Nationals' general manager Mike Rizzo likes to create competition.
It’s something he talks about every spring training. Whether it’s bringing in an experienced veteran, a struggling journeyman or a rising prospect, the longtime GM has always believed the more competition the better,
He has brought that philosophy to the minor league farm system, as well, adding an influx of young talent over the past couple of years through the draft, trades and international free agent market.
Looking at the Nationals’ top 16 prospects per MLB Pipeline, 10 were drafted by the organization, five were acquired via trade and one was signed as an international free agent. Eight of them at one point played at Double-A Harrisburg, a handful of them together for an extended period of time.
“It's been good. Really just creating competition between those affiliates, like within the affiliates,” said Jackson Rutledge, who made his first 12 starts of the season with Harrisburg before eventually making his major league debut with the Nats two weeks ago. “Even in Harrisburg when we were there, we had so much talent there it was like guys were competing to see who was going to be the dude that week. And that changed from time to time. And I think that's always positive just to have internal competition in a healthy way. And I think we have that. Certainly, a lot of the pitching staffs I've been on there's been a 'Who's gonna be the top guy' sort of competition and I think that just creates a good training environment, a good competition environment. Something that's gonna be good for us.”
One player that has a unique perspective of how the culture has been cultivated on the farm is Jacob Young, who spent all of last season with Single-A Fredericksburg before spending time at each higher affiliate all the way to the major leagues this year.
“Especially being in Fredericksburg last year, there were a lot of us young guys all kind of in the same draft class,” Young said. “And I think they really wanted to build that culture of winning, which is why they kind of kept us together down there. We got to the playoffs. We kind of got that winning feeling. It's just a great feeling. They want you to experience that, so you want more of it.
“Then this year, I got to play with a lot of the top prospects throughout each level. You can just tell as they go up that they're growing and learning different parts of baseball, whether it's the zone, something about their swing, how to deal with adversity. You can just tell that, especially some of these guys that have been so good for their whole careers, going to get some adversity is never a bad thing. You could definitely see that and see them just grow as people and baseball players.”
Those top prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top 16 who spent time at Harrisburg include Dylan Crews, James Wood, Brady House, Yohandy Morales, Rutledge, Trey Lipscomb and DJ Herz. A good number of them are expected to come up to the big leagues together.
“You could look around and just know that this is what the Nats hope the future looks like,” Young said, who should also be included in that group as one of the first among them to reach the majors. “You could just feel like you want to start it there and start winning games there and playing together there to kind of build that. Honestly, we kind of thought we would go up together. That's kind of how it was feeling, kind of what it was trending towards. Playing with those guys, they're all great dudes and that's what I feel like the Nats have done so well: They drafted great people, too. So, it was really fun to get to know them and I can't wait for them to be up here, too.”
Young has seen first-hand how the Nats have been developing a culture in the minor leagues with their new crop of young talent. And he sees the benefit of them coming up together.
“I think getting familiarity with people that you hope to play with up here is great,” he said. “You get that team camaraderie, and you care about those people more than just baseball. It's more like a family. When you get to play with those guys at a lower level, you get to know them. I think it's huge to kind of build that, so when they get up here there's not like a building period. It's kind of just all together.”
Those guys are no longer at a lower level. Now that they all ended their seasons at Double-A, does it feel like the next wave of top prospects is coming sooner rather than later?
“It feels that way,” Young said. “I mean, you don't know. There are so many things that can happen. But you sure feel like the front office, and everyone's really excited for them, and the fans are. We're kind of just pumped to see how it all kind of works out.”