The development of prospects is a vital part of any rebuilding team and the Arizona Fall League presents teams with an opportunity to send a handful of their minor league players to continue that process after the conclusions of their regular seasons.
Whether they missed time due to injuries or coaches want to see them play more, the AFL is a great chance for prospects to accumulate more innings or more at-bats against other top prospects across the sport.
The Nationals have eight players representing the organization with the Surprise Saguaros in the AFL, seven of which are ranked in MLBPipeline.com’s top 30 list of top Washington prospects. The Saguaros are managed by Mario Lisson, who is also the manager for the low Single-A Fredericksburg Nationals. Gabe Torres, who is the Nationals’ Latin America strength and conditioning coordinator, serves the same role on the Saguaros staff.
Let’s take a look at how each Nats prospect has fared so far this fall with about two weeks left in the league’s season. Some of the names will be very familiar, while others may not. Also, keep an eye out for the three players who are eligible to be selected in this year’s Rule 5 draft.
It’s well known that the Nationals value pitching and they have focused rebuilding their pitching depth throughout their minor league system. More than half of their top 30 prospects and six out of the top 10 are pitchers.
Leading the way in the AFL is No. 3-ranked Jackson Rutledge. The right-hander was limited to just 36 1/3 innings across three affiliates this year while dealing with shoulder and blister issues. After posting a cumulative 7.68 ERA in 13 starts, the Nationals wanted their former first-round pick to get more innings in the fall.
Unfortunately, the 22-year-old is finding similar results in the AFL. Rutledge has a 5.79 ERA in 18 2/3 innings over five appearances (three starts) with Surprise. He’s allowed 24 hits and eight walks for a .300 batting average against and a 1.714 WHIP. He should have a few chances to finish strong before turning his attention to spring training.
Meanwhile, Cole Henry, the Nationals’ No. 7 prospect, is having himself a strong fall. After pitching to a 1.88 ERA and 0.791 WHIP in nine appearances (eight starts) with high Single-A Wilmington, the right-hander had his season cut a little short while dealing with an elbow issue. But he finished the season healthy and carried over that early success to Arizona.
The 2020 second-round pick out of LSU has a 4.20 ERA, 1.133 WHIP and .170 average against in 15 innings over five appearances (three starts) with Surprise, while also ranking second in the AFL with 23 strikeouts.
Evan Lee is the 21st-ranked prospect in the Nationals system and only left-hander participating in the AFL. Over this season with Wilmington, he went 4-3 with a 4.32 ERA in 21 games (20 starts) while striking out 104 for 12.2 strikeouts/nine innings with just 32 walks.
But the 2018 pick out of Arkansas has struggled in Arizona, with a 7.94 ERA in 5 2/3 innings over six relief appearances. One positive, however, is his ability to keep the ball in the yard, surrendering only six home runs with Wilmington and having yet to give up a longball with Surprise.
It’ll be interesting to see how the 24-year-old finishes the fall season because the Nationals need to add him to the 40-man roster by Nov. 19 or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
The last hurler is Todd Peterson, the only Nats prospect in the AFL not ranked in the organization’s top 30. Mostly used as a reliever between Wilmington and the Rookie-level Florida Complex League (only three of his 20 appearances this season were starts), Peterson was able to put together a strong campaign in just his second professional season since being a seventh-round pick out of LSU in 2019. He had a 3.82 ERA, which was inflated by those three starts, and posted a 2.93 ERA over 27 2/3 relief innings with 27 strikeouts.
All five of Peterson’s appearances with Surprise have been out of the bullpen, though he’s pitched to a 3.68 ERA and 1.227 WHIP. The Nationals are giving the 23-year-old more experience before he reports to camp next year.
The Nationals made it a point to address the lack of catching depth in their system at the trade deadline. Of the 12 prospects the Nats acquired in July by trading away eight players, three of them were catchers. You know Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams, who spent the last two months of the season with the major league club.
The third backstop was Drew Millas, who was a part of the three-player package returning to D.C. from Oakland in exchange for Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison. The 23-year-old switch-hitter is the 20th ranked Nats prospect and went on to hit .284 with 20 RBIs and five stolen bases in 27 games with Wilmington. He also had only one fewer walk than strikeout.
Millas has struggled to find that rhythm at the plate in Arizona, hitting only .179 in 11 games with just one extra-base hit. He does, however, have twice as many walks as strikeouts, continuing to show that he has a good feel for the strike zone.
The second Nats catcher with Surprise is Israel Pineda, an amateur international signing out of Venezuela in 2016. In his fourth season in the Nationals system, Pineda struggled at the plate with a .208 average and 82 strikeouts. He did flash some power by hitting 14 homers with 48 RBIs in 75 games with Wilmington.
Now with Surprise, Pineda is starting to see the ball a little better. He has seven hits, including two doubles, in 21 at-bats with the Saguaros. It’s a small sample size, but Pineda is hitting .333 with an .804 OPS over seven games in the AFL.
He’s another player the Nationals would have to protect from the Rule 5 draft, so how he finishes this fall will be interesting.
We’ve covered the Nationals’ lack of depth in the rotation and at catcher, and how they’ve addressed it. Those positions are back to being strengths in the system.
But now they have a lack of infield talent, at least at the higher levels of the farm. Not to put pressure on Jackson Cluff, but he is the only infielder ranked in the Nats’ top 30 prospects (No. 19) that has played above Single-A.
Two stints on the injured list limited the 2019 sixth-round pick out of BYU to just 45 games this season, mostly with Double-A Harrisburg. In 35 games with the Senators, Cluff only hit .190 with two homers, five doubles and nine RBIs. So the Nationals wanted to give him more at-bats before moving on to next season.
And the 24-year-old took that opportunity and ran with it, becoming one of the AFL’s hottest hitters. In 14 games and 53 at-bats, Cluff is slashing .358/.453/.491 with a .944 OPS, one homer, four doubles, 14 runs scored and 10 walks from the leadoff spot. He’s also a perfect 6-for-6 stealing bases with Surprise.
If Cluff can carry this success over to a full, healthy season at Double-A next year, you might see the shortstop in Washington sooner rather than later.
And last but not least, Donovan Casey rounds out the Nationals prospects playing in the AFL. You might remember him as the fourth player included in the mega deal with the Dodgers that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to Los Angeles.
After hitting .347 with 17 hits, three homers, two doubles, one triple and 10 RBIs in 12 games with Harrisburg, Casey finished the season as the Nationals’ 18th-ranked prospect. In a similar sample size with Surprise, the 25-year-old hasn’t found the same amount of success, but he hasn’t been totally ineffective either. Casey is only hitting .255 over 13 games, but has shown that potential for power with two homers and three doubles with 10 RBIs. He also has three stolen bases and is walking at the same rate he’s striking out.
Although he just got here, the Nationals also need to add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
The Nationals currently have 34 players on the 40-man roster (with Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross and Will Harris on the 60-day injured list), so they have room to protect Lee, Pineda and/or Casey, or any other prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft.
The AFL Fall Stars Game is on Saturday and the regular season ends Friday, Nov. 19, with the championship game the next day.