Nats' farm system is improved but still facing change

The Nationals’ improvement at the big league level this year was important, no doubt. It wouldn’t have meant much, though, if they didn’t also see improvement at the minor league level.

This organization’s attempt to rebuild itself back into a perennial contender won’t be realized unless enough homegrown players emerge from its farm system in the next two years to supplement what’s already on the 26-man roster. In some regards, what happened nightly in Rochester, Harrisburg, Wilmington, Fredericksburg and West Palm Beach this season mattered even more than what happened in D.C.

By all accounts, the Nationals are pleased with the results. A farm system that rated in the lower-third of the sport only 18 months ago now rates in the upper-third, with several of baseball’s top prospects headlining the list.

“The best part of the minor league season was that all the players that we really were looking forward to take a step forward, we believe have,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We think that was a success in that regard.”

Not every prospect improved, though, and there is now evidence the organization isn’t 100 percent satisfied with the 2023 season. DeJon Watson, the Nationals director of player development the last two years, won’t be back in 2024, a source familiar with the decision confirmed. (The Washington Post was first to report the news Monday evening.)

Watson, a longtime baseball executive who made a name for himself running the Dodgers’ highly touted farm system, had been with the Nats front office since 2017 and took over as director of player development prior to the 2022 season. He was charged with leading the overhaul of a system that had fallen behind many others in the sport, one that added a number of new positions but now will be led by someone else next year.

Only one week ago, Watson was presenting plaques to the five players who won the Nationals’ annual minor league awards, talking up a system that seemed to have improved under his watch.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Watson said at the time. “We’re continuing to grow. I think we’re starting to raise the floor of our overall player pool and getting better.”

There’s no doubt most of the Nationals’ top-rated prospects enjoyed positive 2023 seasons.

James Wood, voted the organizational hitter of the year, finished with 26 homers, 91 RBIs, 18 stolen bases, a .353 on-base percentage and .874 OPS in 129 combined games between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg. The 21-year-old outfielder, acquired from the Padres in last summer’s blockbuster Juan Soto trade, is rated one of the 10 best prospects in baseball.

“I’ve grown a lot, even on and off the field,” Wood said. “I think going through a whole season like I did this year, I feel you learn a lot, especially from your teammates and your coaches.”

Wood’s successful 2023 was a continuation of his breakthrough 2022 season. Brady House’s successful 2023 was a much-needed ascension after a frustrating 2022 that was cut short by a back injury. The 2021 first-round pick bounced back in a big way, finishing with a .312/.365/.497 slash line in 88 games, twice getting promoted (from Single-A Fredericksburg to Wilmington, then from Wilmington to Harrisburg). And he took well to his full-time position switch to third base, charged with only four errors over his final 51 games.

“It was a big jump for him, because he was so young. He was 19 at the time, turning 20,” Watson said last week of House’s promotion to Double-A. “But he handled the challenge of the competition, so it was great to see him progress and move forward.”

Wood and House were joined in Harrisburg in late August by the newest blue-chip player in the system, and now one of the top-rated prospects in all of baseball: Dylan Crews. The No. 2 overall pick in this summer’s draft after leading LSU to a national championship, the 21-year-old outfielder was bumped all the way up to Double-A after dominating Single-A competition to the tune of a .355/.423/.645 slash line in 14 games. He got a bit of a dose of reality in Harrisburg, hitting just .208/.318/.278 in 20 games, but nobody seems to be concerned in the least about his ability to master every level he plays, and there’s every reason to believe he will prove big league ready sometime next season.

How will the Nationals decide when the likes of Crews, Wood, House and the others who finished this season in Double-A (outfielder Robert Hassell III, infielders Trey Lipscomb and Yohandy Morales) are ready to make the final leap?

“We’ll find out when they perform next year,” Rizzo said. “We’ve never been afraid to grab guys from the minor leagues. We’ve grabbed 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds, so we’re not afraid to bring up one when we believe that they’re ready to be here and to perform here. Getting here is one thing. But staying here for an extended period of time, and giving us that longevity in that championship run, is what we’re looking for.”

The Nationals’ farm system is admittedly front-loaded with elite talent, almost all of it in the form of position players. There are fewer highly rated pitching prospects, with Cade Cavalli (who projects to return from Tommy John surgery in June) the only one included the organization’s top nine prospects according to MLB Pipeline. (Baseball America has Jackson Rutledge, who made his major league debut in September, as the team’s No. 7 prospect, right behind Cavalli. Both publications rank left-hander Jake Bennett, who will miss the entire 2024 season following Tommy John surgery, 10th in the organization.)

And there were some notable disappointments this year, chief among them 2022 first-round pick Elijah Green, who finished with a .629 OPS and an astounding 139 strikeouts in only 332 plate appearances for Fredericksburg in his first full minor league season.

“I think Elijah is going to be a terrific big league player,” Rizzo said of the 19-year-old. “The sky is the limit for him. He’s one of the most tooled-up players that’s in the minor leagues right now, and that’s been in the minor leagues for a while. I’m not going to assess him until he’s had many, many at-bats under his belt. I think when he has, he’s going to show you the type of impact performer he’s going to be.”

The Nationals also need to prove they can turn lower-round draft picks into major leaguers, long a problem area for a franchise that has been able to identify elite talent but not as much discover and develop rank-and-file players. The fates of such potential candidates as Lipscomb (third round, 2022), outfielders Daylen Lile (second round, 2021) and Jacob Young (seventh round, 2021), and left-hander Mitchell Parker (fifth round, 2020) could be just as significant in the long run for an organization that has made real strides the last two years but still has work to do to ensure a sustained pipeline from the minors to D.C.

“We like where we’re at,” Rizzo said. “I think that the players have really, if not exceeded our expectations, have definitely met our expectations in how they’ve developed and how they’ve come along.”

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