In the midst of a rebuild, the state of the Nats farm system is something everyone is keeping an eye on. With mid-season prospect lists coming out and the draft coming soon, I thought it might be a good time to revisit where the farm system stands. Quick spoiler: it’s not pretty. As things stand today, it would be a lot easier to argue that the Nats own the worst farm system in baseball than it would be to argue that they have a middle of the pack farm system.
Now, it’s not all negatives. When the Nats acquired Josiah Gray and Kiebert Ruiz last season, they were two of the top 50 prospects in baseball and they jumped to the top of the club’s prospect list. But coming into the season, those two had already graduated from prospect status, so the farm looked a lot like it did before that trade. With Gray and Ruiz in tow, the Nats have four players to build around – Juan Soto, Luis Garcia, Gray and Ruiz.
But how about the rest of the farm system? There are a lot of uncertainties. Aside from Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry, Gerardo Carrillo (maybe) and Matt Cronin, there aren’t many prospects currently listed in the team’s top 30 prospects that we’ll be able to count on seeing anytime soon. That’s not to say that some of these other guys won’t be good. But a good portion of the team’s top prospects are in the lower level of the minors, which makes them far from a sure thing. It also makes it nearly impossible to rank the farm system any higher than its currently ranked.
While it’s a problem around baseball, as Baseball Prospectus touched on here, it seems to be an even bigger problem for the Nats. Between bad drafting, the 2020 shortened season which resulted in no minor league season and using 3 of their top 5 draft picks on high school players last year, the Nats have 20 of their top 30 prospects playing below AA (Gerardo Carrillo is in rookie ball, but on a rehab assignment, so he’s not included in the 20). So 66% of the Nats top prospects are likely 2+ years away from the big leagues. Sure, some guys fly through the minors and might get there quicker, but overall 2-3 years is an accurate expectation for how long it should take a prospect to get from A ball to the Majors. I touched on some of these guys a couple of weeks ago and truthfully, some are exciting prospects. But many are stuck in the lower levels of the minors years after being drafted. Some of that is due to injuries, some is due to the shortened 2020 season and some of it is just performance related. None of that really makes things better though.
So to recap, the Nats have the majority of their prospects playing in the lower levels of the minor leagues and they have a front office who is incompetent at drafting. Luckily for the Nats, they’re going to be drafting in the top 5-6 picks for the next two years. Those picks should net them some very good players, even with a front office who’s amateur scouting department is stuck in the 1980s. But let’s also get one thing clear: they’re not going to walk out of this with Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon like they did from 2009-2011. A generational talent and two perennial All-Stars don’t just fall in your lap because you’re drafting at the top of the draft.
Another issue that we’ve seen is that the team has been completely unable to develop any talent outside of the first round. That’s been the case for years now. Think back to 2019 when the team won the World Series. The only players that the Nationals drafted outside of the first round on any of the Nats playoff rosters (Wild Card, NLDS, NLCS or World Series) were Raudy Read, Michael A. Taylor and Austin Voth. There were other players, such as Andrew Stevenson, who played for the team throughout the season, but didn’t make any of the playoff rosters. None of those players, including Read, Taylor or Voth were make or break pieces of the World Series team. What about this year’s team you might ask? The only player on the current roster drafted outside of the first round by the Nats front office is Tres Barrera.
The Braves have Michael Harris and Spencer Strider, who they took in the 3rd and 4th rounds, respectively. The Nats are struggling to develop relievers who they’ve taken in the 3rd and 4th rounds. Think I’m kidding? See Matt Cronin and Holden Powell. Now go ahead and ask how many teams are even drafting relievers as early as the 3rd or 4th round. The answer is not many, if any. If you want to say they took those players so they could sign them under slot, be my guest. But you also don’t just punt picks to go under slot. Prospect development and draft strategy are both MAJOR issues for this organization, and I don’t know that either of those issues are going to be fixed until a new owner takes over and cleans house.
I think coming on the heels of a draft where the Nats were focused on high school talent, they need to focus more on college talent this year. Taking a college bat at #5 will likely help accelerate this rebuild. Relying heavily on high school players again would further deepen the talent in the lower levels of the minors, but it would also send a clear message to fans that they club isn’t looking to compete until 2025-26 at the earliest. That would be a stark contrast from what Mike Rizzo has said over the past year, but it would make a lot of sense given the current state of the team and the team’s farm system.