As we all know, the past year has been rough on the Nationals’ minor league system. Trades and promotions have turned what was once an excellent farm into just a mediocre one, with only a handful of high-end prospects remaining. While all of these moves have been done for the betterment of the major league club, the farm system is still in need of some restocking at all levels. With a low draft pick combined with a small bonus pool, as well as a cap on international spending after blowing through the cap last July 2nd, the traditional methods of restocking the farm offer limited near term value.
Moreover, as contenders, the Nationals are much more likely to give up rather than add prospects over the course of the season. Therefore if the Nats hope to rebuild the farm, they may be better off looking internally. Listed below are three very different prospects; two who I believe are on the verge of breaking out as legitimate prospects, and one who could emerge as a big league contributor this season. All three of these prospects are ready to take the next step, and should they do so, the Nationals farm will be looking much healthier come 2018.
Age: 26 Position: RP B/T: R/R Height/Weight: 6’2/225
In December, the Danny Espinosa era in Washington finally came to a close after he was shipped off to Anaheim in exchange for a pair of high minor league right handers. One of those right handers was none other than Austin Adams, a big reliever out of the University of South Florida with a major-league arsenal that includes a fastball that tops out at 98 mph and a wipeout slider. Adams has been in the minors since 2012 and has posted a career 11.7 K/9, including K/9’s over 12 in each of his past two seasons. The right-hander is off to a hot start in Syracuse, striking out 13 and surrendering only one hit over 8.2 scoreless innings
Now you might be asking, who is this guy? Why am I watching this bullpen blow leads every other day if we have the next Dennis Eckersley in Syracuse? Well, as impressive as his raw stuff is, Adams comes with one major downside. Sometimes he looks like Nuke Laloosh at the end of Bull Durham, but a lot of the time he looks like Nuke Laloosh at the beginning of Bull Durham. Simply put, Adams has a hard time consistently throwing strikes, and while this hasn’t cost him dearly yet in the minors, Adams will struggle to translate his success to the majors if he continues to walk 6.5 batters per nine innings. What I forgot to mention earlier was that along with his 13 K’s so far for the Chiefs, Adams has surrendered seven walks, issuing a free pass in each of his five appearances.
Despite Adams’ fatal flaw, there is still a lot to like here. His well above-average K rate alone indicates that Adams is a pitcher who could one day be a back of the bullpen type reliever if he could control his walks, and on top of that he has a career 5.5 H/9. You read that correctly: 5.5. The lowest H/9 in the major leagues last season belonged to one Jake Arrieta (ever heard of him?), coming in at 6.29, a full .7 points higher than Adams’ career H/9. Max Scherzer has the next lowest at 6.5. It doesn’t take a team of statisticians to realize that is an absurd number, even against minor league hitting. One doesn’t even have to leave the division to find a successful comp in Kyle Barraclough, who has thrived on giving up as little contact as possible, and striking out every batter he doesn’t walk. Obviously Adams has a long way to go before he can reach Barraclough’s level of success, but with the bullpen seemingly on the brink of collapse every night, Adams may find the chance to prove himself at the big league level sooner rather than later.
Age: 21 Position: OF B/T: L/L Height/Weight: 5’10/185
Despite being drafted out of New Mexico State in the 5th round of the 2016 Amateur Draft, Daniel Johnson is extremely raw as a prospect. But he carries several above average tools that make him an intriguing player. Johnson’s most eye-catching tool is his plus speed (timed at 6.35 seconds over 60 meters) which he used to steal 29 bases his Junior year with the Aggies, and 13 more for the Auburn Doubledays. In the field the Vallejo, CA native is capable of playing all three spots and has an absolute cannon, having been clocked at 101 mph during a college showcase. In the field, Johnson is capable of manning all three outfield positions and has split time equally between them as a pro. Due to his stocky build, his ability to stick in center field is questionable, but his raw athleticism gives him a shot of playing there at least part time, which drastically improves his stock as a prospect.
At the plate, the left-handed hitter has shown some above average pop, utilizing his quick hands and natural strength, though he has struggled making consistent contact and taking walks. In his professional debut, Johnson batted a meager .265/.312/.347, highlighting many of his shortcomings as a hitter. But he has so far rebounded nicely in 2017, batting a robust .354/.415/.708 with a South Atlantic League-leading five home runs through 50 plate appearances. Johnson has a lot of work to do in order to sniff the major leagues, yet he has the raw tools to allow him to shoot up the prospect rankings should he take that next step with Hagerstown. With outfield being a particularly deep position for the organization as a whole, the Nationals will likely take their time with Johnson, but he should be promoted to Potomac if his blistering start continues.
Age: 19 Position: SP B/T: L/L Height/Weight: 6’1/205
Jesus Luzardo has yet to throw a pitch in his professional baseball career but may provide some much needed upside to the once pitching rich Nationals farm system. Having been thinned out significantly over the offseason following the acquisition of Adam Eaton, the Nationals farm lacks any true impact pitching prospects behind Erick Fedde (who has been dominating with Double-A Harrisburg). A.J. Cole and Austin Voth are both solid, major league-ready pitchers, but project as back-end or depth starters at best. This is where Luzardo comes in.
The Peruvian-born left hander was nabbed by the Nats in the third round of the 2016 Amateur Draft, but was once billed as a potential first round pick by several scouts before blowing out his arm and undergoing Tommy John in March 2016. Luzardo is now a year removed from the operation and is slated for a July return, although the Nationals are sure to ease him in slowly. Having Tommy John at such a young age is always a red flag, but the Nationals have had success drafting players coming off of TJ (see Fedde, Erick; Giolito, Lucas) and the stuff is real for Luzardo. His premier pitch is a fastball that tops out in the mid to high 90’s, and he also carries two potentially plus secondaries in a changeup and a curveball that make him a potential mid-rotation arm. While the velocity remains a question mark post-surgery, his reportedly advanced pitchability and plus secondaries give Luzardo a high floor rarely seen among prep arms. Expect Luzardo to debut in either the GCL or NY-Penn League and if all goes well, we may see the lefty in Hagerstown by the end of the season.Tags: Austin Adams, Daniel Johnson, Jesus Luzardo, Nationals, Nats, Washington Nationals