On November 6th, Baseball America released their rankings of the top ten prospects in the Nationals’ system for the 2014 season. BA is one of the most respected prospect publications in all of baseball, and their rankings are among the most highly anticipated every year. Today, we'll look at the top five prospects. (We covered numbers six through ten yesterday.)
1. Lucas Giolito, RHP
Total no-brainer here. Recovered from the Tommy John surgery that dropped him to the Nats in the middle of the first round in the 2012 draft, he dominated in the Gulf Coast League and the short-season Low A New York-Penn League. He looks the part of a future ace, with a high-90s fastball, devastating curve, and not too shabby changeup.
He is very highly regarded by all prospect evaluators, to say the least. Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks recently spoke very highly of him in a few tweets. The compiler of this list, Aaron Fitt, said in his chat about the Nats’ system (subscribers only) that he was “comfortable” predicting that Giolito would be the number one overall prospect in baseball by the end of next season. He’s the real deal, folks, and nobody in the Nats’ system comes close.
He’ll be moving up to full-season Low A at Hagerstown next year, but as we saw with Taylor Jordan last year, the Nats have no problem with moving up pitchers who destroy their leagues. Expect to see him in the bigs at the end of 2015 or 2016.
2. A.J. Cole, RHP
Now, as much as we all loved Michael Morse, aren’t you glad we traded him this past offseason? Cole was originally drafted by the Nats out of high school in the 4th round of the 2010 draft, but traded him after a season to Oakland, along with a few other prospects, for Gio Gonzalez. He struggled in High A and the Nats reacquired him in the three-team deal that sent Morse to Seattle. Morse hit just .226, albeit with 13 homers, in 76 games before being traded to Baltimore, where he hit just .103 in 12 games. I’d call that deal a win.
Cole was mediocre in repeating High A last year, posting a 4.25 ERA, but was promoted to AA Harrisburg anyway and took off, with a 2.18 ERA, 49:10 K:BB ratio, and .188 opponent average in seven starts. Despite the bumps in his career road, he seems to be back on track and will only be 22 this upcoming season. He still has a healthy amount of potential, though there are questions.
His best pitch is his 93-95 MPH fastball, but his offerings drop off from there. Fitt describes Cole’s changeup as “fringe average” and his breaking ball as “inconsistent,” not even knowing whether to call it a curveball or a slider. Perhaps finally being in the same organization for two straight seasons will help Cole improve his secondary pitches, but he’ll have trouble succeeding without bringing those up to par. To conclude, Fitt says Cole will end up as a “mid-rotation starter.”
Here’s my big question: Why is a future decent starter with one plus pitch and no average pitches the number two prospect in the system? The term “mid-rotation starter” has some wiggle room, so maybe Fitt is optimistic that Cole will refine his pitches and be a great #3 starter. I hope he’s right, but it doesn’t seem extremely likely. Even if he does meet that potential, how does that put him above the next guy on the list?
3. Brian Goodwin, CF
If you had to use one word to describe Goodwin, it would be “toolsy.” He has the potential to be above MLB-average in each of the five tools: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, defense, and arm strength. However, he has struggled to put them all together. He tore up Low A in his first season after being drafted, but did not adjust well to a midseason promotion to AA and hit just .223 there in the second half of 2012.
He went back to AA for 2013 and improved, but not as much as was hoped. He hit just .252 with 10 home runs and far too many strikeouts, though he walked at a decent clip. His defense is good, but still needs refinement, and he was successful on just 19 of his 30 stolen base attempts last season – a surprisingly low rate for someone as fast as he is. He might start 2014 in AA again, but will certainly be in AAA at some point in the year.
This is where I disagree with Fitt. Goodwin is riskier than Cole, of course: there’s a chance he never puts in together enough to stick in the majors, but he has “all-star potential” according to Fitt. Goodwin has more to change, but his ceiling has to put him above Cole as a prospect. Cole’s relative safe-ness would only put him above Goodwin if he weren’t quite risky himself.
4. Matt Skole, 1B/3B
After a promising 2012 season vaulted Skole into prospect status, he followed an unfortunate Nationals tradition in the second game of this season. He tore his UCL in his second game at AA Harrisburg in a collision at first base, requiring Tommy John surgery that cost him the year. He won’t be on an innings limit in 2014, but will still be at AA and suffering for a lost year of development. That’s no small issue either, given that he will turn 25 during the 2014 season.
He played third base until 2013, given that he’s not a good enough fielder to unseat Ryan Zimmerman or Anthony Rendon. He is, in many ways, a typical first baseman: a lefty with great power who walks a lot. He hit .291 with 27 home runs between Low A and High A in 2012. If he had dominated AA to a similar tune last season, I suspect he might be above Cole and Goodwin on this list. But now he gets a healthy go at Harrisburg, even though it means that he will likely not be MLB-ready when Adam LaRoche’s contract expires after the 2014 season.
5. Robbie Ray, LHP
The former 12th-rounder’s prospect stock had fallen greatly entering the 2013 season, as he had just posted a 6.56 ERA over a full season at High A. He rebounded nicely, however, with a 3.11 ERA before earning a promotion to AA midseason. He held his own there, with a 3.72 ERA. At only 21, he will likely start 2014 in Harrisburg with a shot to move to AAA if he pitches well.
Ray is like a poor man’s lefty Cole, with a strong fastball, mediocre curve, and bad breaking pitch. He too can be a mid-rotation starter, but only if he gets his secondary stuff together, and he has much further to go there than Cole does.
Just Missed: Billy Burns, OF; Tony Renda, 2B; Zach Walters, SS; Matt Purke, LHP; Pedro Severino, C
Fitt mentions in his chat that all of these players were considered for the #10 spot on the list, a testament to the depth of the Nats’ system. Burns is a high-average, no-power speedy CF, who stole one fewer base than Reds speedster Billy Hamilton last season. Renda is another high-average, no-power guy who hit .294 as a 22-year-old in Low A last season. Walters had an OBP of just .286 last season, but mashed 29 home runs as a middle infielder in AAA. Purke has dealt with injuries since being a highly regarded draft prospect, but rebounded nicely this year with a 3.80 ERA between Low A and High A. Severino hit only .241 at Low A Hagerstown last year, but is just 19 and quite advanced for his age.
A few other names to keep an eye on include 2013 draftees 3B Drew Ward, whose ceiling Fitt says is that of “maybe even a star,” RHP Austin Voth, and RHP Nic Pivetta, along with RHP Jefry Rodriguez and RHP Wander Suero.
Additionally, both RHP Taylor Jordan and RHP Tanner Roark made their MLB debuts this season but pitched over 50 innings and thus exhausted their prospect eligibility. However, Fitt put Jordan above Goodwin and below Cole on the Nats’ “Top 15 Players 25 and Under,” confirming in the chat that he would have put an eligible Jordan as the #3 Nats prospect. He was less sure about the 27-year-old Roark, but did say that if eligible, he “would have been a real factor on this list.”