The Nationals have one of the best farm systems in baseball.
The bright side of finishing with a sub-.500 record every season between 2006 and 2011, is piling up top draft picks. And even though the Nats lost big and often, their struggles came at a perfect time. In the end, Washington earned top draft picks when the best amateur talents the game has ever seen were available.
But it wasn't all about losing and luck. Former GM Bowden and his successor Mike Rizzo should be applauded for their roles in the team's rebuilding process. The front office made player development the organization's focus, and they championed payroll flexibility. Instead of trying to catch lightning in a bottle and competing immediately by spending big money on free agents (like Sabathia, Teixeira, Crawford, Wilson,) they stuck with a frugal game plan.
When they were losing, there was plenty of temptation to burn their payroll and win now. The club had just moved to DC (2005), had just built a new stadium, and they needed to establish a fanbase. But the Nationals didn't cave. They were patient. Instead of dropping heaps of cash on aging big-league talent, they funneled their spending in to the draft, scouting, analytics and player development.
Between 2007 and 2011, the Nationals spent $51 million on the draft—more than any team outside of Pittsburgh. In each of those years, they drafted the best available player on the board when their first pick came up. They ended up spending well over-slot to take home the likes of Strasburg, Harper, A.J. Cole (traded for Gio Gonzalez), Sammy Solis, Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin and Lucas Giolito.
The greatest part is, they beat the system. As soon as they started winning, and their draft picks started dropping, the MLB overhauled the draft system and implemented hard-slotting. They were able to sign Lucas Giolito, whom they drafted out of the 16th slot last June, by the skin of their teeth. And if there timetable had been any later, there's a good chance they wouldn't have been able to bring both Strasburg and Harper home to DC.
As a result, the Nationals have come out on top. With Strasburg, Harper, Zimmerman and a cheap, uber-talented young rotation already establishing themselves in the big leagues, their future is brighter than ever. But even with so many gifted prospects graduating to the big club in recent years, their farm system is still superb.
Here are Washington's top five prospects for next season.
Taylor is one of the minor league's most unheralded prospects. In fact, he's really been overlooked throughout his entire baseball career—both as an amateur and as a pro. But make no mistake, even if you haven't heard his name until now, Michael is a blue chip prospect and a star in the making.
Though he was a four-sport varsity athlete, and he had run blazing 6.6- and 6.7-second 60-yard dash times as a 17-year-old, Taylor wasn't considered a top draft prospect in high school. He played varsity ball for Westminster Academy in Broward County, Florida, a circuit known for producing big league talent. And though he performed extremely well, batting .447 with 7 HR and 29 RBI as a senior, other local prospects like Deven Marrero and Dane Williams attracted more attention from scouts.
Taylor helped lead the Westminster Lions to the state playoffs in his junior season, before breaking out as a senior. A shortstop at the time, Taylor's fielding wasn't ever particularly smooth, but his premium speed, plus bat and strong arm allowed him tear-up the competition nonetheless. He was named All-State and All-Region heading in to his senior season. His impressive play earned him a scholarship from North Florida, and he committed to play for coach Dusty Rhodes' Ospreys.
Taylor was already on Washington's radar however, and they invited him to a pre-draft workout at their minor-league complex in Viera Florida. He threw 90 MPH off the mound, ran a 6.60-second sixty and showed impressive bat speed. Washington loved what they saw—a premium athlete with a Major League body—and though Taylor's skill set was still raw, they made sure to draft him in the sixth round of the '09 Draft.
After signing with Washington that summer, Taylor made his instructional-league debut with the Gulf Coast League Nationals. As the Nats expected, he was raw, and his numbers suggested he still had a lot to learn. He hit just .199/.276/.298 through 43 games, and he made 19 errors at shortstop.
But Washington knew they had something in Taylor, they just didn't know exactly what they had. They also knew that the tall, lanky kid's future wasn't on the infield dirt. He had the athleticism, but his hands were rough and his long legs made routine groundballs not so routine. So, in the offseason, they moved him to centerfield and had him work on his fielding technique with Tony Tarasco. To address his hitting woes, they stuck him in the cage with class-A Manager Brian Daubauch and hitting instructor Marlon Anderson, and had him overhaul his swing.
The next season, Taylor stepped on the field a different player, and he hasn't looked back since.
Promoted to the South Atlantic League to open 2010, his batting line jumped to .253/.310/.432 in what would become Taylor's breakout campaign. His overall numbers weren't overwhelming, but they were impressive for his age and experience level. They also don't tell the whole story, Taylor improved as the season went on, and hit .291 with a .351 on-base percentage in the second half.
His fielding was flat-out incredible. Playing centerfield for the first time as a pro, he didn't look like a newbie, he looked like a Gold Glove-caliber veteran. Taylor's incredible body control, premium wheels and long-legged, fluid stride helped him cover a big league radius in the outfield, and he became adept at making over-the-shoulder, running grabs. His strong, accurate arm rounded out his defensive tool set, and he left the Nationals brass impressed not only by his dramatic improvements but by his apparent star-level potential.
This season, as a 21-year-old playing in the Carolina League, Taylor didn't knock Washington's socks off again, but the club continues to consider him a long-term answer in centerfield (Harper in right). He posted a .680 on-base percentage in 2012, but his speed and outfield defense continue to be impact-level tools, and he's a potential Gold Glove outfielder in the Majors.
At the plate, Taylor is still raw, so he's at least a couple of years away from a big-league job. But he's improved his hitting by leaps and bounds over the past two years. When he came to the Nationals, his wide-legged set-up and long stride created serious timing problems and a looping swing. He's ironed out his mechanics, and with more experience facing pro pitchers, he could develop in to a 15-20 home-run threat and a .340 on-base percentage hitter. He certainly has the requisite bat-speed and hand-eye coordination for the job.
In terms of pure talent, Lucas Giolito was the best pitcher in the 2012 draft.
However, Giolito left his start against Alemany High School in March with nagging elbow pain. He had thrown 100 MPH earlier that day, but the catching pain he felt in his at the bottom of his tricep muscle ended up being a torn UCL.
As a result, Giolito missed the remainder of his senior season and slid down draft boards in June. When he fell in to the Nationals' hands at the No. 16 slot, they didn't hesitate before selecting him. Even though new draft rules restricted the Nationals over-slot spending, they structured the remainder of their draft around signing Giolito, and they ended up inking him right before the deadline.
Yeah, he's that good.
Lucas is blessed with incredible, God-given ability. Pitching for Harvard-Westlake (CA) as a junior, alongside top prospect Max Fried and against the best competition in the country, he posted a 9-1 record and a 1.00 ERA. His fastball hit 98 MPH on the radar gun regularly—an incredible feat for any pitcher, much less a kid barely old enough to drive. Along with droves of pro scouts, Giolito attracted the eye of the nation's best college programs, and he signed a commitment to pitch for UCLA in the following fall.
He won't honor that commitment however. After the club took-home the top talents in the previous three drafts—Rendon, Harper and Strasburg—they did it again with Giolito.
After signing him, they sent Giolito to the Gulf Coast League to start rehabbing his elbor. In his first start however, he went just two innings before re-aggravating the injury. They immediately sent Giolito to Dr. Lewis Yocum for an elbow examination. Just as they'd expected, the prognosis was Tommy John surgery, and Giolito went under the knife before throwing a pitch professionally. Even with the injury though, Washington made a brilliant decision to draft Giolito.
Lucas has all of the ingredients to become an ace-level starter in the big leagues. His fastball already sits 92-95 MPH and touches triple digits. His slider is a wipeout pitch, with nasty two-plane break, and it was arguably the best offspeed pitch among his draft class's high school arms. And for a guy with such a knockout power repertoire, his changeup is remarkable advanced, and already game-worthy.
But Giolito is more than pure power and arm strength. Despite the blown-out elbow, his mechanics are nearly flawless, and his command and control are above average for his age. Standing tall at 6'6", built with wide shoulders, long legs and huge hands, he has a ton of room to fill out and add even more muscle and power. His body is built for durability and longevity, and his ball flies out of his hands almost effortlessly. Like a Verlander or a David Price, his long fingers and strong grip help him add ridiculous spin on his fastball and breaking pitches.
Baseball is a mental game, and pitching is the most mental position on the diamond. Giolito is all set in that department as well. He's was a great student in the classroom, and his quiet-leader-type demeanor causes his teammates to gravitate towards him.
Alex Meyer is quickly making a name for himself as one of the MLB's top pitching prospects.
The Nationals held three of the 2011 Draft's first 34 picks. And at each spot, they took the best player available on the board. Though that strategy is the most expensive approach, they were able to take advantage of one final year of a liberal slotting systen.
After Rendon at No. 6, they selected Alex Meyer with the 23rd overall draft choice. A 6'9" righthander out of Kentucky, armed with an electric heater and a shoulder-dislocating curveball, the Nationals just couldn't pass up Meyer's sky-high potential.
The truth is, the Nats didn't think Rendon, viewed as the draft's best player by most, would be available at No. 6 slot. Initially, they had planned on drafting someone else, and had considered taking Meyer that high—a testament to their confidence in his ability.
At Kentucky, Meyer's power repertoire and iffy control got him in to trouble early in his career. As a freshman, he pitched well as the club's Sunday starter, but was less than untouchable while making his transition to D-I baseball. He finished 2009 with 5.73 ERA and 45 walks in 59 innings pitched, but his premium fastball velocity still offered plenty of promise.
Meyer followed his rocky freshman season with an ugly sophomore campaign. Though he started off well, allowing four runs in his first 11 innings pitched, his performance declined as the season went on.
When his velocity bottomed out, and his weight-lifting routine began to feel overwhelming, he went to the emergency room to get himself checked out. He was diagnosed with a case of mononucleosis in May, and things got worse from there. Fatigue and muscle wasting led made pitching impossible, so Kentucky ended up shelving him for three weeks of the season. When he returned, his performance nose dived, and he finished 2011 with a 7.06 ERA.
After two tough underclass seasons, Meyer came in to his own as a junior. He showed up to camp in peak shape, and he'd grown almost two inches in the offseason. His fastball spiked to 95-96 MPH in some starts, and he suddenly had a dominant air about him. He'd spent the offseason re-building his body after mono, and worked tirelessly to improve himself. He'd also smoothed out his mechanics, and his fastball command had taken a leap forward.
In 2011, he tossed 101 innings of 2.94 ERA baseball and led the South Eastern Conference with 110 strikeouts. A testament to his sharpened control, he walked just 4.1 batters per nine innings, a much lower rate than he had in either 2010 (6.4) or 2009 (5.1). He was the first Wildcats starter with a sub-3.00 ERA since Greg Dombrowski (2006) and he finished his career with 253 strikeouts, ranking him fifth in program history.
Improving with every start, Meyer finished his junior season on an absolute tear. He tossed two complete game shut-outs in five starts, and absolutely dominated opposing batters. In his last 45 2/3 innings pitched, he allowed just twenty-eight hits and tallied forty-six strikeouts and a 1.96 ERA. He was twice named SEC Pitcher of the Week in that span, and after the season, the coaches of his division opponents rewarded him with a second-team All-SEC selection.
During his final season of college, Meyer committed himself to a more rigorous offseason workout routine, and as a result, he filled out and improved his balance and core strength. His command progressed extensively, and the Nationals felt he was a player poised for a break-out season when they drafted him. In his professional debut this season, he didn't disappoint, showing even more refined pitching mechanics and control form the get-go. Even after an aggressive South Atlantic League assignment, he hit the ground running this spring.
Meyer starting his pro career with the Hagerstown Suns last April, and got off to an impressive start. He posted a 3.10 ERA and struck out 107 batters in 90 innings pitching for the Suns. His performance earned him a spot in the All-Star Futures Game, as well as an early-summer promotion to the Carolina League. Against more advanced competition in high-A ball, he continued to pitch well, totalling a 2.31 ERA and a 2.91 K/BB through seven starts.
A lanky, long-limbed 6'9", Alex Meyer has drawn comparisons to a young A.J. Burnett not only for his appearance, but also for his pitching style and repertoire. Like Burnett, his mechanics and command lag behind his pure stuff—though Meyer is arguably more advanced at the same age. He slings the ball out of a 3/4 release point, and lights up radar guns with a hard, heavy, running fastball. His heater sat mostly in the 92-94 MPH range this season, but he can dial it up to 97 MPH when he needs to reach back for more.
Meyer's curveball was one of the best in his draft class. Thrown with a spike-curve grip, he fires the pitch with nasty, razor-sharp spin. The curve drops off the table, diving away from right-handed hitters. At present, it's already a big-league strikeout pitch, and once he develops more consistency and control with it, it should be a second true plus offering.
Beyond pure stuff, Meyer has the body and the work ethic to succeed as a front end starter in the big leagues. Since mono knocked him down during his sophomore season at Kentucky, Meyer has rebuilt himself from the ground up. He's bigger and stronger, and now that his mechanics are improving, his command and consistency have followed suit. Once he irons out his delivery some more, and learns to trust his stuff (focusing on power rather than guiding his pitches), his heater could jump up to the mid-high 90s.
Brian Goodwin is one of the few legitimate five-tool athletes in professional baseball. Unlike so many other guys that enjoy the label, he really does have all five tools.
The Nationals supplemental round pick (34th overall) from the 2011 MLB Draft, Goodwin signed a blue-chip (very over-slot) $3 million bonus to start his pro career right away.
He debuted with an impressive performance in the South Atlantic League last Spring. Playing centerfield for the Hagerstown Suns, the 21-year-old hit .324/.438/.542 in his first 58 games. After a stint on the DL slowed him down at the end of April, he recovered and caught fire to start the summer, totalling a superb .442 weighted on-base average at the time of his July promotion to Eastern League.
Before they drafted Goodwin out of Miami-Dade South Community College, the Nats were already familiar with the blue-chip prospect. They had scouted him throughout his high school career, and his impressive performance on the National scene kept him atop of their wish list.
In high school, Goodwin put together an extraordinary career at Rocky Mountain high school in North Carolina. After hitting .356 as a sophomore, he absolutely went off— putting up monster numbers in his junior season in '08. He posted a .473 batting average, stole 21 bases and led the state with 15 doubles (15) and 45 runs. His production helped lead the Gryphons to a 27-6 record and their first NCHSAA Championship in three decades.
After earning all-conference and all-area honors in previous seasons, Goodwin's huge '08 production not only earned him a spot on the 3-A All-State team, but North Carolina's High School Baseball Coaches Association even named him their 2008 Player of the Year.
Over the following summer, Goodwin played well in the National spotlight as well. Not only did he earn a spot at the Under Armour All-American game, but he outshined his fellow prospects a few months later on an even bigger stage. At the 2008 Aflac All-American game, held at Dodger Stadium, Goodwin drove-in the game's winning run. After accounting for team East's only hit, and coming through in the clutch, Goodwin was the easy choice for the game's MVP award.
He continued his outstanding play in 2009, with a very impressive senior campaign. In his Grypons' finale season, Brian hit .413 with 13 extra-base hits and 15 stolen bases.
As Goodwin's athleticism and flashy amateur stat lines attracted plenty of attention from the pros, but he decided to accept a scholarship and attend the University of North Carolina rather than play professional immediately. His Tarheels career didn't go as planned however. After batting .291 in his freshman season, UNC suspended him for academic difficulties. Instead of wasting a year on the bench, he immediately transferred to Miami-Dade South Community College.
At Miami-Dade South, Goodwin matured dramatically. Working with his new coach Brian Price, he smoothed out his swing and polished his plate discipline and pitch recognition. His dedication in the cage paid dividends immediately, and he led his team in a number of hitting categories, including batting average (.367), home runs (8), and runs scored (40).
As a pro, Goodwin hasn't slowed down one bit. After batting .324/.438/.524 in his first pro Spring, he earned a promotion to double-A Harrisburg. Facing older and more advanced Eastern League pitching, Goodwin held his own down the stretch, managing a .680 OPS. He finished the season, totaling a .280/.384/.469 line with 14 homeruns, 18 stolen bases and 42 extra-base hits in 100 games.
Goodwin's greatest strength is his lack of weakness. But don't take that as meaning he's somehow unspectacular. Goodwin is one of the most exciting players in the minors. He can hit, he can drive the ball, he can field, he can run, and he can throw. And he does everything well.
Though he doesn't steal a ton of bases yet, Goodwin has the premium speed to swipe thirty bags in the Major Leagues annually in his prime. In the outfield, his legs make him an above-average gloveman, and he glides in to the gaps with a fluid stride. He tracks fly balls like a pro, shifting directions with lose hips, and he makes acrobatic catches from wide receiver angles.
At the plate, Goodwin is extraordinarily advanced. He has a sweet, polished left-handed swing, that naturally adds loft and carry. He swings the stick with plus bat speed already, and as his pitch recognition improves, he could develop the pop to hit 25+ bombs in the big leagues annually. The most impressive area of his game though, is his plate discipline. Goodwin works the count like a 10-year veteran. He's satisfied taking a walk and he knows how to extend at bats.
Anthony Rendon is the Nationals' top prospect, and he's one of the best hitters in the minor leagues.
If not for injury concerns, Rendon would've been the top overall pick in the 2011 Draft. But luckily for the Nationals, other teams shied away from handing him a $6 million bonus and he slid to them at the No. 6 slot. With an opportunity to take home the draft's best player for the third straight season, the Nats didn't hesitate to pay him big money to come to D.C.
Before enrolling at Rice University, Rendon played ball at two local Texas high schools, first at George Bush and then at Lamar in Houston. After proving himself as a first-team all-district player as a sophomore, Rendon broke out the next season as a junior, mashing 14 home runs and hitting his way on to the 5-A All-State team. That year, he grew from a short, and stocky 5'6" to a much stronger, sturdier 5'11".
As a senior, Rendon stepped on to the field a much more complete athlete. He was always fleet-footed and nimble, but now he'd added power and muscle to this game. And, his performance at the plate exploded. He hit .570 and raked eight home runs and 27 extra-base hits. In the field, he'd evolved in to a premium shortstop a well. He made contributions to his team in every area of the game, and he helped lead the Redskins to a 29-7 record and the 20-5A Championship.
Born and raised in Texas, it was only fitting for Rendon, one of the state's top recruits, to play for the Rice University Owls. Rice is a local school and one of the strongest baseball programs in the NCAA. Rendon was made for the uniform, and that's where he played. And he really played. He ended up outperforming even the loftiest expectations during his three-season career.
Rendon started his college career with a bang. As a freshman he led Conference USA in batting average (.388), slugging percentage (.702) and he set the school's home-run mark with 20 bombs (19 in the regular season). He suited up for every contest that season, and he carried the Owls to a 43-18 record and all the way to the Super Regional. He kicked his performance in to an even higher gear in the NCAA tournament, batting batting .500 through seven games. Following the season, Anthony became the first player to earn both Conference USA Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors. And, Baseball America honored him as their 2009 Freshman of the Year.
While playing against LSU in the Super Regional however, Rendon ended his season in ugly fashion, tearing multiple ligaments in his right ankle. Luckily though, it was the end of the postseason, so he had plenty of time to rehab and get healthy.
In his second season at Rice, Rendon managed to top his incredible freshman stat lines. He hit .394/.530/.801, and tallied more homeruns (26) than strikeouts (22). His single-season home-run total was second only to Lance Berkman's 41 in the Owls' record books. But he wasn't all bat, he was equally impressive in the field, making just four errors at third base all season. His off the charts performance packed his trophy case with even more awards and accolades. Both Rawlings and Baseball America named him the top player in the nation, and the National College Baseball Writers Association awarded him the Dick Hauser Trophy.
Playing for Team USA in the offseason, Rendon broke his ankle and ruptured multiple ligaments while running the bases in a game against South Korea. For the second time in two years, he was able to finish his injury rehab in time for the regular season. But, this time around, he wasn't quite as effective at the plate. Right after he'd recovered from his second gruesome ankle injury in two years, he strained his shoulder, and his swing suffered. Though he led Division I baseball in walks with 80, and still hit a very impressive .327/.520/.523, his power declined significantly and he was forced to DH for most of the year.
Rendon's professional debut followed a similar trend. When he played, he showed plenty of promise—posting an .851 OPS at four different levels between instructional league and double-A. But injures once again came back to bite him. After collecting a base hit in his professional debut with the Potomac Nationals, Rendon sprained his ankle in the second game of the Spring whiling rounding the bases. He ended up sitting out the next three months, and there were even some rumblings that he would miss the entire season.
Rather than calling it a season, Rendon managed to return to the field right after the All-Star break. The Nats sent him down to the instructional league on a rehab assignment, and he responded by mashing two home runs and a double in eleven at bats. After a pit-stop in Auburn, he returned to Potomac and hit a flashy .333/.438/.630.
The Nationals sent Rendon to double-A Harrisburg to finish out the season. Though he slumped there, posting a meager .162 batting average and .673 OPS through 21games, the club was happy with his progress overall. He fought through injuries and returned to put together a .851 OPS on the season.
Despite the wave of injuries he's dealt with throughout the past three years, Rendon is still one of the most promising prospects in the minor leagues. He's a gamer, and his college career stands as one of the best in history.
Rendon was born to play baseball. He's a smart player, who knows the game inside and out and he simply does everything well. At the plate, he's a textbook hitter, able to hit for average and power. His swing mechanics are fundamentally near-perfect, and generates surprising batspeed out of his medium-sized frame by drawing power from his core and legs. He loads his core muscles efficiently but keeping his hands cocked back after he completes his stride, allowing him to wait on offspeed pitches and explode to the baseball.
His strong hands are the some of the best in the minors, both in the box and in the field, and his swing is sharp, and firm. As he uses his trunk to accelerate to the ball, Rendon pulls the bat handle in toward his belt buckle, allowing him to whip the barrel through the zone with vicious speed. He can catch up to premium heat already, and his uncanny bat control helps him square-up same-side breaking stuff with ease.
Though he's just 22 years old, Rendon plays the game like he's a long-time big leaguer. At the plate, he's extraordinarily disciplined, and his pitch recognition and plate vision are nearly unrivaled. Virtually every time he swings the bat he makes loud contact and finds the barrel. He squares up pitches in all parts of the zone, and he has Major League home-run power to all fields despite underwhelming size and strength. If he can stay healthy, and build on his debut season, he could develop in to a .300 hitter, with the power to hit 20+ home runs annually.
In the field, Rendon could compete for a Gold Glove in the Major Leagues already. The same excellent hands that make him a lethal hitter at the plate, give him an advantage in the field as well. He's remarkably sure-handed, and he never makes careless errors.
His quick, acrobatic feet and low center of gravity, allow him to cover shortstop-grade range to both his glove and arm side. He reacts with the crack of the bat, and his body control allows him to field even the toughest, missiles in the hole. And, he rounds out his defensive game with a strong accurate arm.
Like Ryan Zimmerman, Rendon's glove is a strength. Even if the Nationals need to move him in deference to their franchise third baseman, his nimble feet and impressive body control will allow him to develop in to a plus middle infielder.
Rendon is an incredible all-around player. He offers an exceedingly rare mix of make-up, tools, and polish, and despite his sky-high potential, he's already prepared to contribute in the Major Leagues. Even though he lacks slugger size—he's only 5'11"—and even though injuries have slowed him down a bit, he still projects as a .300 hitting third baseman with a premium glove and solid base-running skills.