The Nationals system is strong from a pitching standpoint, even with the recent trade of prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pirates.
The Nats’ top 10 prospects were all pitchers prior to the move that acquired All-Star first baseman Josh Bell, so now it is top eight, according to MLBPipeline.com. Prospects Jackson Rutledge, Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry are the top three. All three were drafted in 2019 or 2020. No. 5 prospect Mason Denaburg was a 2018 top selection.
Nats assistant general manager of player development Mark Scialabba said that is where the organization fortifies depth and the club is acutely aware of a desire to work to increase position player talent in the next few drafts.
“As far as the state off the system, I’m very, very pleased with where we are from a pitching standpoint,” Scialabba said. “I think our young position player prospects are starting to emerge and we are very proud of all the work that our scouts have done both internationally and on the amateur side to continue to bring talented young players with great character and makeup to this organization.”
There were no minor league games in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Scialabba detailed how his coaches and coordinators made the best with what happened, adding intrasquad games at the alternate site and playing real games against the Marlins during fall instructional league.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our staff to really dig deep and deal with all the challenges this year, hit it head on, and be creative and work extremely hard in a very challenging environment,” Scialabba said. “This year has been difficult, but I think that we’ve taken a step forward especially on the pitching side. I think we have some young position players that once we are able to play some games people are going to start knowing more about them. We are very high on the future here.”
The Nats were not the only team that had the most unusual of baseball summers. Every team had to create new ways to get their prospects at-bats and innings.
“We need baseball games,” Scialabba said. “We did the best we could with the resources that we had at the alternate site and at instructional league to get our players better, more developed maybe on the mental side for some of them. Understanding who they are, knowing their strengths and having to work on that more one-on-one with a coach maybe in a simulated situation.
“But you need games, because once you get to the big leagues, obviously that jump is the biggest jump there is, let alone the competition is the best it’s going to be. You have to have something to work off of. Even when you are playing games at the alternate site, it’s not a real game atmosphere to the point where it’s a transition that they are used to, so you are going to have some drop off there. Hopefully, we will have real games next year even if we are playing at the alternate site versus a team or if we are playing minor league baseball, it’s great.”
The 2020 season saw a few Nats prospects make their major league debuts. Outfielder Yadiel Hernández made his debut at 32, appearing in 12 games and hitting a dramatic home run. But the biggest jumps came from Nats pitchers, with left-hander Seth Romero making his major league debut. So did right-handers Kyle Finnegan, Dakota Bacus and Crowe, and left-hander Ben Braymer.
In a normal season, a lot of these hurlers may not have made the jump to the big leagues. So in this new world, especially with fewer minor league teams available to get prospects games next season, does Scialabba envision prospects making two-level jumps more commonplace?
“The development curve is going to be expedited a little bit just losing a level, but also the competition within an organization will probably be heightened as well,” Scialabba said. “But as you have seen this year, a number of players make their debut without obviously going through each level because we didn’t have levels this year.
“You are coming right from the alternate site, giving opportunities for players to get their feet wet this year. That experience is going to pay off down the road. I think you also have a number of pitchers right now in our system probably that would’ve been in A-ball this year, maybe knock on the door at Double-A next year. Where do we start them (in 2021) and how do they fit? Those are questions we will obviously answer down the road. But there is some talent here that is going hopefully going to be there fairly soon.”
Pitchers like Romero, Finnegan, Braymer and Bacus could hold the key to replenishing the top levels of the Nats system. Even in a disjointed 2020 campaign, those innings and games at the big league level will help them get a running start, hoping to be ahead of the pack in 2021.