Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Nationals.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Over the last six years, the Nationals have won the National League East four times. In that stretch of time, the farm system has often been used as trading chips to bring in big league talent that has helped extend the winning.
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They've managed to do so without necessarily giving up their top prospects. That has allowed them to hold on to and help develop No. 1 prospect Victor Robles, who is now No. 6 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 list. Nationals fans got a glimpse late last year, and the tools are undeniable. Sometimes it's easy to forget, since he's knocking on the door so loudly and he's still only 20.
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"He's still a young player," assistant general manager Doug Harris said. "From a physical standpoint, there's a lot of growth to be made there. Who knows where that takes him as a player? There's a lot of parts to his game we're still just scratching the surface on. It's going to be exciting for everybody to watch it."
While the Nats' overall system isn't one of baseball's 10 best, it's far from weak. Most of the talent is much farther away than Robles is now, but one of the benefits of always competing is the farm system doesn't feel as much pressure to push guys quickly. So that talent that is years away can be given time to cultivate properly. What Robles is on the precipice of becoming is a testament to those efforts.
"First and foremost, Johnny DiPuglia and Kris Kline do a great job with back-filling the system," Harris said of the men who oversee international and domestic amateur scouting. "They've done a great job supplementing the system. Mike has been able to use that effectively at the Major League level.
"Philosophically, we've always been committed to building a foundation early, so through the A ball level, some people might say it's slow early. That's fair, but we're committed to building that foundation. Once a guy gets to Double-A, we want him to be prepared, or shortly thereafter, where he becomes an option at the Major League level. I think Victor is a great example of that."
Much of this talent is just establishing itself at the lower rungs of the system. Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom, the Nos. 2 and 3 prospects in the system, would have been perhaps up a notch or two, but injuries in 2017 kept them off the field for most of the season. Four other members of the top 10 have yet to play above short-season ball.
"Some of the younger guys we really like are going to become more highly publicized as the season progresses," Harris said. "You're going to have a really young group at the lower level that is very athletic with a very interesting skill set, along with some pitching that has some arm strength and size. We really like the group we had in here early, for an early camp. It's as talented as we've been in several years."
Depth up the middle
Not only do the Nats have Kieboom, their first-round pick from 2016, playing shortstop, but the aggressive moves on the international market in 2016 netted a trio of infielders who have shortstop on their very brief professional resumes. No. 6 prospect Luis Garcia, No. 7 Yasel Antuna and No. 23 Jose Sanchez all made their U.S. debuts in the Gulf Coast League last summer. Even with defensive shifts all the rage, having three shortstops playing simultaneously would really be revolutionary.
"If they are everyday bats and they don't end up as a shortstop or second baseman, that's great," Harris said. "We intend to be a winning and contending ballclub and if they can be an everyday bat in that lineup, then if they're at second, short, third, left field, right field, whatever it might be, that's significant for us."
They all have different skill sets and body types, which point to the eventuality of position switches. Sanchez is the most advanced defender of the group, Antuna might have the highest ceiling in terms of his physicality and Garcia has a natural feel to hit.
"Physically, they are a long way from their ceiling and that's the driver of the whole thing, where their bodies go," Harris said. "We think a few of these guys have enough bat that, regardless of if they move off the middle, it's going to be plenty."
Camp standouts: the arms
A pair of 2017 draftees lead the group of the pitchers Harris referred to, at least in terms of how they've looked this spring. His eyes really lit up when talking about Wil Crowe, the second-rounder out of South Carolina who had Tommy John surgery during his college career and is now 23 as a result.
"He did a really nice job this offseason, really committed to his body and finding a routine," Harris said the team's No. 8 prospect. "He's made really nice strides. He came to us with a heavy workload last summer, so we were very mindful of what we did with him, it was very scripted. This year gives us the chance to turn him loose. He really found a nice routine. He spent the winter with our strength and conditioning coordinator, kind of changed his body. I really like what we're seeing out of him.
"He was here when the big leaguers were here every day. He really dedicated himself, not just in this season, but his foundation going forward. I think that's very noteworthy for a young player."
Harris also likes what he's seen from No. 15 prospect Jackson Tetreault, the Nats' seventh-round pick out of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota. A bit of a late bloomer, he'll be hitting full-season ball with Crowe.
"He has a really good arm, it's a really quick arm," Harris said. "He has a lean, angular body and he's athletic. He has a lot of room to add some strength, but the ball really jumps out of his hand. We're excited to see where that takes him."