Video: Analyzing a now less-stocked Nats farm system

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The 2012 Winter Meetings are almost complete, and just as I’ve gotten comfortable navigating my way through the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center (which feels like it’s a town in and of itself), it’s time to leave.

During their time in Nashville, the Nationals got a fifth starter in Dan Haren, and we might have word as early as this afternoon on whether Haren passed his physical and will officially join the Nats’ starting staff. They also got a left-handed reliever in Zach Duke, and are in talks about acquiring another lefty - 29-year-old J.P. Howell.

The Nats have a chance to further add to their roster via the Rule 5 draft in an hour or so, but don’t expect them to make a selection. Here’s how dramatically things have changed for the Nationals over the last few years - not only won’t they make a pick in the Rule 5 draft, but they wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of their own players get selected by other teams.

Speaking of the Nationals’ minor league system, I had a chance to catch up with Jim Callis, executive director of Baseball America, yesterday. Callis is one of the most knowledgeable guys in the business when it comes to each team’s minor league prospects, and he was kind enough to take a few minutes to discuss how the Nationals’ system currently stacks up.

Baseball America’s Jim Callis looks at the current state of the Nats’ farm system

Callis noted that Baseball America viewed the Nationals as having the No. 1 farm system in baseball prior to the trade for Gio Gonzalez last winter, in which the Nats sent three quality pitching prospects (Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole) and catcher Derek Norris to Oakland. Now, after the trade which shipped hard-throwing right-handed prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins for center fielder Denard Span, the Nationals’ farm system is significantly thinner when it comes to top healthy talent.

“The farm system is doing its job,” Callis said, saying that the Nats have done well to use their prospects to acquire quality major league talent. “It has really thinned out. Now, I think the hopes are pitchers maybe taking a step (forward). Nathan Karns took a step forward this year. I think what they really need, what they’re really banking on, they do have a lot of pitching in the big leagues, but you need Lucas Giolito to come back healthy from Tommy John surgery. You need Matt Purke to get straightened out. You need Sammy Solis to come back from surgery. That would really boost their system back up.”

Giolito is the real prize in that group. The 2012 first-round pick got a $2.925 million bonus to sign with the Nats in mid-June, and then underwent Tommy John surgery just 2 1/2 months later.

Giolito has fantastic stuff, but like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Solis and others before him, he’ll need to go through a lengthy rehab before returning to a mound. The Nats can only hope his recovery goes as well as Strasburg’s and Zimmermann’s, allowing Giolito a chance to live up to the hype which led Callis to claim the 18-year-old’s ceiling is about as high as any pitcher in any minor league system.

“If you were going on pure ceiling, you could say he’s their best prospect,” Callis said. “In a perfect world scenario, the guy’s throwing 100 (mph), he’s got a unbelievable curveball, he’s very polished, athletic. I’m not saying he’s Strasburg, but he’s about as talented a high school pitcher as you can find, when he’s healthy. At the same time, when’s the last time he threw a pitch? It was end of February or early March, or whenever it was.

“He had Tommy John, and if you’re going to have a major surgery, Tommy John’s the one to have. But then to flip that around, it’s not like Tommy John’s a lifetime cure. And he’s having it at 18. ... So there’s huge upside, huge risk.”

Callis sees infielder Anthony Rendon in somewhat of the same boat. Rendon, the Nationals’ top position prospect, has immense potential, but the 22-year-old has battled a host of injuries the last couple years, including a fractured ankle early in the 2012 season. Callis sees both Rendon and center fielder Brian Goodwin potentially reaching the majors within the next two years, if all goes smoothly.

“I really do believe in Anthony Rendon, (but the question is) health,” Callis said. “If Anthony Rendon is healthy, which he hasn’t been fully healthy for the last two years for various ailments, I could see him ... if you told me Anthony Rendon started the year at Double-A, which I assume would be the plan, and hit .350 for two months and was ready for the big leagues June 1, I’d say, yeah, I could see that happening. ...

“Goodwin I think is going to be longer. The thing to remember about him is, he only really played one real year of major college baseball. He played a year at junior college (where) the competition is not quite the same. His development path this year is a little bit odd. A guy who got a $3 million bonus, he started the year at low-A, and that was almost not really a challenge for him, but then instead of sending him to high-A, they jumped him to Double-A, and he was over his head. ... To me, I think he’s best-case scenario a year and a half, two years away.”

Goodwin had a slash line of .324/.438/.542 in 58 games at low- A Hagerstown and a slash line of .223/.306/.373 in 42 games at Double-A Harrisburg. He also had a very hot start in the Arizona Fall League earlier this offseason before coming back to earth. Callis sees Goodwin’s strike zone discipline as something which needs to be an area of focus; it was “great” at low-A, Callis says, and was lacking at Harrisburg.

Asked about a couple under-the-radar guys that he likes within the Nationals’ organization, Callis singled out Tony Renda, the Nats’ second-round pick in 2012, and center field prospect Michael Taylor, who didn’t progress as much as hoped at high-A Potomac this year.

“(Renda’s) a tiny guy, but he can really hit,” Callis said. “The rest of his tools are probably fringy to average, but he’s one of these great instinct guys who gets the most out of them. I could see him shooting through the minors and being kind of an overachiever who gets there quick, kind of a heart-and-soul kind of guy.

“(Taylor’s a) real interesting center fielder who is going to be even more interesting now that they traded for Span, and Goodwin is ahead of him on the depth chart, obviously. But he’s really one of the better athletes in the system, I really like him, too.”

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