Four of Washington's minor league affiliates started their respective 2014 campaigns Thursday night. There are interesting prospects to follow throughout the Nationals organization, so we decided to take a look at five players we'll be following closely this season on MiLB.tv or on trips to minor league parks.
Matt Purke: Taken 14th overall by the Texas Rangers in 2009, Purke didn't sign, choosing instead to attend Texas Christian University where the left-hander put together an impressive freshman campaign. Purke was 16-0 with 142 strikeouts (10.99 K/9) and 34 walks (2.63 BB/9) in 20 games and 116 1/3 innings pitched for TCU. But he dealt with a shoulder injury in his sophomore season that limited him to just 11 starts and 52 2/3 innings in which the southpaw was 5-1 with a 1.71 ERA, .187 batting average against, 61 strikeouts (10.42 K/9) and 20 walks (3.42 BB/9). The Nationals drafted Purke in the third round of the 2011 draft, 96th overall, and gave him a four-year, $4.15 million major league deal.
The shoulder issues persisted, however, so he finally had shoulder surgery in late 2012. Purke returned to action last summer, going 1-1 with a 2.48 ERA, a 2.54 FIP, seven walks (2.17 BB/9) and 41 strikeouts (12.72 K/9) in six starts and 29 innings pitched for the low Single-A Hagerstown Suns. He then moved up to high Single-A Potomac, where he was 5-3 in six starts for the P-Nats, posting a 4.43 ERA, a 3.58 FIP, 18 walks (2.66 BB/9) and 41 strikeouts(6.05 K/9) in 61 innings. He impressed in spring training and was assigned to Double-A Harrisburg. He's made just 21 starts since the Nationals drafted him. There's talk in scouting circles that his ceiling is now as a reliever in the majors. It's going to be a big season for Purke to show if the investment the Nats made and the risk they took will start to pay off.
Drew Ward: With less fanfare than nationally known talents like Bryce Harper, Ward went about the process of graduating from high school early to make himself eligible for the draft as soon as possible. When the Nationals heard he would be available, they began tracking him closely, then selected the left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing infielder with the 105th overall pick in the third round of last year's draft. The Nationals signed Ward, described by then-assistant GM Roy Clark as a "big-time power bat," to a well above-slot $850,000 deal.
Assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations Kris Kline praised Ward after the selection.
"He's got a plus arm, he's got good action. Good hands. He's not a runner, but he's a left-handed bat with a really good advanced approach," Kline said. "And he's got power from the left side, so he definitely profiles as a corner-type player."
As an 18-year-old with the Gulf Coast League Nationals, Ward put up a .292/.402/.387 line with 13 doubles, one home run, 25 walks and 44 strikeouts in 49 games and 199 plate appearances. He also put up a .338/.430/.500 line with runners in scoring position. As a 19-year-old, he's starting the 2014 season at Hagerstown.
Matt Skole: Skole suffered a torn UCL and a wrist injury on a play at first base early last season and he lost an important year in his development to Tommy John surgery. He was named the Nationals minor league Player of the Year in 2012 following a .291/.426/.559, 28-double, 27-homer season in which he played in 129 games and made 524 plate appearances between Hagerstown and Potomac. He returned in time for a second stint in the Arizona Fall League and impressed new Nats skipper Matt Williams in a short run in major league camp this spring. Williams, in fact, compared him to a pretty big name.
"Good opposite-field power," he told reporters this spring. "Reminds me a little bit of (Jim) Thome, the way that Jim Thome used to hit the ball the other way so well. Skole does that good and then he takes the ahead-in-the-count-fastball or the breaking ball and drives it to his pull side, but stays on the baseball well."
Skole is starting at Harrisburg this season. He was the top infielder on Baseball America's top 10 Nationals prospects list for 2014, landing No. 4 overall on the list in spite of the lost season.
Lucas Giolito: The Nationals' 2012 first-round pick returned from Tommy John surgery to put together an impressive run in the Gulf Coast League and New York-Penn League last season. The 6-foot-6 19-year-old right-hander was 1-1 with a 2.78 ERA, a 2.32 FIP, 10 walks (3.97 BB/9) and 25 strikeouts (9.93 K/9) in eight starts and 22 2/3 innings for the GCL Nationals. He then moved on to the short-season Single-A Auburn Doubledays and making three more starts in which he was 1-0 with a 0.64 ERA, a 3.41 FIP, four walks (2.57 BB/9) and 14 strikeouts (9.00 K/9) in 14 innings pitched. He'll be on an innings limit, but seriously, buy MiLB.tv and hope the Hagerstown games are on whenever he pitches.
Jake Johansen: "This is what we seek when we go out to the ballpark every day," Kline told reporters after the Nationals made Johansen their top pick of last June's draft. "He's a 6-foot-6, 235-lb. right-handed pitcher. If you put him next to Giolito, you have some pretty good-looking bookends."
The Suns will have those bookends in their rotation at the start of this season. Johansen started his pro career in Auburn, putting up a 1.06 ERA in 51 2/3 innings and got two starts in for the Suns last summer. As a 23-year-old at low Single-A, he could rise quickly if he gets off to a good start.
Which prospects will you be watching? Any sleepers?
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.