What new prospect rankings say about Nats farm system

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.

It’s one thing to make a top prospects list. It’s quite another to actually make it as a productive big league player, and at this point none of these guys is there.

Ruiz is the closest of the bunch, having established his credentials last season as a good contact hitter and excellent stopper of the running game from his perch behind the plate. But the 24-year-old catcher still has another big step to take. The Nats want to see Ruiz not just make contact, but make better contact. That, in turn, would improve his .251 batting average and .360 slugging percentage from 2022. And they want to see him take full command of the pitching staff, improve his game-calling skills and fully lead the way at the most important position he plays.

There’s reason to be optimistic about Abrams, as well, based on what we saw in September, when he hit .303 with eight extra-base hits and five stolen bases. But the 22-year-old shortstop now needs to show he can do that over an entire season, establishing himself as a top-of-the-order hitter, not to mention a defensive player who not only dazzles once or twice a night but also makes all the routine plays demanded of him.

Cavalli, meanwhile, has seen his stock fall a bit over the last two years. Rated as high as No. 16 by Baseball America at the end of the 2021 season, he dropped to 27th at the start of 2022, 51st at the end of 2022 and now checks in at 61st entering 2023. That’s a product of his first-half inconsistencies at Triple-A Rochester, then his shoulder trouble after making his major league debut at the end of August. The 24-year-old has a lot to prove this season, and while the organization remains as high as it has ever been about its 2020 first-round pick, the time has now come to see it come to fruition.

Hassell and Wood still have things to prove at the minor league level. Hassell will get a chance to succeed at Double-A after a modest 27-game debut for Harrisburg late last season in which he hit .222/.312/.296. Assuming his fractured hamate bone has healed, the 21-year-old will hopefully regain his power stroke while also proving he has the chops to be an everyday center fielder. Wood took a leap up the prospect rankings from 36th at the end of the season to 11th now and has drawn rave reviews. But the 21-year-old still has a long way to go, beginning with high Single-A Wilmington this season.

Perhaps most notable about Baseball America’s latest prospect list is the exclusion of Brady House from the Top 100. The Nationals’ 2021 first-round pick ranked 59th entering last season, but after missing considerable time with a back injury, he dropped off the list. The organization says the 19-year-old is healthy again and ready to go this spring, but before he can even think about putting up big offensive numbers he’s got to prove he can actually make it through an entire professional season for the first time.

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