Most significant stories of 2022: Rebuilding the farm system

We’ve reached the final week of the year, so it’s time to look back at the Nationals’ most significant stories of 2022. We begin the series today with something taking place away from D.C.: The rebuilding of the organization’s farm system …

The Nationals knew a successful 2022 season was going to be less about what happened in the major leagues and more about what happened in the minor leagues. In the first full year of an organization-wide rebuild, progress was more likely to be found in places like Fredericksburg, Wilmington and West Palm Beach than in Washington.

And in some regards, that’s exactly what happened. While the big league club slogged its way through a 107-loss campaign, two of the franchise’s lower-level affiliates finished atop their respective divisions: Single-A Fredericksburg went 75-55 to win the Carolina League’s North division before falling in the playoffs, while the Rookie-level Florida Complex League Nats tied with the Mets atop the East division with a 33-22 record.

For years, general manager Mike Rizzo and his lieutenants downplayed the significance of won-loss records in the minors. This year, they were more apt to mention it, insisting team success on the farm does carry some weight.

“I think it’s important,” director of player development De Jon Watson said last month. “Because we’re trying to teach kids to play the game the right way, and teach them how to win.”

The Nationals didn’t win a whole lot of games at the upper levels of the minors this season; Triple-A Rochester and Double-A Harrisburg produced a combined .418 winning percentage. In related news, few of the franchise’s top prospects played at those levels in 2022.

But the story was different at the lower levels, with High-A Wilmington joining Fredericksburg and the FCL Nats to finish with a combined .549 winning percentage. Most of the highest-rated prospects spent time with those affiliates, and club officials believe that can have long-lasting benefits.

“There are certain places where you won’t sacrifice development for the win,” Watson said. “But there are certain opportunities where you want to push the mindset of winning, and putting together a group of players that’s moving from level to level playing a winning brand of baseball. Because when they get to that highest level, you want them to have that mindset: Knowing what it takes to go out and win a game.”

It’s going to be several more years before young prospects such as Robert Hassell III, James Wood, Elijah Green, Brady House and Jarlin Susana have a chance to win at the big league level. But if things progress as hoped, they could enjoy success at the Double-A and then Triple-A levels before arriving in D.C.

The Nationals’ farm system, bereft of talent for years while the major league roster was contending for championships, hasn’t been entirely fixed yet. But things do appear to be heading in the right direction at last. Ranked last in baseball entering the 2021 season by MLB Pipeline, the Nats moved up to 23rd entering the 2022 season, then all the way up to 15th by late August.

The primary reason for the group’s ascension was the boatload of prospects acquired from the Padres for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, but Rizzo and Watson also point to recent draft picks House, Green and Cade Cavalli, plus last winter’s signing of top Dominican outfielder Cristhian Vaquero as evidence of organizational improvement.

“I think our system’s different right now than it was a year ago,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s deeper. We’ve had two what I believe are successful trade-deadline acquisition periods. We’ve had two successful drafts. We’ve done a good job in the international market. I think that our prospect depth is as good as it’s ever been here in the organization, and I think that the upside of our prospect list is probably the highest it’s ever been.”

There are still concerns, though. House, the 2021 first round pick, played in only 45 games at Fredericksburg before a back injury sidelined him the rest of the season. Both Rizzo and Watson said the power-hitting 19-year-old returned to play in the fall instructional league and is expected to be fully healthy for spring training.

Cole Henry, the 2020 second-round pick rated as the club’s sixth-best prospect, had thoracic outlet surgery late this summer and now faces a wholly uncertain future.

Hassell, who became the franchise’s top-rated prospect following his acquisition from the Padres, broke the hamate bone in his right wrist during the Arizona Fall League. The 21-year-old outfielder is expected to be fully healed before the start of spring training.

The Nationals are thrilled with the outfield depth they’ve assembled in Hassell, Wood, Green, Vaquero and Jeremy De La Rosa, but they remain short on pitching depth, especially at the upper levels of their system.

Watson, who took over as farm director last winter, has been charged with overseeing an overhaul that isn’t limited strictly to new players. The Nationals have brought in or shuffled around a host of minor league managers, coaches and instructors in the last year, looking for better fits at each position. They added several new positions. And they are attempting to institute more technology in their player development program, an area in which they have long lagged behind other organizations.

“I think the biggest difference is some of the information and technology we’re trying to add to our development process,” Watson said. “We’ve added quite a few people, quite a few bodies to the organization on the analytics side, to help us accelerate the learning curve for these players.”

Whether any of it proves successful remains to be seen. These things don’t manifest themselves overnight. They take time, and given where the Nationals were starting from, it could take longer than it has for others.

There’s no questioning the importance of it all, though. If the Nats are going to become a winning major league franchise again, they’re going to have to develop winning players through their minor league system to an extent they haven’t in a decade.

They can only hope the progress they saw in 2022 offered a glimpse into what may come next.

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