Luke Erickson: Looking ahead to 2018

While the parent Nationals have a little more than a month to go - six or seven weeks if they can advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time in franchise history - the season in the minors ends tomorrow.

On a won-loss basis, 2017 was a disaster, nestled somewhere on the spectrum between “Ishtar” and Dan Snyder’s tenure as an owner. Just two of the seven affiliates finished above .500, the rest finished (or will finish) in last place, lowlighted by the Syracuse Chiefs’ Triple-A-worst 54-87 mark. But development, not winning, is the goal of the minors so let’s take a look at some of the successes from 2017.

Andrew Stevenson began the season in Double-A and has played his way onto the 40-man roster. While the door may have been opened by Rafael Bautista’s injury, Stevenson seized on the opportunity and, at the very least, has become a much more tradable asset for Mike Rizzo.

Victor Robles might have been promoted to the big club by many GMs in the wake of all the injuries to all of the Washington outfielders, but Rizzo did not make the signature mistake in confusing immediate need with long-term development. Instead, the 20-year-old was kept in high Single-A for more than half the season and has produced at Double-A at an even better rate (.883 OPS vs. .872).

Daniel Johnson led the Nats’ age-appropriate minor leaguers in home runs with 22 and split time between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac. While the jury may be out on whether he can sustain this power surge beyond this level, it’s impressive nevertheless.

Unfortunately, the injury bug that struck the big club took a huge bite out of the minors, too. Baserunning injuries were a common thread among these three standouts who were hurt between early May and early June. Juan Soto, last year’s MVP of the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, seemed en route to an All-Star berth when he was injured in early May after 23 games. Upon his return to the GCL for rehab in early July, he then broke his hamate bone after just five games. He resurfaced in Florida again in late August and capped off his truncated season with a 5-for-5 game on the final day of the regular season, though he otherwise struggled.

Carter Kieboom played a little a longer than Soto (29 games) before his injury, and was named to the South Atlantic League All-Star team, but missed more time as he did not return to action for 11 weeks. Unlike Soto, he did make it all the way back to Hagerstown, spending six games in the GCL and seven in the short-season Single-A New York-Penn League. Like Soto, Kieboom hasn’t returned to the same production level.

Kelvin Gutierrez was carried off the field on June 9 and missed 10 weeks before finishing up in the GCL. He, too, was having an all-star campaign and starting to show some serious improvement with his fielding when he got hurt. Unlike Soto and Kieboom, he’ll get some more playing time this fall with his assignment to the Arizona Fall League.

So that’s an early peek at some of the position players to watch for in 2018. As for pitchers, well, there’s a pretty good reason why most of the affiliates finished so low in the standings. And Erick Fedde’s placement on the 10-day disabled list isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his rise (rush) from Double-A to the majors and shifting back-and-forth between starting and relieving.

Luke Erickson blogs about the Nationals’ minor league affiliates for NationalsProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter: @nats_prospects. His thoughts on the Nationals’ farm system will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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