Nats Top 60 Prospect Countdown: 30-21

If you like lists, prospects and lists of prospects, this series is for you. Before Opening Day, I will be going through my list of the Nationals' top 60 prospects, counting down from 60 to (spoiler alert) Giolito.

Here is the link to numbers 60-51 (premium).
Here is the link to numbers 50-41 (premium).
Here is the link to numbers 40-31 (premium).

#60 – OF Randy Encarnacion
#59 – LHP Matthew Spann
#58 – LHP Nick Lee
#57 – 1B Jose Marmolejos-Diaz
#56 – SS Edwin Lora
#55 – LHP Hector Silvestre
#54 – RHP Ian Dickson
#53 – 1B Jimmy Yezzo
#52 – RHP Steven Fuentes
#51 – LHP Jake Walsh
#50 - OF Israel Mota
#49 - OF Telmito Agustin
#48 - C Davinson Pimentel
#47 - RHP Neil Holland
#46 - RHP Derek Self
#45 - RHP Robert Benincasa
#44 - IF Austin Davidson
#43 - 1B Shawn Pleffner
#42 - CI/OF John Wooten
#41 - RHP Drew Van Orden
#40 – RHP Wander Suero
#39 – SS Stephen Perez
#38 – 3B Cody Gunter
#37 – C Spencer Kieboom
#36 – RHP Gilberto Mendez
#35 – UTIL Jeff Kobernus (oops)
#34 – OF Victor Robles
#33 – RHP John Simms
#32 – OF Isaac Ballou
#31 – 2B Cutter Dykstra

#30 – 3B Anderson Franco
R/R, 17 years old on Opening Day
Reached R (DSL) in 2014
Signed as an international free agent by Washington, 8/15/13 ($900,000 signing bonus)

When the Smiley Gonzalez fiasco came to light in early 2009, Nationals GM Jim Bowden resigned and the Nationals avoided Dominican teenagers with high price tags like the plague for four and a half years. The Nationals signed Anderson Franco with a $900,000 bonus on August 15, 2013, ending the drought by snatching up an immensely talented 16 year old (that’s a creepy sentence, isn’t it?). Franco was listed the #29 international prospect in 2013 by Baseball America and #16 by and was praised for his raw power, plus arm and range, and physical maturity.

Fast forward almost two years to today’s version of Anderson Franco and a little bit of the shine has worn off. In his first taste of pro ball, he hit a respectable .272/.346/.379 with 4 HR in 237 PA. Franco struggled defensively, tallying 19 errors in just 55 games in the field between 3B (13 E, .884 fld%) and SS (6 E, .929 fld%). In all honesty, the stats of a 17 year old in the Dominican Summer League are almost 100% irrelevant. I’d like to see Franco move to the States and play in the GCL this year to get a better grip on where he’s at in his development.

#29 – RHP Jake Johansen
R/R, 24 years old on Opening Day
Reached A- in 2014
Drafted in 2013, 2nd round, 68th overall by Washington (Dallas Baptist University, Dallas TX, $820,000 signing bonus)

2014 was a rather uninspiring year for Jake "Everything's bigger in Texas" Johansen. As an old-for-his-level guy in Hagerstown, he put up a 5.19 ERA, 1.62 K/BB ratio and 1.738 WHIP in 100 and 2/3 innings. At his worst, his 99 mph fastball straightens out and he loses command of his secondary stuff, as evidenced by his start on May 2, where he allowed 8 runs on 7 hits, 3 walks and 1 K in 1 and 1/3 innings pitched. At his best, his fastball, potentially plus breaking ball, and potentially above average changeup baffle batters, as shown by his very next start, May 8 against Hickory, where he threw 5 and 2/3 innings allowing just 3 hits, 1 unearned run, and striking out 5 batters against 2 walks.

You can't teach 99 mph cheese, especially when it sinks; the problem is that he can't command it consistently. You don't find huge pitchers with the body types to throw 200 innings with three potential 55+ rated pitches all of that often; the problem is that he can't command anything consistently. Johansen is the type of player that no team will ever give up on due to his fastball velocity. Even if he can't figure out his command, he'll still be at least a semi-coveted asset by other teams who think they can "fix" him (like old friend Henry "SMHRod" Rodriguez). Johansen is a guy who could be completely out of baseball in two years but also could be striking out Giancarlo Stanton in the 9th inning to close out a Nats victory. 2015 is a huge year to see if he can figure out his command, but 2013 and 14 do not instill much confidence there.

#28 – LHP Matt Grace
L/L, 26 years old on Opening Day
Reached AAA in 2014
Drafted in 2010, 8th round, 236th overall by Washington (University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles CA, $125,000 signing bonus)

Like most LOOGY prospects go, Grace isn't going to be the sexiest prospect on this list. He's 26 without a ML inning to his name, toiling for five minor league seasons and getting ready for his sixth in 2015. He is really good at one thing: getting lefties out. In his career, Grace has an 8.97 K/9 vs. a 2.00 BB/9 vs lefty batters, and held them to a .371 OPS against in 2014. His sinking fastball/slider mix has gotten more effective against righties over the years as his command has developed, but he's still unlikely to be very good against them in the Majors. Grace might not make an impact on the Nationals right away this year, but with Xavier Cedeno potentially gone after Spring Training (out of options), Grace will be first in line for a lefty reliever call-up in case of an injury or poor performance from Matt Thornton or Jerry Blevins.

#27 – C Raudy Read
R/R, 21 years old on Opening Day
Reached A- in 2014
Signed as an international free agent by Washington, 1/24/11 (signing bonus unknown)

The Nationals have done their fair share of developing defensive-oriented catchers who haven't been able to hit at higher levels over the years (Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano, and potentially guys like Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom). Adrian Nieto was the organization's predominant offense-first prospect before losing him in the 2013 Rule 5 Draft to the White Sox. Enter the stocky Dominican 21 year old Read.

Read broke out in short-season Auburn in 2014, hitting .281/.332/.462 with 6 HR in 229 PA. His power is still developing, but his .153 career ISO is solid for a young catcher. What stands out to me about Read is that he's competent at handling the bat; while he's not much of a walker (5.3% career BB%), he also does not strike out that much (13.5% career K%). His career triple slash of .242/.295/.395 doesn't look very special for an offensive-minded catcher, but it was mainly sunk by his .157/.200/.293 Dominican Summer League debut as a 17 year old in 2011; he's put up a much more respectable .262/.317/.420 triple slash over the last three years, all of which he was young for his level. While Read is not excellent at receiving, framing, or calling games, those are teachable skills. Throwing out runners is less teachable, and he has done well there, throwing out 47% of would-be base stealers in 2014 and 42% of them over his career.

The Nats are hoping to get rowdy in October of 2015, but if they get Raudy sometime in 2017, his bat will be the tool to carry him there.

#26 – 2B Tony Renda
R/R, 24 years old on Opening Day
Reached A+ in 2014
Drafted in 2012, 2nd round, 80th overall by Washington (University of California - Berkeley, Berkeley CA, $500,000 signing bonus)

It's easy to look past a 5'8" (generously listed) infielder without much power or the arm to play shortstop, but Renda is a guy who might make you pay for that later on. He pleases those who wish for gritty infielders, excelling at sacrifice bunts, hustling down the line on routine plays, and hitting for a solid average (.291 over his career). He also pleases the more sabermetric-minded among us, with a solid baserunning acumen (82% career SB success rate) and plate discipline (.371 career OBP, 10% career BB%, 11% career K%). He would be a perfect utility player if his arm could hack it at SS and 3B (like Danny Espinosa's can), but playing him there would be far from ideal (although he did play 8 games at SS in 2014 at Potomac).

Unlike a guy like Billy Burns, who could work counts at lower levels but stood no chance once pitchers realized he could barely hit a meatball left over the plate into the outfield, Renda has decent line-drive power. In 313 career minor league games, Renda has tallied a combined 80 doubles and triples; he still is unlikely to ever develop much HR power, though. As a small-ish athlete, Renda is probably used to people counting him out, though, so don't be surprised if he ends up carving out a big league career.

#25 – C Sandy Leon
S/R, 26 years old on Opening Day
Reached MLB in 2014
Signed as an international free agent by Washington, 1/21/07 (signing bonus unknown)

The rise and fall of Sandy Leon's prospect status is a quick, sad story. After five years of mediocre hitting (putting it nicely), he broke out in 2012, putting up a .856 OPS in 231 PA across three minor league levels, eventually reaching the big leagues for 12 games. He suddenly appeared on top prospect lists, with many believing that his bat had finally turned a corner. Oops - Leon followed that year up with a .528 OPS in 2013 and a .692 in 2014 (those are his minor league numbers for both - he went 0 for 1 in the Majors in 2013 and had a .447 OPS in 70 PA in 2014). 

There's no longer much hope of Leon becoming a starter, and there's a decent chance he's out of the Nationals organization in the next 10 days since he's out of options. That being said, Leon rebounded decently after a lost 2013 season, and is still an excellent defensive catcher who could be a competent backup behind the plate at the ML level. The dream was that Leon could hit something like .260/.320/.380 or so in the big leagues, which combined with his excellent defensive skills could make him a first-division starter. That's simply not going to happen, but it still doesn't mean he's of no use to the organization. The Nats would be fortunate to sneak him through waivers before the season starts.

#24 – LHP Sammy Solis
R/L, 26 years old on Opening Day
Reached AA in 2014
Drafted in 2010, 2nd round, 51st overall by Washington (University of San Diego, San Diego CA, $1,000,000 signing bonus)

What's scarier: Sammy Solis' injury history, or a high school boy's internet history? If you answered Sammy Solis' injury history, you're probably wrong, but that doesn't mean it's not scary: herniated disc in 2009, elbow soreness in 2011, Tommy John surgery in 2012, shoulder inflammation in 2013, and back spasms and elbow inflammation in 2014. Solis is the baseball version of Job, a kind-hearted young man whose family runs an orphanage in South Africa for children who lost their parents to AIDS; he's been rewarded with amazing talents but a body that can't handle them.

It's fair to have some prospect fatigue over guys like Solis and Matt Purke who received seven digit signing bonuses and tons of hype when the Nats drafted them. That doesn't mean Solis should fall off the list, though, as he still has good stuff (at least on days where the training staff can glue his shoulder and elbow on comfortably). When healthy, Solis' arsenal includes a low-to-mid 90's fastball that he can command well, combined with a solid slider with growth potential and an excellent changeup that is extremely difficult for batters to differentiate from his fastball out of his hand.

This isn't Citizens of Bibletown, but I'll wrap up the Job comparison by mentioning that his faith and obedience were eventually rewarded with health, wealth, and prosperity. It's hard not to root for a guy like Solis who doesn't sweat his perennial list of injuries because he's seen death and extreme poverty first-hand while working with orphaned toddlers. 2015 will likely be another rebound year for him, as he tries to get his endurance back, but with Matt Thornton and Jerry Blevins becoming free agents after the season, there's a pretty clear path for him to join the Nats' bullpen in 2016 if health is finally on his side in 2015.

#23 – RHP Robbie Dickey
R/R, 21 years old on Opening Day
Reached A in 2014
Drafted in 2014, 4th round, 124th overall by Washington (Blinn JC, Brenham TX, $400,000 signing bonus)

In order to give 2014 first and third round picks Erick Fedde and Jakson Reetz a combined $598,200 over their slot amounts, the Nats gave under-slot bonuses to all six of the other top ten round players who signed. Rizzo and his team saved just under $16,000 against the pool with the intriguing righty out of Blinn Junior College in Texas.

Dickey, who can enjoy his first legal beer on Opening Day, boasts a fastball that routinely hits 96, pairing it with a cutter, slider, and changeup. He's easy to project as a reliever, as he's got the big fastball and solid control, but it's hard to take a guy with decent command of four pitches in a 6'3" frame out of the rotation until it's absolutely needed. While his numbers weren't all that impressive in his professional debut (4.15 ERA, 1.442 WHIP, 2.9 BB/9, 6.0 K/9), he was reportedly already wearing down as he signed, fatigued by the 85 and 1/3 innings he threw in school earlier in the year. His first full professional season should give a better indication of whether his future is in the bullpen or the rotation, and outside of the obvious choices Fedde and Reetz, he's the player I'm most excited about out of the 2014 draft class (and not just because he was the next highest pick after them).

#22 – OF Drew Vettleson
L/S, 23 years old on Opening Day
Reached AA in 2014
Drafted in 2010, supplemental 1st round, 42nd overall by Tampa Bay (Central Kitsap HS, Silverdale WA, $845,000 signing bonus)
Traded to Washington by Tampa Bay with C Jose Lobaton and LHP Felipe Rivero for RHP Nathan Karns, 4/13/2014

Drew Vettleson's 2014 season is just like the resume you wrote in college where you listed being the President of the Juggling Club as work experience: crumple it up, throw it in the trash, and light the trash can on fire. A pisiform fracture (right where the hand meets the wrist) limited the all-around talented outfielder to just 83 games and 293 PA, where he hit .252/.289/.426. It's worth noting for those scouting the stat lines that Vettleson has been promoted fairly aggressively over his entire career, playing full-season A ball at 20, high-A at 21, and AA at 22, so his career .272/.331/.421 triple slash is nothing to scoff at.

When he was drafted in the supplemental first round out of high school, Vettleson was seen as a solid all-around outfielder with advanced pitch recognition, a smooth swing, a rocket arm, and some intriguing raw power. His outfield athleticism and excellent arm strength are still intact, but his batting skills have not developed as one would hope. He isn't afraid to take a walk (8.1 BB%) but has a little too much swing and miss (20.0% K%) for a guy who was twice named the best hitter for average in the Tampa Bay Rays system. Vettleson remains on the list because those skills are seen as a few mechanical tweaks away from returning, as his above average bat speed (combined with a healthy hand/wrist) should lead to more consistent pop. The Nats paid Nate McLouth $10.75 million to be a solid all-around fourth OF, and that's what I think Vettleson will eventually look like if he continues to progress at his current solid-but-not-great rate. If all else fails, Vettleson pitched with both hands in high school, so he could always try and carve out a Pat Venditte-esque career as a minor league circus freak.

#21– RHP Taylor Hill
R/R, 26 years old on Opening Day
Reached AA in 2014
Drafted in 2011, 6th round, 187th overall by Washington (Vanderbilt University, Nashville TN, $36,000 signing bonus)

For the second straight season, Taylor Hill posted a sub-3 ERA, sub-2 BB/9 and sub-6 K/9. The first two stats are excellent, but the third is what will keep him from being able to succeed long-term at the Major League level. The stout righty pounds the strike zone with sinkers, mixing in sliders and changeups as needed. He would be perfect for the 2006-10 Nats, as inning eaters who don't give away free bases are good for developing teams. He's a terrible fit for the current Nats, however, as he'll be leapfrogged by a zillion different power pitchers and does not have the repertoire or profile of a good reliever.

I don't mean to hate on Taylor Hill, because has more control over his stuff than a Tiger Mom has over her kids. Unfortunately, his stuff isn't that great to start with, so he will have to get by at higher levels by nibbling around the corners and trying to induce weak grounders. He's done that so far in AA and AAA, but he'll likely have to attempt to do it in a different uniform at the ML level. He should have a little bit of trade value, and could be a chip to gain an injury replacement or relief pitcher sometime over the next year or so.

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