You’ll see a lot of 2019 college Draft picks in the Arizona Fall League trying to prove they are deserving of a 40-man roster spot ahead of Rule 5 eligibility. The Nationals have four such players alone, plus another from the 2018 Draft. But only one is an AFL returnee, and that’s Drew Millas.
“You know what to expect,” said Washington’s No. 30 prospect. “You're going to have a good team, a lot of good players, and an opportunity to learn a lot of good things. So coming in a second time, I was definitely excited.”
Early results have indicated that the 24-year-old switch-hitting catcher has put his previous AFL knowledge to good use. Millas hit just .196 with two extra-base hits in 17 games in 2021, though he did astonishingly walk 13 times while striking out in only four of his 64 plate appearances for Surprise. Entering Tuesday, he was already hitting .375/.423/.750 with two homers, three doubles and only two strikeouts through six games, this time with Peoria.
That’s a promising sign for a backstop who has been known primarily for his defense dating back to his Missouri State days, before the A’s took him in the seventh round in 2019 and dealt him two years later in a Deadline deal involving Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison.
“Using my speed is huge, like going first to third, not necessarily stealing bags every time I get on,” Millas said of his offensive game. “But I can run so teams can use me that way … kind of when it’s least expected. I think that's a big kind of surprise factor in my offensive game.
“As far as the swing goes, [I’m] being gap to gap, not getting too big, just remembering what I need to do for the team and what my role is. That's to put the bat on the ball and put pressure on the defense.”
Oblique, hip flexor and wrist injuries limited Millas to 88 games at Single-A Fredericksburg, High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg in his first full season as a Nats prospect, and when he did reach the Minors’ second-highest level, he hit just .211/.280/.296 over 169 plate appearances.
With Washington continuing to bulk up its farm system in the trade market, 40-man spots for young players are going to be tougher to come by. But with this latest Arizona trip, Millas could elbow his way next to fellow youngsters Keibert Ruiz and Israel Pineda in the organization’s catching plans.
“It's fun, obviously being around a good group of guys that can play the game, and they play the game the right way,” Millas said. “That's what the Nationals hammer. It's a blast just being around some of the players from our org, getting a chance to let them come in because I was that new guy last year.”
Nationals hitters in the Fall League
Yasel Antuna, OF (No. 19): Washington has remained a believer in Antuna’s offensive potential since signing him for $3.9 million in July 2016 and went so far as to add him to the 40-man roster in November 2020. He showed a good approach with a .372 OBP and 10 homers in 99 games at High-A Wilmington (a noted pitcher’s paradise) but was humbled with a .143/.278/.220 line in 26 games at Double-A Harrisburg. While others look to gain a 40-man spot in the AFL, Antuna may be trying to prove he’s still worthy of his.
Darren Baker, 2B: Dusty’s son is getting a touch more experience following his first full season in the Minors. The 2021 10th-rounder out of Cal hit .280/.343/.365 with three homers and 15 steals in 105 games between High-A and Double-A. The left-handed hitter already makes a good amount of contact (17.5 percent K rate) and shows good speed to pick up base hits as well.
Brady Lindsly, C: Overshadowed by Millas on the Peoria catching chart, Lindsly might be better known among Nats fans as Cade Cavalli’s catcher in school at Oklahoma. The 2020 fourth-rounder hit .190/.256/.308 with six homers in 66 Double-A games this summer and is better known for his defensive work behind the plate than his offense.
Will Frizzell, 1B: Frizzell tore the cover off the ball at Fredericksburg, hitting .377/.426/.696 with 11 homers in 34 games, albeit as a 23-year-old. He was also limited to DH duties in the Carolina League. The former Texas A&M star bats from a slightly open stance and shows above-average pop but will need to prove it all plays against more advanced competition, like the AFL.
Nationals pitchers in the Fall League
Tim Cate, LHP: A 2018 second-rounder out of UConn, Cate has struggled to succeed at Double-A, where he has a 5.62 ERA and 1.52 WHIP over 153 2/3 innings across the last two seasons. The 6-foot southpaw is very much a pitchability lefty with a low-90s fastball, a 79-81 mph curveball that serves as his bread and butter and decent control. But when he pitches too much in the zone (as he’s done so far in the AFL), he can be knocked around.
Lucas Knowles, LHP: The 6-foot-2 left-hander knows about pitching in the Grand Canyon State having been a 14th-round pick out of Central Arizona (Junior) College in 2019. He’s coming off a full season at High-A Wilmington, where he sported a 3.19 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 93 innings while working as a starter and a reliever. He works with a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curve and change, giving him a starter’s repertoire, but without much velo (he sits in the low 90s) or special stuff.
Orlando Ribalta, RHP: Ribalta can flash some promising velocity, touching the mid-90s from his 6-foot-7 frame, and shows two distinct breaking balls in his cutter and curveball. The 2019 12th-rounder out of Miami Dade (Fla.) Community College spent 2022 in the Fredericksburg and Wilmington bullpens, posting a 3.40 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 27 walks in 50 1/3 frames.
Amos Willingham, RHP: Another reliever from the teen rounds of 2019 (17th in this case), Willingham has sat in the 93-94 mph range with his four-seamer and sinker so far in the Fall League while mixing in sliders, curves and changeups. He finished with a 3.41 ERA, 40 K’s and only seven walks in 34 1/3 innings this season with Wilmington.