For the second straight year, The Nats Blog presents its countdown of the Washington Nationals’ Top-10 Prospects.
There are some changes from last year’s list, and part one is the most reflective of that trend. One player from this list was not ranked last year, while another was only drafted in June. Part Two — which will cover players five through one — is truly the cream of the crop, but this section has its points of interest, yielding the Nationals some potential rotation insurance and a trio of promising position players.
As a reminder, this list is a combination of my observations, those of trusted sources, and reports from popular outlets such as Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. There are a number of ways to tackle this ranking, but in the end, I felt that these 10 players had the combination of projectable talent and minor league success to make them worthy of inclusion.
10.) 3B Anderson Franco
DOB: 8/15/1997 B-T: R-R
Acquired: International free agent, 2013 2016 Team: Low-A Hagerstown ETA: 2019
When the Nationals committed a $900,000 signing bonus to Franco in 2013, they were hedging their bets that he would provide the system with a potent offensive threat. Early returns have been positive, as Franco took some steps forward in 2015.
In 170 plate appearances in the Gulf Coast League, Franco batted .281/.347/.412 with four home runs. That earned him a four-game stint at Short Season-A Auburn to end the season.
With a projectable 6’3” 190 lb. frame, Franco should hit for more power while maintaining his contact skills, particularly if he improves his recognition of breaking balls. Some feel that he displays the instincts to stay at the hot corner, though it may be a few seasons before his long-term position is settled. Even if he begins 2016 in extended spring training, expect Franco to make the leap to Hagerstown at some point.
9.) CF Andrew Stevenson
DOB: 6/1/1994 B-T: L-L
Acquired: Second round, 2015 2016 Team: High-A Potomac ETA: 2018
The Nationals’ top pick in last year’s draft, Stevenson displayed some promise during his professional debut. Over his first 55 games—35 of which came at Hagerstown—he batted .308 with a .363 OPS, and flashed his speed by stealing 23 bases in 30 attempts.
Stevenson’s best attributes are his instincts and his speed. Along with getting good jumps on the bases, he displays impressive range in centerfield and rarely takes a bad route to the ball. Two questions going forward are his arm strength and his swing, which is hampered by an awkward hand action that will more likely be exploited at the higher levels.
If Stevenson straightens out his swing, he could very easily develop into a top-of-the order hitter whose value is boosted significantly by his defense.
8.) RHP Austin Voth
DOB: 6/26/1992 B-T: R-R
Acquired: Fifth round, 2013 2016 Team: Triple-A Syracuse ETA: 2016
For a prospect that has had his fair share of doubters, Voth continues to impress. At Double-A Harrisburg last year, the right-hander once again got the most out of his command, posting a 2.92 ERA in 157 1/3 innings pitched while leading the Eastern League with 148 strikeouts. He posted a mere 2.3 BB/9 rate in that stretch.
While he lacks the plus-fastball or dominant off-speed stuff of his contemporaries in the system, Voth makes up for this with a solid feel for his three-pitch repertoire, which includes a fastball that runs in the 88-92 mph range, a changeup, and a slider.
If he continues to make the most of his pitches, Voth should develop into a reliable, mid-to-back of the rotation starter.
7.) RHP A.J. Cole
DOB: 1/5/1992 B-T: R-R
Acquired: Trade from Oakland A’s (1/16/13) 2016 Team: Triple-A Syracuse
Selected in the same draft class as Bryce Harper, Cole has been on the receiving end of some prospect fatigue, as his extended stay in the system was combined with his inability to stick in the majors last year. Before dismissing him completely, consider that most organizations would love to have a potential mid-rotation starter, who’s on the cusp of the majors at 24, and has maintained health throughout his career.
Cole’s calling card is his fastball, which runs in the low-to-mid 90’s. He has struggled to pin down the rest of repertoire — including a changeup, slider, and curveball — leaving his ceiling a little more limited. Still, his stuff and track record suggest that Cole should be able to stick in the middle or back of a major league rotation.
Even though he received major league time last year, the Nationals’ depth will likely force Cole back to Syracuse.
6.) 2B/SS Wilmer Difo
DOB: 4/2/1992 B-T: B-R
Acquired: International free agent, 2010 2016 Team: Syracuse
Following his breakout 2014, Difo faced some adversity in 2015. After a fast start at Potomac, he was promoted to Harrisburg and soon reached the majors, where he was sparsely used. That pattern continued off and on during the season, and halted his development.
As a result, his only full month at Harrisburg was August, and he rallied during that time to raise his Double-A triple-slash line to .279/.312/.387.
At his best, Difo displays excellent bat control and good bat speed, which allows him to maximize his power. While he does not project to be a consistent home run hitter, his skill set should allow him to drive the ball with enough consistency. Offensively, the area he needs to address is his patience, as his low OBP at Harrisburg was combined with a meager 3% walk rate.
Defensively, Difo has the tools to be an everyday second baseman and could also be serviceable at shortstop. Expect him to get an extended shot at Syracuse, as the Nationals added infield depth will allow him more time to develop.Tags: AJ Cole, Anderson Franco, Andrew Stevenson, Austin Voth, Nationals, Nats, Washington Nationals, Wilmer Difo