As the first week of the new year comes to a close, we’ve done our fair share of looking back at the Nationals’ 2023 season and ahead to the 2024 campaign. At the major league level.
During this week’s “The Hot Stove Show” on MASN All Access (which you can watch here), Brendan Mortensen and I talked a lot about the Nats’ top prospects in the minor league system and what to expect from some of them this year.
That got me thinking: We haven’t really looked back at the most significant stories from last year on the farm.
So to briefly coincide with Mark Zuckerman’s “Most significant stories of 2023” series from the week leading up New Year’s Day, here are seven of the most important headlines from the Nationals’ minor league side of the past year …
1) Dylan Crews drafted No. 2 overall
This one is the most obvious selection. At this time a year ago, one of the main focuses heading into the season was who the Nationals would select with the No. 2 pick in the MLB Draft.
Fresh off the first-ever MLB Draft Lottery, much of the talk was centered around how the Nats lost out on the top selection after finishing the 2022 season with the worst record in baseball. Of course they would do so for the first time in over a decade ahead of the first lottery.
But as it turned out, picking second may have been a blessing in disguise.
This draft came down to two clear top choices: right-hander Paul Skenes and outfielder Crews, both from the national champion LSU Tigers. The Nats knew they would get their choice of either the best pitcher or position player in the draft.
The Pirates selected Skenes with the top pick, and with him came the burden of having to prove their choice correct. The Nats’ decision, therefore, was made for them, and thus, no one in the organization or fan base could be let down by their pick.
All the pressure is on the Pirates to develop Skenes into an ace and prove they made the right choice between the two at No. 1. Knowing it is much harder to develop pitchers than position players, the Nats gladly took their chances with Crews.
Even if by some fluke Crews doesn’t reach his superstar potential, it will be hard to argue the Nats should have taken anyone else in that moment after Skenes was swiped off the board.
Crews immediately made an impact on the Nats farm. He crushed the ball at Single-A Fredericksburg and made it all the way to Double-A Harrisburg before season’s end. He gave the Nats' system an immediate boost and is already ranked as one of the top prospects in the sport.
Now the question is: Will we see him in D.C. in 2024?
2) James Wood and Brady House made national stage
Wood and House entered this past season with different expectations.
The 6-foot-6 outfielder Wood finished the previous season strong and was already considered a top prospect in all of baseball. The former No. 11 overall pick, House, was coming off a season full of injuries looking to prove himself at third base.
Both played well enough to reach the Futures Game at the All-Star break and both put together really impressive seasons.
Wood was the Nats’ minor league Hitter of the Year after leading the system with 26 home runs. Starting the year at High-A Wilmington, he made the quick jump to Harrisburg in May, far sooner than most expected.
Though he struggled at times in Double-A, Wood impressed the Nationals and fans with some of the monster home runs he hit and highlight defensive plays he made in the outfield. He is expected to be manning the outfield at Nationals Park with Crews sooner rather than later.
House, meanwhile, may have had the most complete season of any Nats prospect. He reached Double-A in July and hit .324 with an .833 OPS over 36 games with the Senators. Proving his back injury was behind him (pun intended) House re-established himself as the Nats’ third baseman of the future, expected in D.C. shortly after Crews and Wood.
3) Additions through non-traditional means
Recent trade deadlines meant huge moves made by the Nationals. But not this one.
With a young, improving roster and no real star power to dangle in front of needy teams, general manager Mike Rizzo and Co. had to be selective about who they got in return for players they were willing to give away.
In the end, they only traded Jeimer Candelario to the Cubs in exchange for left-hander DJ Herz and infielder Kevin Made. On the surface, not at all a blockbuster trade, but as the season went on, it seemed to be a beneficial one nonetheless.
Made still has a lot of development to do, particularly at the plate, but Herz showed that he could be a contributor soon. He posted a 2.55 ERA with 53 strikeouts in eight starts with the Senators when he arrived, and then went on to be a Fall-Star in the Arizona Fall League as one of the strikeout leaders.
Then came the Rule 5 Draft at the Winter Meetings, an event in which the Nationals usually do not participate. But after making a selection with the top pick the previous year, and while still rebuilding the entire organization, why not take a risk and add a prospect?
The Nationals selected infielder Nasim Nuñez from the Marlins. He has to stay on the major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to Miami, but he was one of the highest-rated prospects available in the Rule 5 Draft and could be a weapon for manager Davey Martinez off the bench.
As Rizzo says, it’s always best to build up the middle.
4) The roster at Harrisburg
You would be hard pressed to find a more stacked minor league roster than the one the Harrisburg Senators had at the end of the year.
As mentioned, Wood was promoted to Double-A in May, with House following in July. Crews skipped High-A ball altogether and went straight to Harrisburg after only 14 games in Single-A. Trey Lipscomb had been promoted earlier in the season, and at one point was the most consistent hitter while playing a versatile role all over the field on his way to being named the Nats’ minor league Defensive Player of the Year and minor league Gold Glove Award winner at third base.
Herz was added after the trade deadline, joining fellow pitching prospects Mitchell Parker and Zach Brzykcy.
Then came more draft picks. Second-round selection Yohandy Morales and fourth-round pick Andrew Pinckney were added to the roster before the season was over, enforcing the Nats’ preference for college players in the draft.
All of those names at Double-A, which some call the hardest level in the minor leagues, show that they’re getting closer to the majors.
5) Cole Henry returned to the mound
The Nationals have seen first-hand what thoracic outlet syndrome can do to a pitcher, so expectations were not high for Henry entering the year.
But the right-hander and former second-round pick did something that neither Stephen Strasburg nor Will Harris was able to accomplish while attempting to come back from the surgery: Return to the mound over the course of a season.
It was only 33 ⅓ innings across 14 outings, but Henry by all accounts made it through the season healthy with another shot at improving this year.
His younger age gives him a better chance of a comeback than other pitchers who have undergone the surgery, but there are still no guarantees. How his body continues to respond will dictate how much further he can go in his career.
But this season nevertheless was a step in the right direction. Any production the Nats get from Henry from this point on would be a bonus.
6) Under-the-radar prospects helped at major league level
Of course, most of this post has been about the top-rated prospects. Those guys will have the biggest say in the organization’s future. But some under-the-radar guys played a role as well, even in the big leagues.
Ten players made their major league debuts for the Nats this past season. Of them, Jake Irvin, Jake Alu, Jose A. Ferrer, Jacob Young, Drew Millas and Jackson Rutledge provided the most unexpected additions to the major league club.
Irvin became a staple in the starting rotation and will push for the same spot in spring training. Rutledge, still a top prospect in his own right, showed impressive stuff in four starts down the stretch, perhaps a sign the former first-round pick is close to reaching his potential.
Ferrer was one of Martinez’s most trusted lefties out of the bullpen, flashing electric stuff. Alu and Young played important roles off the bench, with the latter taking over the everyday center field job near the end of the season. And Millas, though necessary due to Riley Adams’ injury, showed he can be a solid backup catcher option if given the chance.
It takes more than the 10 names in a starting lineup to consistently win baseball games. That’s why fringe players are so important to a team. Don’t forget the little guys.
7) Front office staff shakeup
The Nationals are at the point in their rebuild where player development and talent evaluation are more important than ever. They’ve acquired top prospects and are looking to add more. Now it’s time to turn them into big leaguers.
Kris Kline and Mark Baca were reassigned. De Jon Watson was let go. Enter Eddie Longosz (vice president and assistant general manager of player development and administration), Danny Haas (vice president of amateur scouting) and Brad Ciolek (senior director of amateur scouting).
These additions and subtractions to the player development and scouting departments come at a critical time for the Nationals. Fans expect a competitive major league team with these top prospects in the near future with a strengthened farm system that can replenish the big league talent for the long haul.
The goal is to win another World Series championship. And then not have another drop-off like they did after the 2019 title.
What were some of your favorite minor league headlines in 2023, and what are you most looking forward to on the farm in 2024?