Assessing the state of the Nationals’ minor league system

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Well, the Winter Meetings are finally almost complete. I wish I could say they’ve flown by, but that hasn’t exactly been the case. These things are a grind.

Pretty much all that’s left on the schedule here at the Swan and Dolphin Resort is this morning’s Rule 5 Draft, in which teams can sift through unprotected minor leaguers in other organizations and try and supplement their own 40-man rosters. There are more specific rules on this process that I’ll explain later.

The Nationals have a full 40 players on their 40-man roster, so they won’t be selecting anyone during the major league portion of the Rule 5 Draft this morning. They could have some players selected by other teams, however, and it’s possible the Nats end up taking a player in the minor league phase of the Rule 5.

Since this morning will be about the minor leaguers, I thought this would be a great opportunity to punch up some quotes I got from an interview yesterday with Jim Callis, previously with Baseball America and now with and Few in the media know more about the talent across the minor leagues, and so Callis is a great guy to go to for an unbiased, outsider’s look on the Nationals’ farm system.

Callis provided so much good stuff that this entry turned out to be pretty long, and that’s with me not even transcribing the entire interview. Watch the video below for the full thing.

My first question to Callis was about how he evaluates the level of talent in the Nats’ minor league system as a whole.

“It’s probably a little thinner than it’s been in recent years,” Callis said. “It was only a few years ago, when I was at Baseball America, we ranked them as the best farm system in baseball, before they made the Gio Gonzalez trade. But they’ve graduated guys like (Stephen) Strasburg and (Bryce) Harper and (Jordan) Zimmermann to the big leagues, they’ve used guys in trades for Gio Gonzalez, for instance. ...

“So I think the system is down right now. It’s just not as deep because they’ve promoted so many guys, but I’m still very bullish on Lucas Giolito. Coming back from Tommy John surgery, if he gets back to where he was, you’re talking about a guy who was about as good a high school arm as a lot of scouts had ever seen. I still think Brian Goodwin is a very toolsy guy. You’ve got A.J. Cole back in the organization. Took a step forward. He’s got a quality arm. Matt Skole, promising guy, had a good Arizona Fall League. Steven Souza had a good Fall League. ... The fall league was also promising because you saw two of their better lefties in Sammy Solis and Matt Purke continued on their comeback trail.”

Callis mentioned Giolito’s name; the Nationals’ 2012 first-round pick finished the year fully healthy and is widely considered the organization’s top prospect. Still just 19, Giolito pitched to a 1.96 ERA in 11 games (36 2/3 innings) between the Gulf Coast League and short-season Single-A Auburn in 2013, striking out 39 and walking 14.

Giolito obviously is immensely talented, but how high is his ceiling and how quickly might he move through the Nats’ minor league ranks?

“His ceiling is through the roof,” Callis said. “He’s a No. 1 starter. It’s interesting, you have Stephen Strasburg there in Washington, everybody raved about how good Strasburg’s stuff was. Arguably the greatest college pitching prospect of all-time. Giolito was throwing 100 miles-an-hour as a high schooler. It’s kind of scary. He was so much more advanced than Stephen when Stephen was in high school, with a wipeout breaking ball. So you’re talking potential No. 1 starter. The ceiling is as high as you want to set it. ...

“I don’t think they’ll try to rush him this year, but I think if he gets through this year and he’s healthy, the velocity is back, usually the breaking ball and the command, that takes a little bit longer. If those come back, then I think it could be 2015 where he could dictate how fast he moves. I think more kind of a building year this year to get him back on track, and if you told me if this year went really well that he could be in the big leagues by 2015, that would be really aggressive, but he’s got that kind of potential.”

Even after trading away Billy Burns yesterday in the deal that brought left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins to D.C., the Nats still have a host of center field prospects with upside. Among them are Goodwin, a 23-year-old who was the Nats’ first-round pick in 2011, and Michael Taylor, a 22-year-old who was a sixth-round pick out of high school in 2009.

“Those are two of their better position prospects,” Callis said. “I think the big thing with those guys is there’s a difference between tools and skills. Those guys have great tools and the skills aren’t quite there yet. The bat hasn’t quite caught up. Goodwin has the tools to play center field. I don’t know if he has necessarily the great instincts to play center field in the long run. He might actually want to be more of a corner guy. Puts more pressure on his bat. Taylor might be a better defender, but he’s really struggled with the bat off and on the last couple years.

“I don’t think either one is close to being ready yet, but you’re talking about ceilings, those guys have the tools to be everyday center fielders. But I think they’re definitely at least a year away. Goodwin might be ready, if he has a good season, by the end of 2014. Taylor’s probably a good two minor league seasons away. I think those are two of the crucial guys in the farm system, how well they develop this year. Can they take that step forward? Can they translate those tools into skills? Can they be more consistent with the bat?”

Callis spent some time out west watching Arizona Fall League action earlier this winter, and when I asked him to name a player or two in the Nats’ farm system that he has an eye on this year, he chose two AFL participants - Solis and Purke. Callis said that of the two lefties, though, he might be more intrigued by what Purke does this season.

“I’m sure a lot of Nationals fans know his story,” Callis said. “Here’s a guy who was a first-round pick out of high school, was going to sign for $6 million with the Rangers, and MLB wouldn’t let it happen because at the time they controlled the Rangers’ finances, so they said, ‘No, we’re not letting that go through.’ So he goes to TCU. He was tremendous as a freshman, takes TCU to the College World Series, enters his sophomore year, draft-eligible sophomore, potential No. 1 overall pick, and he has shoulder problems. I guess he had bursitis, and the Nats signed him in the fourth round to a big-league contract, the last year you could do that with guys.

“Then he had trouble staying healthy with them. But I talked to some scouts in the Fall League, and they said he wasn’t 100 percent back, but they could kind of see 90 percent of the old Matt Purke. And the old Matt Purke was a dynamic left-handed pitcher. So I’ll be curious to see, if he could get a little further away from those shoulder problems, he could make a big jump next year. He’s a guy who if he’s healthy and gets his stuff all the way back, that guy could be in the big leagues in a hurry.”

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