Nationals minor league affiliates wrap up critical year
Progress in the right direction – in throwing development, primarily, but also simply acquiring more players with an edge – has been offset by injuries and stunning performances. For the Red Wings in particular, a hot start was weighed down by a 19-game losing streak which spanned July and August. Rochester regularly nurtured players at the majors, grooming Carl Edwards Jr. and Erasmo Ramírez for important roles in the bullpen; send Joey Meneses, Ildemaro Vargas and Josh Palacios to the trade deadline; then finally grooming top prospect Cade Cavalli for his Washington debut.
Another top prospect, Cole Henry, briefly pitched for the Red Wings before undergoing season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Matt Cronin, one of the Nationals’ leading young relievers, was promoted to Rochester in late May and recorded 35⅔ innings, picking up a few lumps along the way. When Washington traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres on August 2, the return was widespread across all affiliates, with the entire system receiving a massive boost from popular ranking sites.
So the implication was two-fold: yes, the package for Soto and Bell reset the Nationals’ top hopes for the better. Shortstop CJ Abrams went to Rochester first. Outfielder Robert Hassell III went to Class A Wilmington and eventually jumped to AA Harrisburg. James Wood, a 19-year-old outfielder, joined Fredericksburg for the playoff push and showed his potential. And Jarlin Susana, an 18-year-old fire pitcher, took his 103 mph fastball from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Fredericksburg, catching the attention of general manager Mike Rizzo and other front office members during his second stop.
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But by underperforming in scouting and player development for so many years – and further shrinking the talent pool with trades to stay competitive – the Nationals had to deal with Soto, a generational star, to put their system on the line. right path for a successful reconstruction. That’s the undercurrent of Washington’s ongoing transformation, which to date has included a new director of player development (from Jon Watson), a revamped staff (more roles, new faces) and results. mixed.
Progress is often incremental, especially when it comes to making up for lost time. And any progress, or lack thereof, will be magnified as the reconstruction of Washington moves forward.
Regardless of the value of minor wins and losses, Nationals affiliates finished 22nd in combined winning percentage. The Tampa Bay Rays, considered a model for player development and talent acquisition, had the best affiliate winning percentage for the second straight year.
Washington’s main hope is that Fredericksburg players will soon fill a void of promise in Wilmington and Harrisburg. Health will also be a big factor, especially for Henry and 19-year-old infielder Brady House, who has missed most of the season with lower back issues after a bout with the coronavirus. On Wednesday, Rizzo was asked about mounting House and Abrams in the same infield by The Junkies hosts on 106.7 The Fan. The implication was that Abrams’ arrival means House will have to leave his natural position, a possibility that has been following House since he was drafted in the first round in 2021.
“[House] had a great first half of the season before it hit covid, then he had a little back injury, and it looks like he’s going to be a powerful mid-range guy for us in the near future,” says the Director General. “So we’re going to figure out if that’s how it has to be when they’re both so good that they have to be on the pitch at the same time. We’ll find that one easily.
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Rochester named outfielder Andrew Stevenson its most valuable player. Stevenson, 28, played for Washington in parts of the previous five seasons, even scoring as a punch runner in the 2019 National League wildcard game. But after being slated for assignment in April, he spent the year in AAA and ended up with 16 home runs, 39 interceptions, .279 batting average, .344 on-base percentage and .457 hitting percentage.
Stevenson and outfielder Donovan Casey were rare constants in the Rochester roster. In September, however, the club’s most intriguing player was Jake Alu, a 25-year-old who worked his way up the system – and its most intriguing pitcher was reliever Zach Brzykcy, who was a late addition after posting an ERA. 1.66 for Wilmington, then a 1.89 ERA with a high strikeout rate in 32 appearances for Harrisburg.
Having also excelled for the Senators, Alu hit 11 homers and posted a .323 batting average, .372 on-base percentage and .553 slugging percentage in 53 games with the Red Wings. In September, he slashed a remarkable .409/.442/.761 in 95 plate appearances, good for a 1.204 on-base plus slugging percentage. And beyond the offensive improvement after a jump to AAA, Sports Info Solutions had Alu as one of its minor league leaders in defensive runs saved, a metric measuring a player’s contributions on the field to a given position.
Alu was a third baseman in 2022 but played second base a bit. On Tuesday, Nationals director Dave Martinez discussed the possibility of Alu moving back to third, second and left field in the future. Earlier this summer, Watson praised Harrisburg hitting coach Micah Franklin for his work with Alu.
To keep Alu in the mix, the Nationals should add him to the 40-man roster this fall so he can’t be selected by another club in the Rule 5 draft. He and Vargas are the best inside options to be a utility infielder on the bench next year. They could also be candidates to play third, a spot that hinges on Carter Kieboom’s recovery from Tommy John surgery and the team’s approach to free agency.
“He’ll definitely be with us next year,” Martinez said of Alu, a 2019 24th-round pick. “I don’t know if he’ll be in spring training. look at him and see a little bit of what he does with us, then we’ll see what happens. He’s had a great year and he should be proud of himself. I’ve noticed.”
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Turning Alu and Brzykcy into major league contributors would be wins that would show a slight increase in organizational depth. But beyond that, the Nationals need to hit their high hopes, both those who came from San Diego and those the club picked in the last draft. Once again, a critical winter of decisions and brainstorming looms.
Hurricane Ian forces weekend schedule changes
The remnants of Hurricane Ian have already forced Major League Baseball to adjust the Nationals’ four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies. A double day-night schedule will now take place at Nationals Park on Friday, with the first game starting at 1:05 p.m. and the second at 7:05 p.m. From there, teams are scheduled for a game at 1:05 p.m. Saturday and a final at 1:35 p.m. Sunday.
Those competitions could be further impacted by storms, and the Nationals noted in a statement that they “will continue to work closely with MLB as the weather situation evolves.” Completing four official games is paramount as the Phillies are still in the national league joker race.