It’s been a magical year for the Washington Nationals. The organization as a whole is approaching places not yet seen over the span of two different monikers, cities and countries. And while the Nationals major league club is heading for new levels of success, the minor league depth has taken a step back this season, especially on the mound.
For a moment, put aside your opinion of GM Mike Rizzo’s approach towards Stephen Strasburg‘s innings, which has become a hot-button issue. Outside of that decision (or including, depending on your stance on the issue), Rizzo has done a nice job during his tenure of building up a farm system that was among the games worst when he took over, and he has done it in addition to hitting on back-to-back first overall picks.
But that depth has taken a hit this season for a number of different reasons, some of which were done as part of a plan, and others of which have been out of the organization’s control.
The biggest hit to the team’s depth came this off-season when Rizzo traded three pitching prospects in exchange for Gio Gonzalez. While the results of that trade can’t be argued, at least at the major league level, the lack of Brad Peacock, Tim Milone and A.J. Cole from the team’s farm system left a void, especially in major-league ready pitching near the top levels of the minors. That void hasn’t hurt the Nationals due to their strong major league rotation and depth in the form of John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang, and while Milone has gone 9-9 with a 4.03 ERA for Oakland this season, Peacock is getting hit around in Triple-A. Frankly, even a Pacific Coast League Cy Young award wouldn’t make the Nationals regret this deal, given the performance they’ve gotten from Gonzalez this season.
But the real issue this season has come from the pitching prospects the Nationals retained this off-season, many of whom have taken a step back.
The injury bug has hit a number of pitchers in the Nats organization. The Nats spent a lot of money to sign TCU left-hander Matt Purke after drafting him in the third round last season, knowing that he was an injury risk after he dropped out of the first round. Purke has made only three starts this season, coming in late-May and early-June, but hasn’t pitched since. He was shut down due to shoulder stiffness, and while he hasn’t required surgery, the Nationals have to have been hoping for more than 15 1/3 innings out of their investment at this point. Purke is at the Nationals facility in Florida where he is “building his body composition and strength and getting him in the best position to maximize his arm.” The best the Nationals can hope for at this point is that he’s healthy enough to take the mound next spring.
At least Purke made three starts. That’s three more than the Nationals got from Sammy Solis, whose season never got started when he was forced to have Tommy John surgery on March 6. It’s the second full-season missed for Solis, who missed a season in college due to a back issue.
Part of the injury bug can be explained by the Nationals willingness to take risks on players with an injury history in exchange for potential high-end talent, and that trend continued this season when they took Lucas Giolito in the first round. Giolito was in the discussion to become the first prep right-hander ever taken first overall, but he dropped after an elbow injury interrupted his senior season. The Nationals took him 16th overall, and he made one Gulf Coast League start last week, lasting only two innings before he was pulled. He too is at the team’s facility trying to get his arm ready throw.
Those injuries pose a significant blow to the high-ceiling talent within the Nationals system, but given the history of all three, none are completely shocking. The poor performances of other pitching prospects who remained healthy but ineffective this season, however, serve as a much more difficult surprise.
Mid-level prospects are supposed to provide depth for an organization, insurance in case of injury, and in many cases, trade bait for major league pieces, as evidenced by the case of Brad Peacock, whod eveliped so well he became worth acquiring for the A’s. The Nationals were hoping for similar development from players like Robbie Ray and Danny Rosenbaum, but the 2012 season has had other ideas.
A 12th round pick in 2010, Ray emerged last season as a 19-year-old in his first year of full-season ball by posting a 3.13 ERA in the South Atlantic League and striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings. WIthout a plus-fastball, those strikeout numbers weren’t a great bet to continue as Ray rose through the minors, but no one saw his 6.53 ERA this season coming, especially in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. Ray has been the victim of some bad luck this season, posting a 4.67 FIP, but even that represents a significant drop-off in performance from last season, and his his strikeouts dropped to 7.2 K/9 as well.
Rosenbaum hasn’t had as bad of a season at first glance, with a 3.73 ERA in Double-A Harrisburg to his name, but his strike out numbers have dipped to dangerously low levels this season. Rosenbaum has never been a strikeout pitcher, nor should he try to be, but players who only strike out 5.7 batters per nine in Double-A simply aren’t going to miss enough bats in the majors to be successful, especially without inducing an obscene amount of ground balls. As a left-hander with a decent curveball and good command, Rosenbaum has a shot at a relief role, but the Nationals (and opposing scouts) can’t believe he still profiles as a pitcher who will spend any significant time in a starting rotation.
The only silver lining from the Nationals organizational pitching this season has been the emergence of Alex Meyer, the 6’9″ right-hander they drafted 23rd overall in 2011. Considered a project coming out of Kentucky because of the difficulty his size gave him in repeating his delivery, Meyer has pitched well at both Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac, posting a combined 2.93 ERA. Most importantly for a player with mechanical difficulties, he has walked just 3.1 batters ber nine innings.
The emergence of Meyer has given the Nationals something to work with, but he is currently the only pitcher in their farm system around whom the team can make any firm plans for the future. Virtually every other credible pitching prospect has some kind of developmental red flag, either injury or performance based. It’s not an issue for the team on the major league level for the time being, with Gonzalez, Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann locked up for the foreseeable future, but with a need for starting pitching always just an injury away, it’s a void that needs to be addressed soon.