Folks, it’s that time of year again. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and I’m getting a sunburn every time I step outside; summer is (almost) officially here. Of course with the beginning of summer comes the beginning of short-season baseball, the obscure and sometimes mysterious proving ground for draftees and international signings alike. Modest baseball fields from Missoula to West Palm Beach are firing up their lights for the first times all season, ready to watch young men take their first steps towards their major league dreams or fight to keep that dream a reality. Alright that’s enough of me trying to sound poetic about short-season baseball; the low minors are fun, they’re weird, and most importantly they give many fans a chance to see their team’s newly drafted players and international free agents for the very first time. For the Nationals, several high-upside prospects are set to make their much anticipated professional debuts after the Nats splurged on international prospects last summer. When you add in the incoming draft class, Nats fans will have plenty to watch for between Auburn, West Palm Beach, and Boca Chica this summer.
Starting about 40 minutes west of Syracuse in sleepy Western New York, the Short Season A (A-) Auburn Doubledays began their season last night against the Batavia Muckdogs (Marlins). Only one of the Nationals college draftees (Nick Raquet) has signed as of right now, so the Auburn roster is lacking in star power, but there is still plenty of talent on the roster. As more and more draftees officially sign and players get promoted, Auburn should see some of the most talented prospects in the system by season’s end. On the roster currently are a hodgepodge of international players and later round draft picks from 2016, all of whom were deemed unready to enter full season baseball, but their are still some interesting names. Armond Upshaw is a second-year switch hitting outfielder out of Pensacola State who just turned 21 despite being a second year college draftee. Upshaw is raw, but is an elite athlete, and has been described as an 80 runner on the 20-80 scale by Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs. His speed and athleticism should make him a plus defender in center field, so if he can show some consistency at the plate, Upshaw could be a potentially impact prospect in the future. Ben Braymer and Joseph Baltrip are both future relievers with high K rates and control issues, a profile the Nats love; though the fact that Braymer is a lefty and currently a starter makes him slightly more intriguing to me.
With the Nationals taking 20 college players out of their first 21 picks, most of the exciting names coming through Auburn will come from this year’s draft class. Naturally the most exciting 2017 draftee is first rounder Seth Romero, he of top ten pick talent and numerous “character issues”. Romero has been suspended twice and kicked off of his college team, but the Nationals, who have a lengthy track record of targeting players whose stocks have dropped, were not deterred by these red flags. Despite his off the field issues, there’s no denying that Romero is a player loaded with on-the-field talent. Romero’s main offerings are his mid 90’s fastball and wipeout slider, though he also possesses a potentially above average changeup. In his senior year Romero struck out what would be an NCAA leading 15.72 batters per nine, despite slight control issues. Some have suggested fast-tracking Romero to the big leagues, but Mike Rizzo said he doesn’t expect that to happen. Regardless, Romero has the talent and potential to advance quickly, so his stay in Auburn may be abbreviated.
Joining Romero in Western New York should be fellow collegiate arms Raquet, Wil Crowe, Brigham Hill, and Kyle Johnston. Raquet, the only member of the 2017 class to have signed (per the Washington Post), struggled this year due to a lack of control but was still able to put up his signature high strikeout numbers. Despite starting in college, Raquet lacks a true third pitch and his lack of control likely limits him to the bullpen going forward. Look for Raquet to improve his command and throw strikes with more consistency if he hopes to take that next step forward. Crowe was a starter at South Carolina and underwent Tommy John in 2015, but possesses a quality four pitch mix that should give him a good chance to start. His ceiling is that of a middle of the rotation starter, and Crowe should be able to rise through the ranks quickly due to his advanced age — he turns 23 in September — and polish. The Nationals 5th round draft pick was Texas A&M standout right-hander Brigham Hill who, you guessed it, had Tommy John in the past. Hill, who throws a low 90’s fastball with above average secondaries and strong command, will likely start for the Doubledays. However, his small frame and injury history may limit him to the bullpen later in his career. Big reliever Kyle Johnston possesses an explosive fastball but his control has a long way to go if he hopes to reach his back of the bullpen potential.
As far as bats go, the names are limited beyond Upshaw. In the draft, the Nationals took an unprecedented nine pitchers with their first 10 draft picks hoping to take advantage of a pitching-rich draft (or at least that’s what Mike Rizzo told the media). However, that doesn’t mean there’s no exciting college bats coming from the draft. The Nationals took senior Cole Freeman in the fourth round of the draft; an infielder from LSU. The speedy Freeman has a good feel to hit and was named to the All-SEC defensive team in 2016, his first season as a member of the Tigers. While Freeman is a senior sign, the tools he has translate to the big leagues, and should forge him a path through the minors. Another intriguing bat taken by the Nationals is 20-year-old Midland College outfielder Eric Senior. Senior, one of the best Junior College hitters in the draft, bashed his way to a .398/.438/.752 line with 17 HR’s and on top of that, possesses impressive athleticism and at only 6’2/170, has plenty of room to grow into even more power. Whether he signs is yet to be seen, but if he does, Senior will likely spend the majority of his time at Auburn.
Moving past Auburn, things get a little murkier for the GCL and DSL Nationals. In the Gulf Coast League, the Nationals haven’t set their final roster yet, and as I mentioned earlier the Nationals only drafted 6 high schoolers in the entire draft so the roster will likely be made up of repeats, international players and lesser college prospects. One player who will definitely be starting his season in West Palm Beach is Jesus Luzardo, 19 year old left hander who the Nationals drafted in the third round of 2016. Luzardo has yet to throw a pitch in professional baseball due to Tommy John, but was highly rated coming out of high school and is one of the best arms in the Nationals system. I wrote about Luzardo in my first post for the site back in April, and since he hasn’t pitched since then, the report remains much the same. Luzardo’s fastball and secondaries all project to be above average, but because of the surgery he is a high-risk prospect. Despite the risk, Luzardo is still an impact pitching prospect who should move up to Auburn if he can prove himself in the GCL, which I have no doubt he’s capable of. Despite pitching in Auburn last season, righty Francys Peguero is listed on the GCL roster and offers intriguing upside. Peguero shows an ability to generate strikeouts, and thus far has only allowed 13 walks thus far in his pro career which make him at least someone to watch as the season progresses. The former infielder has a long way to go but if he can continue to put up an 11.4 K/9, he’s worth watching.
Additionally, some of the big names from the Nationals’ international spree last July 2nd will be making their professional debut in the GCL. Shortstop Luis Garcia didn’t get the biggest bonus of the Nats’ signees at $1.3 million, but he is the best prospect. Garcia has a good combination of athleticism and tools that make him a high upside prospect despite his distance from the majors. Garcia, a lefthanded hitter, has a good feel for hitting and scouts believe he could develop average to above average power in the future. For a young athletic shortstop with a chance to be an above average defender at the position, that is plenty promising. The biggest bonus, at a staggering $3.9 million, went to fellow shortstop Yasel Antuna. Scouts believe the young Dominican projects as an everyday shortstop at the big league level should his hit tool can keep up with his power projection, arm, and range, though recent reports are more optimistic about the bat and less about the glove. Antuna is still raw like any 17-year-old, but a shortstop with a chance to stick and power potential is going to make some waves. Yet another 2016 shortstop caught the attention of scouts this past season: Venezuelan Jose Sanchez. Sanchez is still only 16, but looks like a plus defender at shortstop and as his body matures has a good chance to hit at higher levels.
As for the DSL, I’m certainly not an expert. The league is hard to get information out of and beyond the big name signings, it’s hard to get a feel for many of the second tier guys unless you’re a professional scout (or Ben Badler). *Stephen A Smith voice* HOWEVER, there are a few prospects worth mentioning. Third baseman Bryan Bencosme was the Nationals’ top international signee in 2014, though he received just a $425,000 bonus. After struggling in his first two cracks at the DSL, he has a .941 OPS in the early going this year. Also on the team is shortstop Luis Aquino, who was the Nats’ second biggest international signing in 2015 behind Juan Soto and is the nephew of former Nat Cristian Guzman. Yelmery Sisnero is a lefty pitcher who tore up the DSL to the tune of a 0.43 ERA in 41 2/3 innings last year, but is on the 60-day DL. And while the most advanced of the 2016 international signees are advancing to the GCL, quite a few are in the DSL, including six-figure bonus recipients shortstop Cesar Porte ($300,000) and righthanded pitcher Wilson Severino ($100,000).
Projecting players at the short-season level is tough. Beyond the college draftees, many of these players are teenagers who haven’t even fully developed yet, so while many look like future big leaguers, it’s hard to say with any certainty. But I can say that the Nationals have several players that are more than worth the fans’ attention this summer. Even beyond the top prospects, every player taking the field for a short season clubs is relatively new to the world of professional baseball, and brings a passion that makes following their progress a whole lot of fun to watch.Tags: Ben Braymer, Brigham Hill, Bryan Bencosme, Cesar Porte, Cole Freeman, Eric Senior, Jesus Luzardo, Jose Sanchez, Joseph Baltrip, Kyle Johnston, Luis Aquino, Luis Garcia, Mike Rizzo, Minors, Nationals, Nats, Nick Raquet, Seth Romero, Washington Nationals, Wil Crowe, Wilson Severino, Yasel Antuna, Yelmery Sisnero