For the Washington Nationals, the focus has always been on the future. In 2012, that has started to change. This season has been the most exciting season in the history of the Nationals and has undoubtedly been a magical year. Even with Stephen Strasburg shut down, the Nationals have high aspirations for the rest of the season, and they believe that they can make a deep run into October. But what about after this season? The prospects who won’t be ready soon are starting to matter less as the Nationals have entered win-now made. That makes the Arizona Fall League extremely important for the Nationals to watch this fall. As it is constructed, the Arizona Fall League is composed primarily of prospects at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, not far at all from the big leagues. Both Strasburg and Bryce Harper made their pro debuts in the AFL and were crucial components of the Nationals’ big league effort within two years. Who’s next?
Anthony Rendon had a legitimate chance to be the number one overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft only to drop to the Nationals at number 6 because of ankle and shoulder injuries. Rendon, now 22, continued to struggle with both injuries as he missed most of the 2012 season, but the Nationals hope to see him start rounding himself into form and moving towards becoming a middle-of-the-order threat in their lineup in the Arizona Fall League. So far in 2012, Rendon has played in just 43 games between Rookie ball, Short Season-A, High-A, and Double-A, hitting just .233 but almost everything else checked out fine. He posted a .233/.363/.489 line with 8 doubles, 4 triples, 6 homers, 12 RBI, and a ridiculous 29-23 strikeout to walk ratio in 43 games and 160 plate appearances. HE did just as well as you would expect such an advanced hitter to do against lower-level competition. Defensively, his arm strength and range of motion at third base took quite a while to come around, but by his stint in Double-A, he looked fine. Rendon, when healthy, features an outstanding combination of pure bat speed, power, and plate discipline that gives him a chance to be a special player someday, hitting as high as .320 with a great on-base percentage and 30-homer power. Defensively, he looks outstanding when healthy at third base- but he’ll be hard-pressed to earn time there with the Nationals as they have a franchise cornerstone in Ryan Zimmerman playing the position. But Rendon has solid speed, even after his injuries, and the Nationals are going to try him at second base, where they currently have their only below-average regular other than at catcher in Danny Espinosa (98 OPS+). In the Arizona Fall League, Rendon is going to get back in the swing of things by making up for some of the time he lost in 2012, getting a little more comfortable against advanced pitching as he hasn’t seen too much of that yet, and then also working at second base and possibly the corner outfield positions. Rendon has already gotten a reputation for being injury-riddled, but he’s an extremely talented player who could be ready to make a significant impact in Washington as soon as next season. The Nationals hope to see him rip up AFL pitching and challenge for a big league spot as soon as Spring Training 2013.
In addition to the top 2011 pick Rendon, the Nationals will also be sending their second pick from that draft to the AFL in supplemental first rounder Brian Goodwin, a centerfielder now 21 years old. The Nationals gave Goodwin a little bit of the Bryce Harper treatment in 2012, jumping him from Low-A to Double-A and giving him a chance to be in the big leagues by next season, but it did not work out so well and the Nationals hope Goodwin can piece himself together against more advanced pitching in the AFL this fall. The Nationals may have been a tad conservative having Goodwin start his pro career at Low-A Hagerstown, but in any event he demolished Sally League pitching, posting a .324/.438/.542 line with 18 doubles, 9 homers, 38 RBI, 15 of 19 stolen bases, and 43 walks against 39 strikeouts in 58 games and 266 plate appearances. But after heading up to Double-A Harrisburg, Goodwin was overmatched, posting just a .223/.306/.373 line with 8 doubles, 5 homers, 14 RBI, just 3 of 6 stolen bases, and 50 strikeouts versus 18 walks in 42 games and 186 plate appearances. Goodwin has 5-tool potential as a prospect and showcased that during his time in Hagerstown. He shows outstanding bat speed at his best and the ball jumps off his bat with above-average power, especially for a centerfielder. He combines that with even better speed that he’s still using to learn on the basepaths but will serve him extremely well both there and in centerfield. He also has a good centerfielder’s arm. The big problem for Goodwin moving up to Double-A was not really chasing pitches out of the zone as much being uncomfortable against more advanced breaking balls that pitchers could locate for strikes. His knees buckled on breaking balls right on the knees a disproportionate amount of the time once he arrived in Harrisburg. Goodwin shows the bat speed, the power, and the plate discipline to be a good hitter, but he has to get more reps against advanced pitching and get more comfortable. Goodwin also has some other loose ends in his game to tie up, specifically his lack of bunting ability, getting a little more consistent with his bat speed, and working on his throwing accuracy from the outfield. Goodwin has a chance to build confidence over the fall after a tough time at Double-A, and the Nationals are confident he can make strides and have a much better showing at Double-A in 2013.
It’s not good when you’re 23 going on 24 and still raw. But the Nationals are hoping Jason Martinson can put things together quickly and make up for the lost time. Martinson, a 6’1″, 190 shortstop, started off 2012 repeating the Low-A level before moving up to High-A around midseason. On the year, his stats showed promise but also a big lack of polish as he posted a .245/.340/.430 line with 13 doubles, 7 triples, 22 homers, 106 RBI, 30 of 35 stolen bases, and a scary 167 strikeouts versus 68 walks in 135 games and 586 plate appearances. Martinson shows an interesting combination of power and speed- but his ability to make contact, his plate discipline, and his defensive ability are all a complete work in progress. Martinson features power to all fields, but his bat speed is just average and he is completely befuddled by breaking balls at this point. His bat speed also gets long at times when he sells out for power, leading him to be beat on too many fastballs as well. And defensively at shortstop, Martinson shows great range and good arm strength, but his hands and the fluidity of his motions are sub-par this point. A trial at third base for Martinson also ended badly. In the Arizona Fall League, the Nationals will give Martinson a chance to prove that he’s really a prospect. Martinson will be on the taxi squad, eligible to play only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but his practice on the other days will be just as important as how he does in game action. Martinson has a ton of things to work on, and with enough improvement the Nationals would love to send him to Double-A to begin 2013 considering his advanced age by prospect standards.
Paul Demney, a 6’2″, 200 right-handed starting pitcher who turned 23 in August, as a pitcher who entered 2012 as a sleeper in the Nationals organization. He then proceeded to get lit up as he moved to Double-A. In the Arizona Fall League, the Nationals will assess his future role and give him one last audition to prove he can still be a starting pitcher. Demney went 6-8 at Double-A Harrisburg in 2012 with a 5.46 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, a 4.4 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 23 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 123.2 IP. Demney’s arsenal is intriguing. He throws a sinker in the low-90′s that touches 96 MPH, and he also throws a changeup that flashes plus to go along with a slider that is at least average. But it doesn’t help to throw a sinker when you can’t locate it down in the zone, and for all his pitches, Demney can’t control or command them consistently. In the Arizona Fall League, Demney is going to work on getting on top of his pitches in his delivery and getting a good downward plane so the nice velocity and movement on his sinker can finally translate to groundballs. If he continues to get hit hard, the Nationals are going to have to consider converting Demney to a full-time reliever, where his velocity and secondary pitches would play up. The Nationals hope to see Demney make progress in the Arizona Fall League and continue working towards a possible future as a back-of-the-rotation arm.
Ryan Perry, 25, is an interesting case in terms of his eligibility for the Arizona Fall League. Perry, a 6’4″, 215 right-handed pitcher, is now a member of the Nationals organization, but many of you may remember him as a relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. However, Perry has not logged a year of big league service time in 2012, leaving him with almost exactly two years of big league service time (2009 and 2010), and making him just barely eligible for the Arizona Fall League. Perry managed just a 10.13 ERA in 7 appearances for the Nationals and a 4.50 ERA with a 10.5 K/9 but a 5.2 BB/9 in 11 Triple-A relief appearances, but then the Nationals decided to send him to Double-A Harrisburg and convert him to a starting pitcher and the results were pretty good as he went 2-4 with a 2.84 ERA, a 5.7 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 13 starts and 73 IP. As a reliever, Perry pumped a mid-90′s fastball but a straight one to go along with a good slider, but as a starting pitcher, Perry has completely changed his approach. He works primarily with a low-90′s sinker that features good horizontal action in addition to sink and Perry is able to control and command it pretty well. His groundball rate at Harrisburg was a very good 52.3% according to Minor League Central. But the sinker doesn’t miss too many bats and Perry struggles to sell his slider as a strike to force whiffs and he’s just starting to work his changeup. Perry’s career looks salvageable and he will work on commanding his secondary pitches over the course of the fall. The trade in which the Nationals netted Perry, a straight Perry for Collin Balester swap, looked like a forgettable trade of enigmatic and ineffective middle relievers, but the Nationals may end up with a solid starting pitcher in Perry in the long-term.
Christian Garcia has been one of the best stories in baseball over the past few years. Garcia, a 6’5″, 215 right-hander who turned 27 back in August, was originally a 3rd round pick by the Yankees back in 2004, but his career was derailed by shoulder and elbow injuries, including two Tommy John Surgeries, and he played in just 16 games above Low-A from 2004 to 2010 before the Yankees released him despite his electric arm- he struck out 9.7 batters per 9 innings in 56 starts and 12 relief appearances in the Yankees organization. The Nationals picked him up and converted him to a full-time reliever and were patient with him as he continued his rehab from his second Tommy John in 2011. But in 2012, a finally healthy Garcia has absolutely obliterated hitters as he has worked his way up from Double-A all the way to the big leagues. Garcia posted a 0.86 ERA, an 11.4 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, a 0.0 HR/9, and a 62.6% groundball rate in 45 relief appearances and 52.1 IP between Double-A and Triple-A and now has a 2.45 ERA in his first 4 big league appearances across 3.2 IP, striking out 4 while walking none. Garcia’s stuff out of the bullpen is insane. He throws a fastball in the mid-90′s that touches 98 MPH, and when he is able to get on top of it, it features devastating late bite. The problem is that he doesn’t get on top of it often enough. Garcia also throws a changeup that he gets good arm action and nice sink on, and considering hitters have to be sitting fastball against Garcia, it has quickly become a weapon. His third pitch is a big-breaking low-80′s curveball that could not be a bigger change of pace from his fastball but he struggles to control and command it. Garcia has already become a big part of the Nationals’ bullpen with Sean Burnett sidelined with elbow inflammation, and it would be unsurprising at this point if the Nationals choose to have Garcia forego the Arizona Fall League to go on their postseason roster. He could definitely use work on getting on top of his fastball better to get the devastating bite more consistently and also on controlling and commanding his secondary pitches, but Garcia’s present ability may be too good for the Nationals to pass up.
The Nationals’ Arizona Fall League roster still has at least one player missing and possibly two if Garcia does indeed places onto the playoff roster instead of heading to the AFL, but it’s already clear from these players that the Nationals have some interesting talent in the upper levels of their system, and that talent is already starting to pay dividends in September and will be even more valuable in 2013. This fall, as Nationals fans hope to see their team go deep into October, they’ll be several players worth watching over in Arizona. Some of those players will become big parts of what the Nationals are doing at the big league level, and that process begins in the Arizona Fall League.
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