Washington Nationals 2019 Top 30 MLB Prospects Midseason Update
UPDATE: The Nationals Top 30 now includes all moves made through July 31.
The Nationals started the season 19-31 (.380) and were 10 games out of the NL East on May 23, but since then got hot and went 31-12 to put themselves back in the race with the Braves. Washington is the only team in the division with a positive run differential along with Atlanta, and will look to buy at the deadline and avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
The most obvious area of need to address is the bullpen, as the Nationals have had one of the worst pens in baseball with a 5.86 team ERA in that regard through July 16—only the Orioles 6.24 ERA is worse through that stretch. Sean Doolittle has been the one consistent weapon out of the pen for manager Dave Martinez and while Wander Suero has started to look better as well, they could use more depth.
With a top-heavy system that falls off quickly after the first three or four players, Washington doesn’t have a ton to work with, and it would be surprising to see the org trade potential everyday infielders like Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia for bullpen depth. There are a number of arms in the system who have the ability to take a step forward and at least provide relief innings (like Jefry Rodriguez a year ago and Tanner Rainey this year), but many of those pitchers are too far away or need more refining in the minors.
1. Carter Kieboom, SS/2B
Kieboom started the year in Triple-A after performing well in High Class A and Double-A ball last year, and made his major league debut on April 26, hitting a game-tying home run for a dramatic first big league hit. Kieboom struggled for the most part in his promotion and hit .128/.209/.282 over 11 games, but he hit the ball hard (90.9 mph average exit velocity) and has more than held his own in the offensive-inclined Pacific Coast League. Kieboom has shown an advanced approach that could allow him to hit in the middle or toward the top of a lineup. While his range makes him a better fit for second or third, he can handle shortstop enough to fill in there if needed.
2. Luis Garcia, SS/2B
Garcia got an aggressive assignment in 2019 and started the season in Double-A, where he was the youngest hitter in the Eastern League as a 19-year-old. Garcia seemed overmatched during the first two months, hitting .218/.251/.254 with 37 strikeouts and eight walks in April and May. Since June started, Garcia has made an adjustment and gotten his lower half more involved and in sync, helping him hit .336/.357/.394 in 32 games from June 1 to July 7. Garcia still has easy plus bat speed and a loose swing, but scouts are mixed on whether they prefer him as a shortstop or a second baseman—he’s spent time at both positions this year.
3. Jackson Rutledge, RHP
The Nationals made Rutledge the highest-drafted junior college pitcher this century when they took him with the No. 17 overall pick and signed him for $3.45 million. Rutledge offers some of the highest upside of any of the college arms in the 2019 draft class, with a premium fastball out of an unusually short arm action considering his extra-large, 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame. He flashed plus secondary offerings and improved his control this spring with San Jacinto (Texas) JC, but struggled in that regard in his debut in the GCL.
4. Mason Denaburg, RHP
Denaburg’s progression has been slower than Washington might have hoped for, after not throwing at all last season. Over the offseason the 6-foot-4 righthander started to fill out more and add strength to a lean frame, which forced him to rework a few things with his arm slot. Denaburg has a few innings under his belt in the GCL, where he’s flashed the same pure stuff he showed as an amateur, but he’ll need to use his impressive natural athleticism to repeat his delivery consistently and improve his fastball command.
5. Wil Crowe, RHP
Crowe’s fastball has ticked up a bit this season and gone from fringe-average velocity a year ago to average this year, settling into the 92-93 mph range with impressive control. He’s walked just 22 batters in 95.1 innings in the Eastern League this season and shown solid secondaries. His changeup is his best secondary pitch and could become an above-average offering, while he throws his curveball for strikes and has focused more on improving his slider. Both breaking balls are average offerings, giving Crowe a safe, back-of-the-rotation role, relying mostly on movement and command.
6. Tim Cate, LHP
Cate started the season in low Class A before earning a promotion to Potomac in late June. He’s focused on improving his changeup this spring while throwing every fifth day for the first time over a full season, and over the offseason he’ll need to hit the weight room hard to build up his strength and stamina. Cate still has the impressive fastball/curveball combination that made him a second round pick, with the former sitting in the low-90s and the latter an easy plus offering that he lands for strikes and can use as an outpitch with plus control. Sustained health and developing a changeup as a reliable third pitch will be keys for Cate becoming a back-end starter.
7. Drew Mendoza, 1B
The Nationals liked Mendoza’s bat enough to make him their second selection of the 2019 draft and sign him for $800,000. After playing third base during his college career with Florida State, Washington is moving the 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger straight to first base in pro ball, where they believe he’ll be a more natural defensive fit. Mendoza has the arm strength to turn double plays from the position without a problem and the team believes he could become an above-average defender there after spending so much time at shortstop and third base in his amateur career. That puts more pressure on Mendoza’s bat, but he has above-average raw power that could improve as he adds more strength to his upper body.
8. Ben Braymer, LHP
Washington’s co-pitcher of the year in 2018 after pitching well in the South Atlantic and Carolina leagues, Braymer started the season at Double-A Fresno where he posted a 2.51 ERA over 79 innings with 69 strikeouts and 21 walks. Braymer has above-average control out of a clean delivery with deception that makes it hard for batters to pick up the ball. His stuff is mostly average outside of a consistent curveball that’s a 55-grade breaking ball that he spots well. He has also improved his feel for a changeup this season, tunneling it well with a low-90s fastball that Braymer has had success with up in the zone. Braymer was promoted to the Pacific Coast League where he’s stumbled, but he has the command and three-pitch repertoire that make him a solid bet to offer major league value at some capacity.
9. Yasel Antuna, SS
Antuna only recently returned to games after recovering from Tommy John surgery, though his return to the field was slowed with a few setbacks that included a minor quadriceps injury. He’s back now in the GCL, though the Nationals should promote him to short season Auburn or the South Atlantic League before the year is over. Antuna is still young, but he’s behind on innings and will need all he can get to refine his game and take advantage of his raw tools. He might be the player to watch in Washington’s system for the rest of the year.
10. Tres Barrera, C
A year ago on the Nationals 2018 midseason update, Barrera was one of the players rising in the right direction and through half the 2019 season, that’s still the case for the 24-year-old backstop. In his first stint at Double-A Harrisburg, Barrera has hit well (.264/.333/.409) with a repeatable, gap-to-gap swing, though there is some raw power in the tank as well. Scouts praise Barrera’s defensive work, and while he’s a well below-average runner, he’s athletic behind the plate and frames well with good arm strength. His leadership at the position stands out and he runs the staff well, doing a lot of the little things that scouts like to see of a future major league backstop.
11. Seth Romero, LHP
12. Sterling Sharp, RHP
13. Reid Schaller, RHP
14. Israel Pineda, C
15. Jackson Tetreault, RHP
16. Matt Cronin, LHP
17. Joan Adon, RHP
18. Tyler Dyson, RHP
19. Jake Irvin, RHP
20. James Bourque, RHP
21. Malvin Pena, RHP
22. Cole Freeman, 2B/OF
23. Nick Banks, OF
24. Gage Canning, OF
25. Telmito Agustin, OF
26. Jeremy De La Rosa, OF
27. Trey Turner, RHP
28. Eddy Yean, RHP
29. Francys Peguero, RHP
30. Jackson Cluff, SS
Pacific Coast League Top 20 Prospects For 2019
Considering the state of offense in the PCL, it's no surprise 15 of the 20 best prospects are bats.
Joan Adon, RHP — The Nationals pushed Adon to low Class A Hagerstown this year and put him in a starter’s role for the first time in his career. He sits in the 94-96 mph range early in games and also features a power slider and is improving a changeup that remains a work-in-progress. Adon is a high-risk arm who will more than likely wind up in a reliever role, but has power stuff that could be effective with refined mechanics and consistently staying in line in his delivery.
Cole Freeman, 2B/OF — A fourth round pick out of Louisiana State in 2017, Freeman has intrigued scouts with his plus-plus running ability, contact skills and potential as a utility player with defensive versatility. Freeman mostly played second base during his pro debut in 2018, but has spent time in center field this season, where he looks better thanks to some inaccurate throwing on the infield. He’ll need to improve his throwing to stick the keystone and there’s little power in the tank, but Freeman can handle the bat, walks at a good clip (11.5 percent) and is a base stealing threat as well.
Nick Banks, OF — Banks is a well-rounded player who can handle all three outfield spots as an above-average runner, has hit consistently this season and also has above-average raw power. His toolset doesn’t jump off the page, but he does most things well and could be a valuable 4A sort of player barring a step forward in his pure hitting ability. He has fairly significant reverse platoon splits (.893 OPS vs. lefties, .696 OPS vs. righties) this season in his second stint at high Class A Potomac, which will be worth monitoring in the future.
Raudy Read, C — Read’s power has returned in Triple-A Fresno this season (11 home runs) after hitting just three home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018, but he’s struggled to get on-base and has a 38-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and turns 26 in October.
Gage Canning, OF — After a solid pro debut, Canning has struggled in low A Hagerstown and high A Potomac this year. He’s striking out too much (31.6 percent) across both leagues and while his speed and ability to play all three outfield positions gives him a reasonable floor, the bat hasn’t been there this year.
Telmito Agustin, OF - It continues to be much of the same story with Agustin, as scouts never hesitate to praise his raw tools, but have never seen them fully translate and don’t like his low-energy playing style. In his third stint in High Class A Potomac, Agustin is hitting just .234/.291/.356 and the reports on his defense aren’t much better.
Jose Sanchez, SS - Sanchez just turned 19 and is still young, but after three years in professional baseball he has been completely overmatched at the plate, hitting .211/.287/.250 over 623 plate appearances in the Gulf Coast, New York Penn and South Atlantic leagues. Sanchez hit .181/.256/.198 this year in 37 games with low Class A Hagerstown before he was sent back to short season Auburn in the middle of June.
Victor Robles, OF — Robles is now a regular with the Nationals, and unsurprisingly has immediately become one of the best defenders in baseball, along with players like Byron Buxton and Kevin Kiermaier. His offense hasn’t come around, as Robles posted a .246/.320/.443 slash line through 85 games, with one of the lowest average exit velocities (81.1 mph) and hard hit rates (24.3 percent) in the league. His defense alone will still make him a valuable player with that sort of offense, but he’ll need to make adjustments to reach his All-Star potential.
Tanner Rainey, RHP — The Nationals acquired Rainey last December in a deal with the Reds and he quickly took his power fastball/slider combination to the major league level where he’s had no trouble missing bats (13.1 K/9), but will need to improve his control (7.2 BB/9) to take advantage of his premium stuff.
Seth Romero, LHP — Romero is continuing to rehab from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals are hoping the talented lefthander can get some innings during instructs and start to re-establish his 2017 value.
Sterling Sharp, RHP — Sharp hasn’t pitched since May and is on the Injured List with an oblique injury.
Drew Ward, 3B — Ward missed part of May and the entirety of June with a ligament sprain in his thumb, recently returning for a rehab assignment with Auburn in early July.
Brigham Hill, RHP — Hill has yet to pitch this year and is currently on the injured list with a rib injury.
Israel Pineda, C — Pineda missed a few games in late April and early May with a few minor injuries stemming from foul balls that landed him on the 7-day injured list, but he’s currently active.