These next few weeks, we will take a look back at the Nationals prospects who played in the Arizona Fall League and get their take on the experience. The Surprise Saguaros, the pretty much unheralded group that included Nats minor leaguers, won their division and went all the way to the championship game, which they lost to Salt River 5-1.
One of the stars of the team was outfielder Nick Banks. The 24-year-old left fielder out of Texas A&M hit very well all season at high Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before his invite to play for Surprise.
In the first part of our visit with Banks, we discuss his experience this season and how he felt playing over 130 games over the course of a long summer, including 17 with the Saguaros. In Arizona, he slashed .250/.295/.464 with three doubles, had two stolen bases, three homers and eight RBIs.
“I was really happy with how the season went,” Banks said. “I think it’s been a process, obviously, since I got to pro ball, but each year it’s gotten better and better, and it’s something to work off of this offseason.
“The main thing I’ve been working on since I’ve gotten to pro ball is getting myself into a position where I’m strong, a position that’s going to put me in my right place to do damage to the baseball.”
And the 2016 Nats fourth-rounder certainly did that. From his dramatic three-run homer to win the Carolina League All-Star Game in June to his 45 extra-base hits with the P-Nats and the Senators, Banks demonstrated his ability to hit, improving his average 13 points to .302 while at City Island.
Then he was offered a shot at playing in the AFL.
“I loved it. We had a great staff,” Banks said. “We had great players on our team and it obviously showed. It was a great time playing with all those guys and getting to see new faces and faces that I already knew. Just being able to be around guys like that that are going to be in the big leagues next year. It just kind of shows. You can match your tools up with their tools. Just go out and have fun, stress-free.”
But he also felt the rigors of the season battling well into late October. Having to play through 131 games was a test for him mentally, and especially physically. Banks said the experience got him ready for what to expect at the next level.
“Oh, definitely. Anyone there who says they weren’t running out of gas is lying,” Banks said. “That’s a long season. I know for some of the guys that were injured and everything, that’s a different story. They really needed those games to get back on track.
“It was fun for the guys that went through a long season. We all enjoyed it. We all wanted to be there. It’s not that we didn’t want to be there. But you can tell, it’s like a full major league season once you go to the fall league, play those 30 or so games after the season already ends. It gives you a little taste of what the big leagues is like.”
Banks also got to enjoy playing in the AFL with Nats teammates Cole Freeman, Jakson Reetz, Sterling Sharp, Luis Garcia, Andrew Lee, Nick Raquet and Jacob Condra-Bogan. All of them were difference-makers for the Saguaros and demonstrated the Nats’ prospect depth as legitimate.
“Definitely. It’s always good to have familiar faces around you,” Banks said. “Makes you get a little bit more comfortable and acclimated a lot quicker. We had a great group of guys from the Nationals that were with us. Showed kind of what the Nationals organization has to offer. I think we, as a group, played really well.”
Surprise went 17-12 to reach the title matchup, finishing three games ahead of Glendale and Peoria in the West Division. Banks said his Arizona team played together from the start from a roster not inundated with hot-shot, headline-grabbing prospects, just very good baseball players that came together with the right coaching to make a statement.
They literally “surprised” everyone in the AFL.
“Our Surprise team, we were probably the most underestimated team out there, just solely because we didn’t have a lot of prospects,” Banks said. “We had a bunch of younger guys. We had some older guys as well, like myself. We didn’t have a lot of top 100 prospects or anything, but the one thing we could do is we could play baseball, and we played it the right way. I think that shows and it goes a long way (in disproving) that prospect list.
“Yeah, it’d be nice to be on (that list) and everything, but when it comes down to it, you got to play the game, and you got to play the right way. That’s what the Nationals do.”
Banks isn’t listed in the Nats top 30, according to MLB.com/Pipeline. But winning MVP honors in the All-Star Game and raking his way to the AFL title match? Oh, yeah, he’s made a name for himself now. And real baseball people know what he can do.
Coming up in part two: What Banks learned from the AFL coaching staff about his hitting approach, how his Nats teammates rooted on the big club in the World Series and what his offseason will be like as he prepares for 2020.