Hernández headed to Detroit; Wood, Hassell receive more praise

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After a dismal year in D.C., César Hernández will try to resurrect his career by making Detroit’s roster off a minor league deal.

Hernández agreed to a non-guaranteed contract with an invitation to big league camp Wednesday, according to multiple reports. If he makes the Tigers’ roster, he’ll earn a $1.5 million salary, with the possibility of another $1.85 million in performance bonuses.

It’s a steep drop-off in financial security for the 32-year-old infielder, who got a $4 million major league deal with the Nationals last winter and was handed the Opening Day job at second base.

Hernández never lived up to the billing. His .629 OPS was his lowest since 2014, when he was still trying to make it with the Phillies. After launching 21 homers for the White Sox and Cleveland in 2021, he homered just once for the Nats, and that blast didn’t come until Sept. 4 in his 124th game played.

In spite of his struggles, Hernández actually took more plate appearances than any other member of the Nationals last season, coming up to bat 617 times. He remained the everyday second baseman into late August, at which point the team was finally ready to go with a young middle infield combo of CJ Abrams and Luis García. Hernández wound up seeing some playing time in left field down the stretch.

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What new prospect rankings say about Nats farm system

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Baseball America unveiled its Top 100 Prospects list for the start of the 2023 season Wednesday, and there’s good news: The Nationals not only had four players make the list, they had four players make the top 61.

Outfielder James Wood leads the way at No. 11. Robert Hassell III (57), Elijah Green (58) and Cade Cavalli (61) are all bunched together farther down the list.

That’s a nice development for the Nats, and evidence of the influx of talent they’ve had in what used to be one of baseball’s worst farm systems. Three of those four players, of course, weren’t even in the organization one year ago at this time. Wood and Hassell came from the Padres in the Juan Soto-Josh Bell blockbuster trade. Green was the No. 5 overall pick in last summer’s draft.

And when you add two young players who were highly rated entering the 2022 season but now are full-time major leaguers (CJ Abrams, No. 9; Keibert Ruiz, No. 11), it further underscores just how far the Nationals have come in the last 18 months.

Which isn’t to say they’re anywhere close to achieving what they ultimately need to achieve.

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Most significant stories of 2022: Rebuilding the farm system

DeJon-Watson

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.”

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How the Nationals fared in the Arizona Fall League

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There weren’t a lot of prominent Nationals prospects who participated in this year’s Arizona Fall League, and the most prominent of the lot appeared in only two games due to injury. So you’re forgiven if you didn’t pay much attention to the month-long showcase of top minor leaguers that wrapped up Nov. 12.

That’s what we’re here for: To provide a recap for you.

Of the 10 players the Nats sent to Arizona to join the Peoria Javelinas, only two appear on the organization’s top 30 prospects list compiled by MLB Pipeline, and wouldn’t you know it’s the guy at the top of the list and the guy at the bottom of the list.

No. 1 prospect Robert Hassell III was hoping to spend a month facing elite pitching and establishing his credentials for a possible big league debut sometime in 2023. But the 21-year-old outfielder, acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto blockbuster trade, played in only two games (he went 1-for-6 with an RBI) before a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist brought everything to a screeching halt.

Hassell had surgery to remove the bone, a fairly common procedure that typically carries a recovery time of 6-8 weeks. So there’s no real concern about him heading into spring training. But it’s still disappointing he didn’t get more of a chance to see how he stacked up against other top prospects.

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How much has the Nationals' farm system improved?

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We know the 2022 season wasn’t a success for the Nationals at the major league level. Was it at least at the minor league level?

It certainly was a season of improvement, not that the organization had anywhere to go but up.

The Nats entered 2021 with the lowest-ranked farm system in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. They moved up from No. 30 to No. 23 entering 2022, thanks to their July trades of Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and others, plus the drafting of Brady House and signing of top Dominican prospect Cristhian Vaquero.

Then came the 2022 trade deadline, and the blockbuster deal that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego for six players, five of whom were among the Padres’ top ranked prospects. That influx of talent, coupled with the drafting of Elijah Green, brought the Nationals’ ranking up to No. 15, the highest this system has been regarded in some time.

“I think our system’s different right now than it was a year ago,” general manager Mike 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.”

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Prospects at instructional league visited Nats in Miami

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As the major league regular season enters its last week, the lower level of the minor leagues have already wrapped up their 2022 campaigns.

In the Nationals system, only Triple-A Rochester is still playing games with their season finale coming tomorrow afternoon. Double-A Harrisburg, High-A Wilmington, Single-A Fredericksburg and the Rookie-level Florida Complex League are done playing games and now see some of their top players come together for the instructional league camp at the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green, James Wood, Jarlin Susana and Jackson Rutledge are among some of the top prospects taking part in instructs. A lot of the future faces of this franchise are all together for their first camp since many of them came to the franchise via this summer’s draft and trade deadline moves.

Just an hour away in West Palm, the group of players made a trip down to visit the Nationals over the weekend in Miami. General manager Mike Rizzo, director of player development De Jon Watson and manager Davey Martinez were among some of the heads in the organization to address the young players.

“Yeah, I spoke to them all and I talked to them for a little while,” Martinez said. “It was good to actually get in front of them and see some of those guys. Some of the guys I've seen before but congratulate them for being there. I mean, when you get to instructional league, it's kind of like the guys are handpicked to be there and get some more instruction. And I told them to keep working hard and kind of be the cream of the crop, really. And keep working. I mean, the door's wide open right now for you guys and we're looking at players and keep pushing. Be the best and keep putting up the numbers and have fun.”

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Gore makes rehab start, Hassell heading to Fall League

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As Cade Cavalli deals with another shutdown and Josiah Gray deals with September struggles, the Nationals at least are seeing some positive signs with the third member of the young pitching trio they hope to build their rotation around.

MacKenzie Gore made his second rehab start for Triple-A Rochester on Friday and tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings on 57 pitches, another step on his path toward making his Nats debut before season’s end.

Gore, on the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation since late July (before he was part of the Nationals’ blockbuster trade with the Padres for Juan Soto and Josh Bell), built up both his innings and pitch count in his second rehab start for Rochester.

The left-hander did put six Lehigh Valley batters on base in his 2 2/3 innings (four singles, two walks) but didn’t allow any of them to score while striking out two. He threw 32 of his 57 pitches for strikes.

Assuming Gore came out of this outing healthy, the Nats are likely to have him make another rehab start in five or six days, building up to roughly 70 pitches. Depending on how that goes, the club could decide to activate him off the IL with enough time to make two big league starts before the season ends Oct. 5.

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Robert Hassell III promoted to Double-A Harrisburg

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After CJ Abrams was promoted to make his Nationals debut on Monday, another prospect from the trade of Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres is rising through the ranks of the farm system.

Robert Hassell III was promoted from high Single-A Wilmington to Double-A Harrisburg today, as the Senators open a six-game homestand against the Erie SeaWolves (Tigers).

Currently the Nationals’ No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, Hassell started 0-for-16 with the Blue Rocks before recording his first hit in the eighth inning of his fifth game in the Nats system. That started an 8-for-21 (.381) stretch over his next five games, including a 3-for-4 outing with two RBIs on Friday and a 2-for-4 game on Saturday.

Hassell, who turned 21 on Monday, finished 8-for-38 (.211) with a double, three RBIs, six walks and a perfect 3-for-3 in stolen bases at Wilmington.

The promotion to Harrisburg is a trickle-down effect from some roster moves at Triple-A Rochester aside from Abrams.

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Hassell staying present while looking forward to future with Nats

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WILMINGTON, Del. – Robert Hassell III, like many of us, was surprised when he heard his name mentioned in a potential trade package for Juan Soto just 11 days ago.

He was sitting in his apartment in Fort Wayne, Ind. when he received the call from Padres general manager A.J. Preller, who told him that he was included with four fellow prospects and Luke Voit in a deal for Soto and Josh Bell.

The trade was made official later that day and Hassell packed his bags to head to the Nationals’ affiliate at high Single-A Wilmington.

The No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft made his debut with the Blue Rocks two days later, batting third and playing center field. He went 0-for-5, starting an 0-for-16 stretch to begin his career with the Nationals.

But that didn’t weigh heavy on his mind. He was still processing the trade and trying to get acclimated to his new team.

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Nats now putting all their faith in restocked farm system

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Jump back in time all of one month and make a mental list of the Nationals’ top prospects.

You’d start with Cade Cavalli, include Brady House and then try to come up with the names of other kids who may or may not develop into major leaguers some day in the short or long term.

Now consider what that list looks like in the wake of a dramatic (and, yes, controversial) overhaul of the organization that culminated with last week’s trade of Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres.

Cavalli and House remain on the list, but not in the top two spots. Those now belong to the likes of C.J. Abrams and Robert Hassell III, two of the six players acquired from San Diego in the blockbuster deal. Right behind them are Elijah Green and Cristhian Vaquero, teenage sensations who were the organization’s top amateur draft and international signing additions of 2022. Also include James Wood and Jarlin Susana, two more younger prospects who came over in the trade with the Padres. And then don’t forget to keep Cavalli and House, the 2020 and 2021 first-round picks, in the mix as well.

What you now see is a farm system that no longer is dependent on the rise of one or two blue-chip prospects, but has enough depth to account for the inevitable injuries and/or struggles that are bound to occur when trying to turn players right out of high school and college into big league stars.

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