Young arms need to step up if Nats want better prospect ranking

Prospect rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt. And if there’s anyone in baseball whose mouth is over-seasoned from lack of interest in prospect rankings, it’s Mike Rizzo.

The Nationals general manager doesn’t care what any outside publication says about his farm system. He cares only about what he sees with his own eyes and what his scouts and coaches see with theirs.

OK, there’s your caveat to the news that comes next: The Nationals do not currently have any of baseball’s top 100 prospects, according to the industry’s two leading outlets for compiling such lists (Baseball America and MLB Pipeline).

In fact, the Nats are the only franchise in the sport that did not have a single player make either outlet’s recent top-100 prospects list.

You can spin this any of a number of ways, but it’s safe to say no GM would prefer to have his or her organization left off the list entirely. They may not put much stock in the evaluations, but they’d obviously rather have a couple players included than none at all.

The Nationals, though, could argue they’re a victim of their own continued success, especially when it comes to developing top position players. Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom, Luis García. Those guys all were top-100 prospects in the somewhat recent past before reaching the big leagues.

Kieboom and Garcia were top-100 prospects one year ago - Kieboom rated as high as 15th, García as high as 91st - but because they spent enough time in D.C. last season they no longer qualify as rookies. Had Starlin Castro not broken his wrist and created an unexpected opening at second base, García very well could’ve been ranked again this winter.

And based on the glowing reviews bestowed upon him when he received a $3.9 million signing bonus last week, 17-year-old shortstop Armando Cruz is probably going to crack the rankings sometime soon.

So the situation may not be as dire as it sounds on the position-player front. It is a greater concern, however, when it comes to elite pitching prospects. And this is not a new development.

The point has been made here before, so apologies for repeating it, but it’s not insignificant. Only six pitchers drafted by the Nationals since 2005 have gone on to start at least 30 big league games for them: John Lannan (2005), Craig Stammen (2005), Ross Detwiler (2007), Jordan Zimmermann (2007), Stephen Strasburg (2010) and Erick Fedde (2014).

Fedde-Slings-It-Gray-Sidebar.jpgFedde, who finally surpassed the 30-start mark last season, is the only pitcher drafted by the Nationals in the last decade to do it. (Austin Voth, drafted in 2013, could join him if he makes at least nine starts this year.)

Now, the important caveat (which, again, has been made here before). Several Nationals draft picks over the years have gone on to make 30 or more big league starts with other organizations after they were traded away, several of them in deals that worked out quite well for Rizzo and Co. Marco Estrada (2005), Brad Peacock (2006), Tommy Milone (2008), Nate Karns (2009), Robbie Ray (2010), Lucas Giolito (2012) and Nick Pivetta (2013) all fit that bill. And Jesús Luzardo (2016) and Wil Crowe (2017) have a good chance of joining them soon.

But as Max Scherzer reaches the final year of his contract, and with Jon Lester a short-term member of this rotation, the Nats are going to find themselves needing to produce some homegrown starting pitchers in the coming years.

That’s why the spotlight will shine brightly this season on the organization’s last three first-round picks: Mason Denaburg, Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli. All are big right-handers with big arms. All have been touted by Rizzo and his staff. All have an opportunity to be part of the Nationals’ next wave of elite starting pitching.

First, though, each of them needs to pitch this year after losing the opportunity to pitch in the minor leagues last summer.

If Denaburg, Rutledge and Cavalli can do that, and if they can enjoy some professional success in 2021, the Nationals won’t be shut out of any top-100 prospect lists in 2022.

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