Lucas Giolito's ace potential offers plenty to smile about.
The Washington Nationals reaped the benefits of drafting within the top-10 slots in the first round for five consecutive seasons (2007-11), landing players such as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper who have helped reverse the course of the franchise in a matter of years.
After finishing the 2011 regular season one game below .500, Washington was pushed to the middle of the drafting order in 2012 with the No. 16-overall pick. However, it may have as well been another top-10 selection; the Nationals gambled on prep right-hander Lucas Giolito, who showed No. 1-overall-caliber stuff early in the year but missed the entire high school season with an elbow injury.
Making his first professional start in late 2012, Giolito re-injured his elbow and required season-ending Tommy John surgery that also sidelined him for part of the 2013 season. However, the 19-year-old was dominant upon his return to the mound last summer, touching triple digits on the radar gun with an 80-grade fastball and baffling opposing hitters with a future-80 curveball. The right-hander quickly proved to have one of the highest ceilings among all pitching prospects, and he’s the most talked about young arm headed into the 2014 season.
After Giolito, the Nats’ prospect pool stands out for its depth on the mound, with a slew of hard-throwing right-handers in A.J. Cole, Jake Johansen and Nate Karns, all of whom have the ceiling of a mid-rotation starter and floor of a late-inning reliever.
Outfielders Brian Goodwin and Steven Souza represent the team’s top position prospects headed into 2014, and there’s a decent chance that they both reach the major leagues by season’s end. Meanwhile, the ultra toolsy Michael Taylor made strides at the plate in 2013 and has the potential to move quickly this season with an improved approach.
Here’s a look at the Washington Nationals’ top 10 prospects for 2014.
DOB: 11/25/1994 (Age: 19)
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 210 pounds
Drafted: Third round, 2013 (Leedey HS, Okla.)
Ward is an average athlete with a physically mature 6’4”, 210-pound frame; best tool is plus raw power, though it didn’t show last summer during professional debut; left-handed hitter who has good bat speed and strength to his swing; generates decent lift after contact; demonstrates advanced and patient approach; present feel for the strike zone; swing has some noise, but he does a good job getting the barrel to the ball; below-average speed; 2013 was first season as full-time third baseman; lacks mobility for a favorable long-term projection; inconsistent footwork; solid hands; could potentially outgrow position and be relegated to first base; above-average arm strength; value tied to power potential.
Projection: Second-division third baseman
DOB: 03/26/1991 (Age: 22)
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 205 pounds
Drafted: Sixth round, 2009 (Westminster Academy, Fla.)
Taylor is a physical specimen with an athletic, 6’4”, 205-pound frame that's loaded with quick-twitch muscles; speed and defense are carrying tools; plus runner with an effortless gait on the base paths and in the outfield; speed translates to plus-plus range in center field; goes back on the ball better than many big league center fielders; gets terrific reads and routes; plus arm strength is an underrated weapon at the position.
Right-handed hitter’s bat has been slow to develop; swing lacks fluidity; inconsistent mechanics; tendency to over-stride causes bat to drag through zone; timing of swing and bat path is geared toward hitting fastballs; fringy secondary pitch recognition; flails at breaking balls in fastball counts; started to tap into above-average raw power in 2013; development and progress of hit tool will determine power ceiling; needs to eliminate some of the swing-and-miss in his game, which won’t be easy next season at Double-A; hit tool may be, at best, fringe average.
Projection: First-division center fielder
DOB: 08/10/1988 (Age: 25)
Height/Weight: 6’5”, 230 pounds
Drafted: Second round, 2010 (San Diego)
Solis has upside but hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to move through the system; missed entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery; looked good this season after returning to the mound in May.
The 6’5” left-hander has a clean and repeatable delivery; uses height to work on consistent downhill plane; fastball registers in the low 90s with arm-side run; could potentially sit a few ticks higher in bursts; throws changeup with convincing arm speed and locates it well relative to his fastball; projects as at least an above-average offering; turns it over to create late-fading action; average breaking ball is somewhere between a curve and slider; shape and action of the pitch can vary; lacks true plus offering but demonstrates solid command of three-pitch mix; attacks hitters with aggressive approach; trusts his stuff and isn’t afraid to work inside against right-handed hitters.
Projection: No. 4 or 5 starter; long reliever
DOB: 7/30/1989 (Age: 24)
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 230
Drafted/Signed: Fifth round, 2011 (Georgia Tech)
Skole is a presence in the batter’s box at 6’4”, 230 pounds; played in only two games (at Double-A Harrisburg) in 2013 before requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery; left-handed batter demonstrates natural ability to drive the ball the other way; advanced pitch recognition allows him to work deep counts; three true outcome hitter; plus raw power is more frequent when he stays inside the ball; yet to prove it will translate at higher level; physically strong hitter but doesn’t possesses elite bat speed; upper-cut-style swing will also yield high strikeout totals; can get chewed up by same-side pitching; will be forced to make ongoing adjustments to reach major leagues as corner infielder.
Skole is a tolerable defender at the hot corner, at least in the low minors; highly doubtful he’ll be able to stay there; solid-average defensive profile at first base, though it puts additional pressure on his bat; surprisingly agile with range to his right; good hand-eye coordination gives him ability to make diving plays in both directions; footwork is still iffy around the bag; needs experience on both sides of the ball.
Projection: Platoon first baseman
DOB: 04/24/1989 (Age: 24)
Height/Weight: 6’3”, 220 pounds
Drafted: Third round, 2007 (Cascade HS, Wash.)
Drafted in 2007, Souza has been in the Nats’ system for what seems like an eternity; injuries and issues related to his makeup prevented him from taking off early in professional career; served a 50-game suspension in 2010 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug; turned in overdue breakout campaign in 2012 and is yet to slow down.
Souza is what a big leaguer should look like, with a 6’3”, 220-pound frame and plus athleticism; flashes potential for four average-or-better tools at maturity; above-average defender capable of playing all three outfield positions; holds his own in center field; plus arm strength; speed is above average, and he shows excellent base-stealing instincts; potential to steal 15-20 bases if given consistent playing time; carrying tool is plus raw power; has shown more consistent in-game frequency over last two seasons; also tightened approach during that span and reduced his strikeout rate; hit tool has potential to be average; utility of bat may ultimately determine whether he’s a fourth outfielder or regular at the major league level.
Projection: Second-division outfielder
DOB: 11/25/1987 (Age: 25)
Height/Weight: 6’5”, 230
Drafted/Signed: 12th round, 2009 (Texas Tech)
Suffered a torn labrum shortly after signing in 2009 that required surgery; returned to the mound in 2011 and emerged as one of the top comeback stories in the minor leagues during his full-season debut in 2012; made three unimpressive starts for the Nationals in May.
The 6'5" right-hander’s fastball sits 92-94 mph with weight; uses it to pound the strike zone and get ahead in counts; curveball is a hammer with hard bite and represents a second plus; legit swing-and-miss offering with depth; adept at using pitch to get hitters to expand the zone; changeup is below average and lacks consistency; serviceable at best; fastball-curveball combination gives him impact potential in a late-innings role; needs changeup to improve a grade for sustained success as a starter in the major leagues.
Projection: No. 4 or 5 starter; setup man
DOB: 01/23/1991 (Age: 22)
Height/Weight: 6’6”, 235 pounds
Drafted: Second round, 2013 (Dallas Baptist)
Johansen has serious upside despite his age and up-and-down performance as an amateur; physically imposing and durable 6’6”, 235-pound frame; capable of heavy work load; right-hander goes after opposing hitters with power stuff but lacks a feel for pitching; high-ceiling arm if secondary arsenal comes together.
Fastball is a plus-plus offering at 94-97 mph, and he’ll flirt with triple digits; pitch cuts through zone with weight and chews up right-handed hitters; deep but raw secondary arsenal; made strides with his curveball last summer; now throws it with more velocity to generate more spin and harder bite; plenty of room for improvement; upper-80s cutter has the potential to be a weapon with refinement; fourth pitch is a fringe-average changeup for which he lacks a consistent feel and throws too firmly; showcases the stuff to pitch in the middle of a rotation; improvement of secondaries next season could put him on the fast track to the major leagues.
Projection: No. 3 starter; setup man
DOB: 11/2/1990 (Age: 22)
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 195
Drafted: First round supplemental, 2011 (Miami Dade)
Goodwin is a plus athlete with a projectable, 6’1”, 195-pound frame; carrying tool is his speed, which shows through his closing speed in center field; reads/routes are still inconsistent and hurts his projection at the position; better-than-average defender could see time at all three outfield positions; average arm strength best suited for center.
Left-handed batter has timing issues pertaining to his pre-pitch load; hitting mechanics already have been simplified but lack efficiency; possesses quick hands and an explosive swing that yields slightly above-average power—mostly to his pull side; has the ability to hit velocity when mechanics are in sync; falls into funks where he commits to pitches too early and tries to pull everything; hits the ball hard the other way when hands start in advantageous position; good pitch recognition drives on-base skills; approach is exploitable with advanced sequencing.
Projection: Second-division outfielder
DOB: 01/05/1992 (Age: 21)
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 180
Drafted: Fourth round, 2010 (Oviedo HS, Fla.)
The 6’4” right-hander has a very projectable frame; loose, wiry build gives him the potential to add strength, especially to his lower half and core; cleaned up mechanical issues that plagued him in 2012.
Cole’s fastball sits 93-97 mph with natural sink and decent arm-side run; good command of pitch; challenges right-handed batters; curveball is thrown with power but largely inconsistent; has the arm speed to throw a hammer but struggles with release point; variant shape and velocity; slurvy at times; inconsistent overall control/command of pitch; changeup noticeably improved last season and represents an average offering; development and consistency of secondary arsenal will determine how close he comes to reaching ceiling.
Projection: No. 3 or 4 starter; setup man
DOB: 07/14/1994 (Age: 19)
Height/Weight: 6’6”, 225
Drafted: First round, 2012 (Harvard-Westlake HS, Calif.)
Giolito and his big-time arm strength received consideration for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2012 after sitting in the mid-to-high 90s early in the spring; tweaked UCL in March and missed the rest of the high school season; re-injured elbow in first professional start this summer and subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery; returned in early July this year and showcased jaw-dropping stuff.
The 6’6” right-hander has a smooth and balanced delivery; mechanics can get out of sync like any young pitcher with long limbs; boasts a legit 80-grade fastball in the 94-100 mph range; bumps triple digits with ease; holds velocity deep into starts; already shows feel for command of pitch throughout zone.
Curveball is a second potentially elite offering and flat-out nasty; only plus-plus at the present; pitch draws as many jelly-leg reactions from right-handed batters as it does whiffs; changeup already is, at worst, an average offering thrown in the low 80s; should add two grades as his feel improves, giving him three plus-or-better pitches; potential for above-average command of all three offerings is impressive given the amount of movement; poised for monster full-season debut and could rank as the game’s top pitching prospect at this time next year.
Projection: No. 1 or 2 starter