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Top Ten Prospects: Washington Nationals
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Aaron Fitt
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2005.
Background: Hinckley quickly and quietly has established himself as one of the top lefthanded pitching prospects in the minors. His talent has been evident for some time—he ranked No. 2 in the organization behind Clint Everts in each of the previous two years—and his ascent accelerated rapidly in 2004. The Expos initially brought Hinckley along slowly, pitching him in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in his pro debut, then kept him in extended spring training before sending him to short-season Vermont in his second year. He finished strong at high Class A Brevard County in 2003, then handled that level with ease again last season before moving on to Double-A Harrisburg. Hinckley allowed two earned runs or fewer in 19 of his 26 starts while leading the system in victories (11) and strikeouts (131 in 156 innings). He now owns a 32-13, 2.80 career record in the minors and has won 20 of his last 26 decisions.
Strengths: Hinckley has a lot going for him. He has outstanding command of his fastball, which sits at 89-92 mph and touches 94, and he holds that velocity deep into games. His 76-78 mph curveball has good bite and depth. His changeup already is average. What really puts Hinckley ahead of most 22-year-olds is his makeup, which might be the best in the organization. He knows the game, he studies it and prepares well for every start. He demonstrates an advanced feel and tremendous poise on the mound. His athletic frame is durable and projectable, and his delivery is free and easy. He uses his lower half well, pitching on a downward plane that makes it difficult for hitters to take him deep. Hinckley has been equally effective against lefthanders and righthanders. Lefties hit .288 with five homers off him in Double-A but that likely was just an aberration, as they batted .182 against him in high Class A.
Weaknesses: While he does have a long, lean body, Hinckley still needs to fill out. Once he does, his fastball velocity should stay in the 91-94 range more often. How fast he realizes his potential also depends on his ability to refine his secondary pitches. Both his curveball and changeup are effective, but neither is as good as Everts’. If Hinckley can make them more consistent, his curve could be a strikeout pitch and his change could be above-average.
The Future: Now that Hinckley has started to move, he should continue to fly through the system. He’ll get a look in big league camp after being added to the 40-man roster this offseason, but he’s a longshot to make the club. More realistically, he’ll start 2005 in the minors and could return to Double-A for the first couple of months, but figures to see Triple-A New Orleans and the majors before the season is out. Few in the organization see Hinckley as a No. 1 starter in the majors, but he has a high probability of reaching the big leagues and becoming a successful No. 2 or 3 starter on a quality team.
Background: The No. 3 starter on a Wellington (Fla.) High staff that included Pirates first-rounders Bobby Bradley and Sean Burnett, Broadway pitched his freshman year at Duke before a nerve problem in his elbow relegated him to first base. He batted just .138 with two homers in April last season while dealing with back problems, then recovered and hit like he had in his first two years as a pro.
Strengths: Broadway is the best power prospect in an organization desperate for power tools. He also has the ability to hit for average and hit deep in the count. For a big guy, he handles himself well around the bag, and managers voted him the best defensive first baseman in the Double-A Eastern League.
Weaknesses: Broadway still has holes in his swing. When pitchers pound him inside, he tends to get jammed, and his stroke can get long. He’s a well-below-average runner.
The Future: Broadway will start 2005 in Triple-A, but he might be closer to being ready to contribute in the big leagues than people realize. He just needs to polish his approach a bit to become a 30-homer-a-year first baseman.
Background: Former Expos general manager Omar Minaya made one of his best trades when he acquired Church and infielder Maicer Izturis from Cleveland for lefthander Scott Stewart in January 2004. Like Larry Broadway, Church began his college career as a pitcher before hurting his arm. By learning to use the entire field and work counts better, he turned in his best offensive season in 2004.
Strengths: In many ways, Church is similar to Brad Wilkerson. He has a quick, classic swing and makes consistent hard contact. Strong and athletic, he’s an average runner with a good arm. He could fill in as a center fielder in the majors but fits better in right.
Weaknesses: Despite his 17 homers and .620 slugging percentage in Triple-A, Church might not have enough power to hit in the middle of the order in the majors. At 26 he’s not young for a prospect, and he didn’t exactly seize a big league job with his late-season performance.
The Future: The Nationals’ offseason trade for Jose Guillen decreases Church’s chances of winning a starting role. But if given the chance, he could develop into a .300 hitter with 20-25 homers a year.
Background: The No. 1 prospect in the system in 2003 and 2004, Everts still has the highest ceiling of any player in the organization. But his velocity dropped to 84-88 mph last season before it turned out he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He’ll miss all of 2005.
Strengths: Without a good fastball, Everts still posted excellent numbers and earned a berth in the Futures Game, played in his hometown of Houston, by relying heavily upon his curveball and changeup, which are both plus-plus pitches. He worked at 88-92 mph and touched 94 with his fastball before his elbow problems. His command and feel for pitching make his stuff that much tougher.
Weaknesses: Everts looked like a sure thing before he got hurt. Though the track record for comebacks from Tommy John surgery is good, he still has a long road ahead of him. He can focus on adding strength to his lean upper body during his rehabilitation.
The Future: If he can regain his health, Everts still can develop into a frontline big league starter. The plan is for him to be throwing by the end of 2005 and to take the mound again in 2006.
Background: Acquired along with Francis Beltran from the Cubs in the Orlando Cabrera/Nomar Garciaparra four-team trade in July, Harris appeared to be the franchise’s third baseman of the future. That changed when the Nationals signed Vinny Castilla to a two-year contract.
Strengths: Harris is a consistent line-drive hitter with good power to the gaps. Former GM Omar Minaya envisioned Harris as a 20-homer, 80-RBI threat. He has a plus infield arm and displays good athleticism at both second and third. He also has played some shortstop.
Weaknesses: Harris tends to start his hands a little late in his swing, cutting his reaction time. He’s somewhat of a tweener because his bat fits better at second base—where he’s blocked by Jose Vidro—but he’s a better defender at third.
The Future: Harris will vie for a big league utility job this spring but might end up back in Triple-A to get more at-bats. He profiles best as a No. 2 hitter, and perhaps as a No. 5 hitter if his power develops.
Background: Like Brendan Harris, Bray was a standout at William & Mary. He left with a bit more fanfare, as the Tribe’s highest draft pick ever (13th overall). He worked just seven innings after signing for $1.75 million, so he headed to the Arizona Fall League, where he fanned 16 in 16 innings.
Strengths: Bray has good command of two power pitches, an 89-95 mph fastball and a late-breaking 82-85 mph slider. He is polished and aggressive, and he can put hitters away with both pitches. He provides a deceptive look from a three-quarters slot.
Weaknesses: Though Bray’s changeup shows enough promise for the Nationals to consider him as a long-term starter, it still has a long way to go because he rarely used it in college. If he can’t master it, the club will settle for using him in relief.
The Future: A closer in college, Bray will pitch in the rotation at Washington’s new high Class A Potomac affiliate in 2005. Even if he has to return to the bullpen, the innings he’ll get as a starter will help his development and arm strength. He’d advance quicker in relief, where he would have a shot at becoming a big league closer someday.
Background: An eighth-round pick in 2003, Thompson is looking more and more like a steal. After shining in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, he skipped a level and went to low Class A Savannah at age 18. His numbers weren’t outstanding, but he was the youngest pitcher in the South Atlantic League, demonstrating amazing poise for his age and occasional dominance.
Strengths: Thompson works primarily with his 89-94 mph fastball, which features good life and could get even better as he adds strength. He has a wiry, athletic frame, a quick arm and a loose, easy delivery. He resembles a young Oil Can Boyd. Thompson’s feel for pitching and makeup are remarkable for such a young pitcher.
Weaknesses: Like most teenagers, Thompson still is developing his secondary pitches. His curveball has 11-to-5 rotation and average depth, and it could become a plus pitch. He has good feel for a changeup but it isn’t reliable yet.
The Future: Thompson has considerable upside and his best days are ahead. The Nationals believe he can handle a move to high Class A in 2005.
Background: As did Ryan Church, Rasner starred at Nevada, where he set records for career wins, strikeouts and innings. Minor shoulder tendinitis slowed him in 2003, his first full pro season, but he remained healthy in 2004 and turned a corner down the stretch. He allowed more than one earned run just once in his final 11 starts and did his best pitching yet in Double-A.
Strengths: Rasner has good control and induces plenty of grounders with his heavy 91-94 mph sinker. He commanded his solid-average curveball much better in 2004 than he had in the past.
Weaknesses: Rasner’s circle changeup still needs plenty of work, and his curve could use more refinement. He lacks a true strikeout pitch and though he’s around the plate with his pitches, he has been too hittable.
The Future: Now that he’s healthy, Rasner should advance rapidly through the system. He should return to Double-A to start 2005 and is line for a big league callup toward the end of the year. He doesn’t offer a high ceiling but could become a solid fourth starter.
Background: Drafted as an outfielder, Casto made his lackluster pro debut at that position. The Expos moved him to third base in 2004 and in his third game there, he took a grounder off his left eye. He missed two weeks and lost his confidence after he returned. His bat eventually came around, but he made 35 errors in 112 games.
Strengths: If Casto reaches the big leagues, it will be on the strength of his bat. He’s a good gap hitter with blossoming home run power. Early in the year, he struggled against breaking balls, particularly from lefthanders, but he made adjustments and began driving the ball consistently. He shows a strong arm at third base. Coaches and scouts rave about his work ethic and desire.
Weaknesses: There are scouts who question whether Casto can become even an average defensive third baseman. His hands are stiff, his feet are heavy and he lacks instincts. He needs to shorten his arm action to make quicker throws across the diamond. Offensively, he needs to learn to work counts better.
The Future: If Casto doesn’t figure out third base, he may have enough bat for left or right field. He likely will begin 2005 at Potomac.
Background: Balester wasn’t a hot commodity entering his senior season in high school, but he pitched himself into the fourth round with a strong spring. Though he wasn’t in peak condition after signing late, he still showed fine command during his pro debut.
Strengths: Tall and thin with a loose, easy arm action, Balester is projectable. His fastball already reaches 91-92 mph and touches 94-95. He’s polished for his age and does an excellent job controlling the strike zone. His late-biting curveball is already an average pitch and could become a plus offering.
Weaknesses: Balester needs a third pitch if he’s to succeed as a starter at higher levels. His changeup shows potential, but it’s still a long way from being trustworthy. He also needs to strengthen his upper body and build up his durability.
The Future: Washington views Balester as a rare combination of power and command who could become a front-of-the-rotation starter if everything clicks. He likely will begin 2005 in low Class A, but the Nationals may take it slow and start him in extended spring training before sending him to Vermont.