AFL season ends for Nats prospects with loss in championship

The Arizona Fall League came to a close Saturday night, with several Nationals prospects in the spotlight for the developmental league’s championship game.

The Surprise Saguaros, who had eight Nats on a roster managed by Single-A Fredericksburg’s Mario Lisson, lost the championship to the Mesa Solar Sox, who pitched a combined one-hitter during a 6-0 victory in Scottsdale.

Final game results aside, the last month proved valuable for many of the young players the Nationals sent to Arizona, none more so than shortstop Jackson Cluff, who may have emerged as the biggest surprise performer in the entire league.

The 24-year-old infielder, coming off a professional season in which he batted a scant .214 with a .595 OPS (the majority of his time spent at Double-A Harrisburg), wound up hitting .342 (27-for-79) a .432 on-base percentage, .456 slugging percentage and .887 OPS in 22 games with Surprise.

Cluff-Throws-White-ST-Sidebar.jpgCluff, who led off for the Saguaros in Saturday night’s championship game, also was named the AFL’s Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the day. He was charged with only one error the entire season while turning the most double plays in the league from his shortstop position. (He did pick up a throwing error in Saturday’s game.)

It was an eye-opening performance from the 2019 sixth-round pick out of BYU. The Nationals have liked Cluff’s athleticism, speed and defense, but haven’t been sure about his ability to hit at higher levels. This performance against some of baseball’s top prospect talent should at least propel him into spring training with renewed confidence after his disappointing regular season at the plate.

The Nationals’ top-rated prospect to participate in the AFL this year was Jackson Rutledge, the 2019 first-round pick who had a ragged minor league season in which he missed time with a shoulder injury and finished with an 8.67 ERA in 13 starts across three low-level affiliates. Rutledge’s AFL numbers (7.91 ERA, 1.966 WHIP over 19 1/3 innings) were equally disheartening, and he allowed seven batters to reach base in only 3 1/3 innings during a long relief outing Saturday night.

But within those gaudy stats were encouraging signs as well from the 22-year-old right-hander: Rutledge struck out seven in the championship game, a good stepping-off point for him entering next spring.

Cole Henry, another highly rated pitching prospect, had a better fall in Arizona. The Nationals’ second-round pick in 2020, he finished with a 3.32 ERA and 1.105 WHIP in 19 innings for the Saguaros.

Left-hander Evan Lee, who was just added to the 40-man roster Friday, had a 4.66 ERA and 16 baserunners allowed in 9 2/3 innings of relief. Fellow reliever Todd Peterson finished with a 2.61 ERA and 1.161 WHIP in in 10 1/3 innings.

Other position players to participate in the AFL were: outfielder Donovan Casey (.255/.368/.447 in 13 games), catcher Drew Millas (.196/.359/.275 in 17 games) and catcher Israel Pineda (.296/.355/.370 in nine games).

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