It’s a new age in Washington DC. The organization is no longer building elite rosters and looking to add established major-league talent. Mike Rizzo and the front office are looking to build up the franchise’s scouting and player development sectors after selling off all their elite talent from last year’s deadline to now. Although the major-league roster is the worst since 2009 the minor league system is better than it has been in almost a decade, not that’s saying much. The Nats have added over 10 players that have been on MLB Pipelines’ top 100 in the last 2 calendar years, including MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, and Josiah Gray. However, all those players have already graduated and are no longer prospects. To add to that they are all high-ranked prospects that don’t really solve the #1 problem with the Nats farm system and player development for the last decade. Drafting and developing a deep farm system. This list is split up into the top 10-6 and the top 5, this is a 10-6 ranking and the top 5 prospects in the Nats system will debut tomorrow.
For years the Nats have been left in the dust on player development and an analytical view on player improvement. However, after winning the World Series the Nationals have the 2nd worst record in baseball, and the organization, far too late unfortunately, has realized the path that they need to follow. Over the last year, the Nats have made important strides in analytical development but there is still a long way to go. These players, I am about to talk about, development is dependent on the success of this endeavor.
Unlike most public lists, which tend to favor reliability over upside, I won’t be giving significant boosts to players closer to the majors or that have a relatively high floor. For this list, I’ll be giving each prospect an FV(Future Value) grade ranging from 20–80 and an ETA, which year I think they should see significant playing time. Here is what each FV grade roughly translates to;
20: career minor leaguer
30: AAAA player
40: bench player/backend starter
45: low-end regular/4 or 5 starter
50: everyday player/4 starter
55: above average regular/mid-rotation
70: top 10 player in baseball
80: top 5 player in baseball
Ok without further ado, here we go….
TJ White (40): If I were to pick one player to be on this list at midseason it would be White. He performed decently well in low-A at only 18 years old and he’s a very good athlete. His raw power profiles at 55 FV but he has a swing that if all goes right could make the most out of it. However, he seems to be pigeoned-holed as more of a 1B/DH than a corner outfielder which caps his defensive ceiling.
Prospect I’m Lower on Than Most
Jackson Rutledge(40): Rutledge was the Nats’ first-round pick in 2019 but after a slew of injuries and the fact that he’s going into his 24-year-old season and still far away from the majors, it looks like his path to an MLB regular is extremely uphill. At 6’8″ it would seem that he would be a pitcher that wins because of great extension and velo and he does to some degree but his fastball has neither high-end velocity nor elite shape to set it apart from others. His secondaries are also uninspiring although he did add a sinker last year that played well.
10. Jeremy De La Rosa
Jeremy De La Rosa might have the sweetest swing in the entire farm system. The 21 year old CF has great speed and a plus glove while showcasing promising raw power since he was signed in 2018. Last year De La Rosa mashed in low-A with a 147 wRC+ and an 11.4 walk rate but struggled when he was moved up to high-A Wilmington, only managing a 53 wRC+ and striking out at a concerning 27.8 rate. However, he did injure his hand during his time in high-A and his season ended when he got surgery in August. What De La Rosa really displayed in 2022 was a vastly improved plate approach, his zone-swing% was well above average and he showed improved chase rates. This helped him cut his strikeout rate from 34.1% to 24.8% in low-A. Although the strikeout rate is still around average these adjustments have turned his whole outlook around. His contact rates are still not-so-great but they were better on fastballs specifically 93+ plus which gives hope that De La Rosa will adjust easier to higher levels of the Minors.
I’ve talked about his plate decisions but now it’s time to talk about De La Rosa’s power. De La Rosa has a very fluid swing that generated a 90th percentile Exit Velocity of 104.3, about the same as Elijah Green’s. This highlights De La Rosa’s high end power but his game power is far less consistent. One reason is that he worked on hitting the ball to all fields, which he did. This in part helped him to a .408 BABIP(batting average on balls in play) in low-A. This is clearly not all sustainable but De La Rosa’s sprays and speed indicate he’ll be able to have very good BABIPs rather consistently. Overall Jeremy has the raw power to be a 20+ homer bat but his approach will limit his power production slightly although he has room to grow.
The most sure thing about De La Rosa’s profile as of now is the speed and glove. He has 60 grade speed and stole an absurd 39 bases last year. He’s a very good defender who will likely stay in center field if the bat keeps progressing. De La Rosa is one of my favorite prospects in the entire Nats system because of how fluid his swing is and his dynamic speed. A lot of his projection depends on him maintaining the improvments in approach he took in low-A last year and maintaining them as he moves up the minors. But if he does he could be the Nats first 20-20 guy since Bryce Harper in 2016.
9. Cole Henry, RHP
Cole Henry was tearing up the minor leagues last season before he underwent Thoracic Outlet Surgery, which ended his season in August. Like many, as soon as I heard the dreaded news of the scheduled surgery I thought of pitchers like Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg, both of whom had TOS and whose incredible careers seemed to fall off right after. In my head, I kind of wrote off Henry as a super serious prospect for the Nats which he previously was before the surgery. A 1.71 ERA with a plus fastball, Curveball, and change-up combo looked promising although many believed he would end up as a reliever with decent command and the inability to handle a starter’s workload. Although he did work to add weight and strength in the 2022 off-season to withstand a bigger workload.
Despite the TOS, there may be positive signs for Henry regardless of the fact that he now has one less rib than he did a year ago. First the pitchers you think of when TOS is mentioned all got it in their late 20s or 30s, but Henry turns 24 this July. Secondly, the surgery may be overhyped in terms of the negative effect on pitchers. Not that many young pitchers have had it and few with as much talent and promise as Henry. And finally, Henry has spent all offseason at Tread Athletics, a player development facility in North Carolina, that has helped many pitchers evolve their repertoires or tweak their mechanics. Pirates’ starter and former top prospect Mitch Keller reworked his mechanics last offseason at Tread Athletics, which generated a large velocity boost on his fastball and helped him have the best season of his career. Now I don’t expect Henry to start pumping 97 this spring, but all signs point to a lot of hope in his health that many didn’t have 7 months ago.
Now let’s get into Henry’s arsenal. I’m a fan of the fastball. It has above average velocity at 94.6 MPH, but what really sticks out is the elite 17.1 inches of horizontal break. He attacks with the pitch and it carried a solid 31.2 whiff rate. The sinker is pretty similar to the fastball in terms of velocity and shape but hitters were successful on it, with a .371 xwoba. His third and fourth pitches are a change-up and a curveball. He threw the change-up much more often and it has a 45.0 whiff rate. Henry threw the curveball under 50 times last year and it was very inconsistent between outings. It has potential but it will be the most important area in his development this season.
Even if we factor out the risk after coming back from surgery I doubt Henry ends up as a consistent starter. His command needs improvement before he can be a consistent major leaguer. The walk rate is ok but his chase rates are subpar on all his pitches and he lacks a constant breaking pitch. The curveball definitely has the potential to be one but as of now, it isn’t. It will be very interesting to see how TOS affects Henry’s stuff but if his work this off-season has really paid off and we see development on the curve we could see a starter in Washington by next spring.
8. Zach Brzykcy, RHP
Before 2022 Zach Brzykcy was a non-prospect, meaning a player viewed as having basically zero value to the MLB team. However, the un-drafted right-hander was incredible out of the bullpen for the high-A affiliate Wilmington Blue Rocks to begin the season and eventually for the AAA Rochester Red Wings after moving up 2 levels in one summer. 95 K’s in 61.1 IPs with a 1.76 ERA turned heads across the organization but Brzykcy’s pitch data is what makes him a potential contributor to the Nats right now. The main reason I have Brzykcy as high as he even though he definitely is a reliever is he already has the best fastball in the Nationals’ organization. His fastball sits at 94.9 MPH and touches 98 which many would think wouldn’t make it stand out from other fastballs but the thing that generates the 40% whiff rate on the pitch is the 22.3 inches of IVB(Induced vertical break). Not only is the fastball straight-up nasty but the way Brzykcy uses it may be just as valuable. As Terian Alexander points out, in his The Best Fastballs in the Minors article for Prospects Live, almost 3/4ths of Brzykcy’s fastballs end up in the upper quadrant of the zone and only 3.9% of his fastballs are categorized as waste pitches.
Brzykcy also throws a curveball and a changeup to add his electric fastball. The changeup is the better of the two secondaries inducing a 50% whiff rate last season and averaging out at 87.5 MPH. His changeup seems to play very well off his elite heater with less vertical drop than most. The curveball is more of a 12–6 with barely any horizontal movement and it’s the pitch he seems most uncomfortable throwing with and the one that batters are picking up on, as of now with only a 15.7 chase rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if he experimented with a harder version of the pitch this year.
Brzykcy is the player on this list that I feel most confident in getting and sustaining a consistent role on this Nationals squad. The fastball gives him a pretty high floor, the main concern is if he can’t get the curveball working how effective can he be with just a fastball and a change-up? This limits his ceiling to be a true elite reliever but I wouldn’t be surprised if he garners attention across the Nats org and maybe even all of baseball this March.
7. Cristhian Vaquero, OF
There’s not much to talk about with Vaquero as of now. The 18-year-old was signed out of Cuba last January, played in the Dominican summer league this summer and is set to start the 2023 season at either low-A Fredericksburg or in the complex league. He was ranked 2nd overall in the entire International player pool by MLB Pipeline and is known as “The Phenomenon”. Vaquero stands at 6’3″, 190 pounds, and has sizeable raw power with a large frame to grow into. What really stands out is his defensive upside with his explosive athleticism and great instincts in the outfield.
He recently developed into a switch hitter after batting primarily left-handed for most of his childhood. It has been beneficial so far but I wouldn’t be surprised if he reverts back to exclusively left-handed at some point. International prospects historically are very hit or miss and I expect we will see rather shortly this season how fast Vaquero can translate his tools against better professional hitting. He should start in the OF in 2023 and will be an exciting watch all season.
6. Jarlin Susana, RHP
Coming over to the Nats in the Juan Soto trade, Susana is one of the most electric pitching prospects in all of baseball. He would potentially be 4 spots higher on this list if I were confident he would end up as a starter, but as of now we really don’t know. Like many young pitchers with lights-out stuff, we need to see how the command develops and how many innings he can handle before we know his true role in the future. So far he has only pitched in 45 professional games, giving it 45.0 dominant innings. Last year after only turning 18 in March he posted a 2.40 ERA and a 39.1 whiff rate in low-A.
Susana’s fastball is his calling card, the pitch averaged 98.5 MPH for the season but he constantly touched 103 on the pitch. He also sat upwards of triple digits in several starts. The pitch relies more on elite velo than shape but at 6’6” Jarlins extension is phenomenal which allows his fastball to separate itself even more. Susana has two other pitches: a slider that touches 95 and a sinker with a little less velocity than the fastball but performed better last year. The hard slider with minimal horizontal or vertical break is remnant of Jacob deGrom and it performed like that with a 68.0 whiff rate. Although he’ll need to polish his command of the pitch.
With only one primary non-fastball pitch in his repertoire, Susana will likely have to add a 4th pitch to be a full-time starter. Although 2 or 3-pitch starters are becoming increasingly more common.
This top 5 ranking for Susana is based on the sky-high potential he has, which is to have some of the most electric stuff in all of baseball. Like many of the Nats’ top prospects, this year is very important for Susana’s development. Will he prove to be able to handle a starter’s workload and perhaps add a fourth pitch, or will he struggle with control and have to stay in low-A for an extended period to work it out? As of now, I would predict Susana eventually profiling into a dominant reliever rather than a 150+ innings starter, but it’s still very early.