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Nationals in AFL: Ward embraces opportunity

Club's No. 11 prospect 'was thrilled' that he was selected to play in Fall League

Drew Ward has been challenged by the Washington Nationals at every stage of his young career. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the team's No. 11 prospect was one of eight players the organization chose to participate in this year's Arizona Fall League.

"I was thrilled," said the 20-year-old of his selection to play in the prestigious Fall League. "It's a great opportunity to come out here and play with older guys, and hopefully I perform well."

A third-round Draft pick in 2013 out of Leedey (Okla.) High, Ward impressed during his 2014 full-season debut at Class A Hagerstown, batting .269/.341/.413 with 10 home runs, 26 doubles and 73 RBIs over 115 games in the South Atlantic League.

While the performance didn't net Ward an invitation to Major League Spring Training, the Nationals wound up calling him up from Minor League camp in late March to make a spot start at third base. Ward was the only non-big leaguer in the Nats' lineup that day but made the most of the opportunity, notching an opposite-field hit on the first pitch he saw from Yankees right-hander Bryan Mitchell.

The Nationals continued to push Ward this past season with an assignment to Class A Advanced Potomac, where he ranked as one of the Carolina League's youngest everyday players on Opening Day. The third baseman was challenged at the more advanced level but still held his own at the plate, hitting .249/.327/.358 with six home runs and 19 doubles in 111 games.

Although his triple-slash line was down from the previous year, Ward's 25.8 percent strikeout rate was only a shade above his 2014 rate of 25.3 percent. Moreover, the youngster's 9.2 percent walk rate in the Carolina League was an improvement over the 8.8 percent clip he posted in 2014. That being said, the left-handed hitter struggled to drive the ball and make hard contact consistently, while his natural swing-and-miss tendencies were exploited by the league's advanced arms.

Video: Top Prospects: Drew Ward, 3B, Nationals

"Probably the biggest thing was better offspeed and more offspeed in fastball counts," Ward said, reflecting on his 2015 campaign.

Ward is addressing those issues in the Fall League, where he's "working on staying back and recognizing pitches better." The Oklahoma native was used sparingly during the first half of the six-week AFL season, appearing in just four games for the Salt River Rafters, but stands to see more playing time in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Ward is working hard in the Fall League to improve his defense after committing 29 errors at the hot corner during the regular season. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder also has been seen taking reps at second base before games.

"It's a different look, but I'm more just having fun," Ward said regarding his recent work at second. "I'm either going to be a third baseman and then when I get older maybe move to first, but hopefully I can stay at third as long as I can.

"I want to prove to everybody that I can stay [at third base] my entire career. I don't want to go to first base; I want to stay athletic and stay at third base as long as possible."

Nationals hitters in the Fall League

Chris Bostick, 2B: Acquired from the Rangers along with Abel De Los Santos in exchange for Ross Detwiler in December 2014, the Nats' No. 23 prospect has good pop for his size as well as above-average speed that plays on both sides of the ball, though he likely will never be more than a fringe-average defender at second base. This past season, the 22-year-old batted .258/.312/.398 with 42 extra-base hits and 31 stolen bases in 137 games between Potomac and Harrisburg.

Spencer Kieboom, C: The Nats' No. 21 prospect was having a tough year at the plate in the Carolina League before hitting the disabled list on July 25 with a season-ending injury. The 24-year-old backstop should reach the Major Leagues based on his defensive merits. However, Kieboom's advanced approach could make him a late bloomer at the plate.

Nationals pitchers in the Fall League

Dakota Bacus, RHP: Bacus -- who the Nationals acquired from the A's in exchange for Kurt Suzuki in August of the 2013 season -- pitched well as a swingman at Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before finishing the year in Triple-A Syracuse's bullpen.

Abel De Los Santos, RHP: The club's No. 27 prospect, appeared in two games with the Nats in late July but otherwise spent the year at Harrisburg, where he recorded eight saves and posted a 3.43 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.

Wirkin Estevez, RHP: Signed by the Nationals in 2010, Estevez, 23, is looking to get his career back on track in the Fall League after missing the entire 2013 and '15 seasons. The right-hander has never logged more than 82 2/3 innings in a single season, and that came back in 2010 while pitching in the Dominican Summer League.

Nick Lee, LHP: After scuffling during the first three years of his career, the Nationals' No. 25 prospect put things together this past season between Potomac and Harrisburg. Lee might not throw strikes consistently (5.7 BB/9 in 2015), but he's always been able to miss bats and is effective against right- and left-handed hitters alike.

John Simms, RHP: An 11th-round Draft pick out of Rice in 2013, Simms lacks a plus offering but keeps hitters off balance by effectively mixing his pitches and working both sides of the plate. The 23-year-old had a solid season between Potomac and Harrisburg, registering a 3.30 ERA in 133 2/3 innings while making 22 starts.

Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.
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