. Antuna rewarded the Nats with a .227/.307/.385 line with an jaw-dropping 36 errors (36!) in 2021 at High-A Wilmington. Needless to say, that's not what you want from a guy occupying a spot on your 40-man roster. There's talent there, and the Arizona Fall League would represent a fresh start of sorts. Perhaps a solid showing in Arizona could turn things around.
1B Raudy Read: This one is a little off the wall, but logical. Read has spent parts of multiple seasons at the Major League level as a catcher for the Nats, and has a World Series ring with the 2019 team. However, the Nats have experimented with moving Read to first base due to a dearth of depth at the position and an organizational need for power. Read showed off his loud bat at times after the transition and needs more experience at first base.
SS Jackson Cluff: Cluff is a polarizing prospect as he's the sort of player who displays good tools and looks the part ... until the games begin. He hasn't translated his skills into production to this point, carrying a career slash line of .223/.315/.336. Defensively, he has the tools to stick at short. The catch here is Cluff didn't play at Harrisburg after mid-August and is still listed as on the Injured List. If it's not a severe injury, he could be a candidate to play in the AFL.
SS Gilbert Lara: Acquired alongside K.J. Harrison in the 2018 Gio Gonzalez trade with the Brewers, Lara was at one point a guy on the lower end of the team's prospect rankings. He's not quite there anymore, but there's a potential path to a backup MLB role someday. He's an adequate fielder with good size at 6-foot-4, 198 pounds. The bat has been inconsistent, however. That said, he was recently promoted to Triple-A and homered in his debut. He's still 23, so he's in line for his age and level.
3B Jake Alu: Alu was drafted without fanfare in the 24th round out of Boston College in 2019. He then quietly put together a productive first full season of professional ball split between Wilmington and Harrisburg. Alu slashed an impressive .303/.357/.490 at Wilmington before earning a promotion to Harrisburg, where he posted .264/.315/.411.
(12) Donovan Casey: Casey is realistically the only outfielder in the Nats system right now who profiles well in the AFL. Generally considered the "throw-in" of the blockbuster Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade with the Dodgers, Casey is more than that. He has four legit tools and profiles similarly to Michael A. Taylor. He's fast, has an elite throwing arm and power. But the question is whether he will hit enough to be more than a defensive-minded backup long term. Casey was phenomenal at Harrisburg after the trade, slashing .347/.353/.612 to earn a promotion to Rochester. After a fast start there, he is ending the year mired in a long slump. Specifically, his struggles started once he was moved off center due to Victor Robles' demotion. Casey is still raw, as he was a two-way player at Boston College.
Cole Freeman: Drafted as an infielder, Freeman has learned to play the outfield as a professional. An undersized player at 5-foot-9, Freeman has always gotten by on his speed. He long seemed a good candidate to make the big leagues as a high-character utility guy, but he just isn't hitting enough and he's 27, so the clock is ticking on him.
Nick Banks: A fourth-round pick in 2016, Banks slipped in the Draft due to a back injury and was billed as a potential steal if he got healthy. Whatever his health status, Banks hasn't hit enough to profile as a big leaguer, despite earning a promotion to Triple-A in 2021.
Rhett Wiseman: The former third-round pick has shown flashes in the past, but has never consistently produced.
Jacob Rhinesmith: An 18th-round pick in 2018, Rhinesmith has exceeded expectations and posted solid if unspectacular numbers this year, eventually earning a late-season promotion to Harrisburg.