With alternate camps coming to an end, MLB Pipeline is recapping the development highlights for the prospects involved for each organization.
Top position prospect: Drew Mendoza, 1B/3B (No. 11 on Nationals Top 30)
Washington’s system is very pitching-heavy, with hurlers comprising the top 10 spots and 19 spots overall on the Nationals' Top 30 Prospects list, so it wasn’t all that surprising that the team had very few big-name hitting prospects at the alternate training site this summer. Mendoza, the Nationals' third-round pick in 2019, didn’t get added to the team’s 60-man player pool until Aug. 28, but the 22-year-old corner infielder still made the most of the opportunity, showing noticeable improvement on both sides of the ball.
“Drew focused on creating a shorter bat path through the zone while being more aggressive on pitches inside it,” Nationals assistant general manager, player development Mark Scialabba said about Mendoza, who produced a .264/.377/.383 line with four homers in 55 games at Class A Hagerstown during his pro debut. “He worked with Brian Daubach, our hitting coach, to make some adjustments and really started to drive the ball with more authority. He’s got some power.”
Defensively, Mendoza continued to receive the bulk of his reps at first base after logging 44 games at the position at Hagerstown. But as Mendoza primarily handled hot-corner duties at Florida State, the Nationals felt it was important to keep offering him time at third base.
“We think it’s one of those things that will help his overall development as an infielder,” said Scialabba, who also noted that those within the organization believe Mendoza could be “a plus defender at first base.”
Top pitching prospect: Jackson Rutledge, RHP (No. 1)
Rutledge was the Nationals’ top pick in the 2019 Draft, when the club selected the 6-foot-8 San Jacinto JC (Texas) right-hander with the No. 17 overall pick. He was the best junior college prospect in the country that spring, registering a 0.87 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings. After signing with Washington, Rutledge used his power stuff, including a mid- to upper-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, to climb three levels in his pro debut, finishing at Hagerstown. And for a pitcher with such a large frame and long levers, Rutledge exhibited a solid foundation for repeating his mechanics -- an area where he continued to make gains while at Fredericksburg.
“He did a great job of putting himself in a position to consistently repeat his delivery,” noted Scialabba. “It allowed him to control his fastball better.”
Nationals officials were also impressed with the progress Rutledge made in developing a changeup that, entering the year, was a clear fourth pitch for him.
“For someone who was mostly a fastball-slider guy in the past, he really did a nice job incorporating more curveballs and changeups into his mix," Scialabba said.
Youngest prospect: Jeremy De La Rosa, OF (No. 13)
The Nationals are among the best in the business in terms of scouting and developing international talent, with Juan Soto and Víctor Robles serving as the organization’s most recent success stories. De La Rosa, who signed as a 16-year-old for $300,000 at the outset of the 2018-19 international period, could be next in line for such recognition. The Dominican outfielder got his first taste of pro ball last summer with the organization’s Rookie Gulf Coast League affiliate, playing in 26 games (.709 OPS) after he’d taken some time off to complete high school. And while the 17-year-old was a late addition to Washington’s alternate training site roster this past summer, he was anything but overmatched competing against considerably older players.
“He fit in after his first few days in camp and showed us that he belonged there,” Scialabba remarked. “He hit some good pitchers, guys with stuff that was years ahead of him. He showed us a very balanced swing, staying in the zone for a long time and hitting from line to line.”
2020 Draft picks
The Nationals believe they got a first-round steal (No. 22 overall) this year in Cade Cavalli, who spent the early part of his college career playing both ways at Oklahoma before moving to the mound full-time as a junior and becoming one of the nation’s top pitching prospects. The organization’s only 2020 Draft pick to make the Fredericksburg squad this summer, the 22-year-old right-hander made an indelible impression on Nationals officials with his blend of physicality, stuff and projection.
“His advanced feel for pitching shows how cerebral he is out there, attacking hitters with four potentially plus pitches on a given day. He’s a physical guy with a power arm who’s learning how to pitch,” Scialabba said.
Cavalli showcased a 95-98 mph fastball along with his usual power curveball, which registered between 82-85 mph, at Fredericksburg. Yet, it was the developmental gains that the 6-foot-4, 226-pounder made with his slider and changeup that excited Washington officials the most.
“He’s able to throw his slider as a chase pitch, with control and consistency that improved during camp,” said Scialabba. “His changeup might be his best pitch when he’s on -- he’s really learned to tunnel it well.”
The Nationals made Yasel Antuna (No. 12) their top target in the 2016-17 international period, signing the Dominican infielder for $3.9 million -- a franchise record for an international amateur. But Antuna struggled with the move up to full-season ball as an 18-year-old in ’18, and he ultimately required season-ending Tommy John surgery in August. When he finally returned to action in June 2019 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Antuna experienced leg injuries that limited him to only three games. But the Nationals never lost faith in Antuna, with club officials continually pegging the switch-hitter as one the organization’s top offensive prospects.
“We’re thrilled with where he’s at offensively,” said Scialabba. “It’s plus bat speed and a nearly identical short, compact swing from both sides of the plate. He probably received close to 400 plate appearances, averaging maybe 10 at-bats per day, and got to face both power-armed pitchers and guys with really good breaking stuff.”
Matt Cronin (No. 10) was Washington’s fourth-round pick in 2019, following a junior season at Arkansas in which he posted 12 saves and a 1.86 ERA while averaging 13.0 strikeouts per nine. The 6-foot-2 left-hander encored with an excellent pro debut at Class A Hagerstown -- 0.82 ERA with 41 strikeouts across 22 innings -- and made even greater strides this summer at the club’s alternate training site.
“He’s fearless on the mound,” said Scialabba about the 23-year-old reliever. “He powers through the zone, working up and down with a fastball that registers at 93-96 mph, but plays up due to its late life. The curveball continues to be a wipeout pitch, but it’s really improved in terms of its action and consistency. Overall, Matt worked hard to improve his location, command and action on all his pitches.”
Tim Cate (No. 8), a second-round pick in 2018, was another southpaw who stood out this summer after an impressive first full season in which he led all qualified Nationals Minor League pitchers in strikeouts (139) and starts (26), while ranking second in ERA (3.07) and WHIP (1.14). Cate’s training was limited due to local pandemic-related restrictions prior to his arrival at Washington’s alternate training site, and as a result, it took the 23-year-old hurler some extra time to get up to speed. Even so, Cate never quite reached full strength during his time at Fredericksburg, which speaks to why the UConn product’s velocity was down a bit compared to his 2019 campaign. The Nationals still liked what they saw in Cate’s heater, though, and club officials continue to be impressed with the lefty’s advanced secondary arsenal.
“It’s never straight,” said Scialabba about Cate’s fastball, which sat in the upper 80s. “He should have his regular velocity back next season after a normal offseason and spring.
“The curveball is a true plus pitch that he can land in the zone or use to induce chases out of the zone against right- and left-handed hitters,” added Scialabba, “and the separation between his changeup and fastball really improved.”
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.