Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Are you concerned about the state of the Nats farm system?


Will Giolito become the Nats #1 prospect? Photo Eric Dearborn via Win For Teddy blog

I know it seems silly to criticize the team with the best record in the NL, but I thought the question was worth asking, given a couple things I read this week prospects related.  Given the drain of prospects in the last 6 months (through the Gio Gonzalez trade and through graduation to the majors for several of the team’s better prospects), its safe to say that our cupboard is relatively thin right now.  This point was highlighted to me by two recent online articles;

1. ESPN’s Keith Law posted a mid-season review of farm systems on the Rise or Fall (sorry, insider only), and stated the obvious about our system.  His summary: Yes we got Lucas Giolito but it was essentially at the expense of any other high-end talent in the 2012 draft.  And, a lot of our high-end guys are taking significant tumbles on boards due to lack of performance or injury (see later on for a look at our top 10 prospect performances).

2. Baseball America’s Jim Callis posted an updated Midseason top 50 prospects post 2012 draft and included where he’d put the top-end talents drafted (including international signees) in his weekly Ask BA feature on July 16th.   Of note to me was the fact that Washington, even with the signing of the high-end Giolito, does not have a SINGLE player in his mid-season 50.   Luckily for us, our NL East competition didn’t fare too much better, with a grand total of 5 players between our divisional rivals.  This compared to teams like Seattle (5), Kansas City (4), and the rich-keep-getting-richer Rangers with 3 guys likely to become impact players within a year or two.

Why is this a concern if the team is in first place?  Two primary reasons:

1. If you’re not going to matriculate your prospects and depend on them for production, then you need to utilize them in trade to acquire needed talent.  There’s plenty of trade rumors right now mentioning the Nats desires for a starter to cover for Stephen Strasburg‘s innings limit.  But who are we going to trade to acquire said pitcher?   I’d go as far as saying that there’s not one guy on our 2012 top 10 prospect list (not including Harper and Lombardozzi of course) who, at this point in 2012, could be the centerpiece of a marquee acquisition.  Who is trading for our #1 prospect Anthony Rendon right now? 

2. This team has a LOT of money committed to players over the coming years, and won’t be able to depend on hefty production from salary controlled guys forever.  They will need a stream of up-and-coming players to offer cheap alternatives to free agents and players who have become too expensive.  For example; in the year 2016 the team has $47M committed to just THREE players right now, before considering at least that much in arbitration for just Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Jordan Zimmermann.  $47M is nearly the team’s payroll just a few years ago!  Yes we will naturally grow payroll and revenues with success and the renegotiation of the MASN contract, but constructing a 25 man roster is about making choices.  The last thing we want is to see this team become the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies; a bloated, old team with a ton of injuries and the 2nd highest payroll in the league at $175M, but mired in last place.

For context of this discussion, here’s a list of Baseball America’s top 10 prospects for this team for 2011 and 2012 (compiled after the Gonzalez trade), and a status of where they are as of now:

Year Nats Rank Name, pos Status
2011 1 Bryce Harper, of In majors
2011 2 Derek Norris, c Traded
2011 3 Danny Espinosa, ss/2b In majors
2011 4 A.J. Cole, rhp Traded
2011 5 Wilson Ramos, c Out for Season (two knee surgeries)
2011 6 Sammy Solis, lhp Out for Season (Tommy John)
2011 7 Cole Kimball, rhp 60-day DL (shoulder surgery)
2011 8 Eury Perez, of .299/.325/.342 in AA Harrisburg in his 6th pro season
2011 9 Chris Marrero, 1b 60-day DL (torn hamstring)
2011 10 Brad Peacock, rhp Traded

That’s 2 guys who are starters in the Majors, 3 traded for Gonzalez, 4 guys on long term DL stints and Eury Perez with his meager .667 OPS in AA, in his 6th pro season.  How about 2012’s list?

Year Nats Rank Name, pos Status
2012 1 Bryce Harper, OF In majors
2012 2 Anthony Rendon, 3B Out for Season (broken ankle, his 3rd major leg injury in 4 years)
2012 3 Brian Goodwin, OF .324/.438/.542 in low-A.  Stellar season so far
2012 4 Alex Meyer, RHP 7-4, 3.10 Era, 1.13 whip and 107/34 k/bb in 90IP in low-A Hagerstown.  Just promoted
2012 5 Matt Purke, LHP Long term DL (Shoulder concerns); hasn’t thrown in 5 weeks.
2012 6 Sammy Solis, LHP Out for Season (Tommy John)
2012 7 Steve Lombardozzi, INF In Majors
2012 8 Destin Hood, OF .223/.296/.313 in AA Harrisburg, in his 5th pro season
2012 9 Chris Marrero, 1B 60-day DL (torn hamstring)
2012 10 Michael Taylor, OF .225/.314/.333 in High-A Potomac in his 3rd pro season

2012’s list includes 4 major injury concerns, two guys under-performing (Hood and Taylor), and two guys matriculated to the majors.  The two players putting up good statistical seasons may come with astericks though; Alex Meyer was compiling his stats in low-A, going against guys 2-3 years younger than himself.  His promotion to High-A was overdue and should be telling, to determine if his future lays as a dominant 12-6 starter or a high-leverage reliever.  Brian Goodwin’s excellent season is a great sign of things to come … but again, in Low-A.  I know he was a Juco signee, but he’s 21 now, turning 22 in November and is the same age as college juniors getting drafted now.  If he continues to produce upon promotion to better competition, I’ll feel better.

Now, I know there’s guys in our system who are coming back from injuries (i.e. Nathan Karns), or who are putting up good numbers despite being lower draft picks (i.e. Matt Skole, Cameron Selik, Danny Rosenbaum), and we have some guys who we acquired through trades and who are having surprisingly good seasons in the minors (i.e., Zach Walters, Ryan Perry and Corey Brown) but are these kinds of players going to step up and either be a) next year’s top prospects or b) eventual productive major leaguers?  I know we all love Rosenbaum for example, but most scouts think he’s a marginal prospect at best (and his lack of inclusion on our top 10 lists reinforces that notion).

This sudden lack of depth was one of the reasons I wasn’t the biggest fan of drafting Giolito.  With the new draft rules and specific limits on bonuses, combined with the significant injury issues we’ve had with high end draftees Rendon and Purke in 2011’s draft, I thought the team should have gone the safer route.  Yes I’m sure Mike Rizzo did a ton of due diligence and was confident in Giolito’s long term health.  But missing on three first rounders (or in Purke’s case, a first round talent given a significant bonus and a 40-man deal) could lead to a significant hole in player development for this team right at a time a couple of years from now when they desperately need a MLB-minimum impact guy.

26 Responses to 'Are you concerned about the state of the Nats farm system?'

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  1. Interesting article. I think we’ll be in a much better place to assess where we are in spring 2013, once we’ve had a chance to see how injuries to Purke, Rendon, Solis etc play out.


    19 Jul 12 at 5:48 am

  2. Marrero came off the DL June 24 and is starting for Syracuse.

    Doug Herbert

    19 Jul 12 at 8:48 am

  3. A correction in your english. The Nats farm system is Thinner, not thin. There’s plenty of talent percolating up the system, it’s just not as across the board as last year.

    Not to make this sound like a tutorial, but the jump to AA is the hardest thing any minor leaguer will ever do, and most struggle when they get there.
    Both Eury Perez & Destin Hood have struggled at this level, But they are both just 22, so this is not killer situation, if they’ve not progressed 1 year from now at Harrisburg, then you can show concern.
    There’s a reason Brian Peacock spent 5 (yes 5) full years at Potomac before finally moving up with another organization.

    If the organization was thin, then this years Rule 5 draft would not be such a killer, but that’s for another day.

    Good post to get the juices flowing.

    Mark L

    19 Jul 12 at 9:46 am

  4. Am I concerned? Not at all. The Nats are built to win with starting pitching, and for the next three years at least will have four quality young starters under team control. The performance of this year’s team shows that if you have a superior rotation, the rest of the team is really just replaceable parts. You also have to factor in just how many of this year’s eight starting position players are young (Desmond/Espinosa/Ramos/Harper) and under team control for many years yet (Zim/Werth). Most of the bullpen is also young and under team control for years to come.

    For the next three years at least, the Nats are in the very enviable position of having to fill only one rotation spot, two position player spots and maybe a couple of bullpen spots each year. Plus, they already have a legit in house candidate for first base with Tyler Moore.

    As for the Gio trade, right now Peacock and Cole are cratering in the minors. Though it is obviously too early to tell for sure, if the trade ends up being one mid-rotation starter plus a starting catcher comparable to Ramos for a staff ace, I’ll make that trade 10 times out of 10.

    I also think the Top 10 prospects list is WAY overrated given that in 2011 it did not include Moore or Lombardozzi, who are each establishing themselves as very valuable major league players. Who knows which among the players not included on this year’s list might become the next fast riser? Rizzo’s scouting department seems to excel at finding the diamonds in the rough.

    At this point, the Nats need their system to plug the little holes that arise from injury (like it did for Ramos this year) rather than provide a major infusion of talent. Even if some of the top guys don’t bounce back from injury, they have enough secondary players in the system to do that just fine going forward.


    19 Jul 12 at 9:49 am

  5. Just one more word on the silly prospects list. That’s all they are…prospects. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush as the old cliche goes. Five years ago, we were getting all excited about the Nats drafting Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary, who supposedly were two “first round talents” that they paid big money to sign. Those two along with Detwiler were eventually supposed to form the nucleus of the future Nats rotation. Funny thing, though, neither has ever pitched higher than A ball and have to rank among our biggest busts.

    And just in case you need another reminder, A.J. Cole’s atrocious 7.82 ERA and 1.842 WHIP in High A this year makes a mockery of the prospects list.


    19 Jul 12 at 9:59 am

  6. There’s certainly a “glass is half empty” scenario that you can spin, but there’s a “glass half full” as well. The organization acts like they think that Rendon is going to play this year, and even with the injuries both Sickels and Keith Law still have him as a top 50 prospect. Solis has had TJ and so won’t contribute this year and next year, but obviously the organization has had success with pitchers who have had TJ (see, e.g., last night’s game). The one guy I’m really concerned about is Purke.

    While the organization has clearly had some players step back (Hood, Taylor), they’ve had some players step up (Goodwin, Meyer, Brown, Skole, etc). This kind of churn is normal in any minor league system. I don’t think the system is a top five system, and hasn’t been since the Gonzalez trade. But it’s no worse than middle of the pack IMHO.

    And to follow up on Doug’s comment, while Chris Marrero came of the 60 day DL and was optioned to Syracuse, he’s on the Syracuse DL as of last week for tweaking the hamstring again.

    John C.

    19 Jul 12 at 10:15 am

  7. I guess one more thing to consider when valuing minor league depth, which I should have mentioned; injuries. Yes we have 4 quality starters right now …. three of which with significant injury history. They’re no lock to stay healthy. Desmond/Ramos/Harper et all are young, but one of my points was that these guys will start to get expensive and may need to be moved to make way for a cheaper, equally good alternative. That was the gist of my “25 man rosters are about choices.” We’re not the Yankees, who can afford to buy a starting lineup of free agents.

    Prospect lists may be overrated … but they’re also a pretty good indicator of what’s to come. For whatever reason Moore was never valued as a prospect (the line was that he had power but too many holes in his swing), but Lombardozzi was absolutely on last year’s lists and has surprised me for sure with his play this year. That being said … i did a quick glance around the system for this article and struggled to find too many other names that i’d say were even worth considering. Rosenbaum isn’t an upper-end major league starting prospect. But he’s done excellently for us in the minors.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 11:00 am

  8. Completely agree on Purke. I was incredibly worried when he didn’t break camp with a full-season affilliate. How long does it take for his shoulder injury to heal? And, his velocity isn’t where it was during his great TCU freshman year. He finally gets assigned to low-A (where honestly he’s a bit old) and throws three mediocre starts before getting shut down again. Tommy John has a great recovery rate (89% if I remember the number) … but shoulder issues? Not so much.

    Without a big name prospect (Harper) any more, and with Rendon injured, I’d say we’re a bottom 1/3rd farm system right now. I’m looking at the performance of our starters across the system and am aghast at the numbers; there’s like 2-3 starters in any of our full season affiliates with ERAs under 4.00. Where’s the next starter prospect coming from? There’s only a handful of guys with OPS’ greater than .800 (my arbitrary fall-line for a player who is contributing well). I’m concerned (well, of course I am; that’s the point of the post).

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 11:04 am

  9. Fair enough on the jump to AA for Perez and Hood. They are still young, both being teen-aged signings. At 22 they’re on average a couple years younger than their colleagues. Rule 5 draft; I’ve already put together a draft post on it, for November. There’s a ton of names for sure … but who among them would a team *really* draft and keep on the MLB roster. Who is drafting Hood or Holder in rule5 based on what they’ve done so far?

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 11:08 am

  10. Who says we aren’t the Yankees? The Lerners are I believe the richest ownership group in baseball. If they WANT to afford to pay to keep Stras/Harper & Z-nn long term, they easily can. I don’t advocate that they spend foolishly, but with their recent demonstrated willingness to commit to big contracts, we have to ditch the small market, oh my god we CAN’T possibly trade our prospects, loser mentality that I’ve seen from a lot of Nats fans who seem to think this is still 2006 and we are among baseball’s have nots.


    19 Jul 12 at 11:25 am

  11. I say we’ll never be the Yankees because 1) (obviously) we’ll never have their history and world-wide brand recognition, 2) we’ll never own more than a small fraction of our own broadcasting TV contract and thus we’ll never have the 10s of millions of extra dollars they have. 3) Therefore we’ll forever be capped in terms of a payroll, directly stemming from revenues driven by gate. But finally most importantly 4) The Lerners may be the “richest” ownership group, but they got to be rich by being business men. And therefore no matter how much money Ted Lerner has in his bank account, he’s not going to run this team at a loss. Has anyone heard any differently? I’ve seen no indication that the Lerners bought this team so that they could be big-shot, high visibility owners immediately buying titles (think Wayne Huizenga) and running the team at a loss to do so. Instead, I see conservative risk-averse owners who so frustrated Stan Kasten with their lack of spending (especially surrounding the opening of the new stadium) that he left town.

    Perhaps this year’s jump from $60-$90M payroll is evidence that I’m wrong. I sure hope so. But I still never, ever see a payroll approaching the stratospheres of Philadelphia, Boston and New York. And therefore I circle back to one of my points of this post; you NEED low-priced, MLB minimum salary guys to hold starting positions on your team (not just bench and bullpen guys, but members of your starting rotation, one of your 8 starting out-field players, etc) so that you can go out and buy a $10-$15M/year player.

    To this end, I don’t see the team re-signing LaRoche for $10M and instead installing Tyler Moore at $450k at first base. Eventually I don’t see them giving big-time money to Michael Morse, instead absorbing a draft pick when he hits FA and depending on a rising minor leaguer (ideally Rendon) to take his place. Lastly I’d honestly be shocked if we extended Edwin Jackson for more than a couple years, instead hoping for one of the high-end starters we have (one of Solis, Purke, Meyer or Perry) to rise up and replace him. And honestly, that’s a great plan ….. IF your prospects develop as expected. But when the replacements keep breaking their arms or getting TJ surgery … well, you depend on replacement players or low-end FAs to pick up the slack.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 1:08 pm

  12. Alex Meyer is competing against guys 3 years younger then he is? The guy is 22 and the average age of a Sally Leaguer is 21.5ish.

    And your comment about 2012 draftees being included in BA’s top 50 so their trade value is increased is irrelevant. They can’t be traded right now anyways.

    Besides, Meyer and Goodwin would fetch just about anyone in major league baseball available via trade.

    I know the theme of your article was to be overly critical, but come on.


    19 Jul 12 at 3:35 pm

  13. I did a study of median/quartile ages last year: . Meyer turned 22 in january, making him essentially 22yrs, 4 months at the start of the season. Based on last year’s numbers, that puts him right around the median age for the league. Last year the median age of pitchers was 22 yrs and about 6 months.

    BUT, my point was more along the lines of this: ask any scouting director where a first round college junior pick *should* be playing and they’re not going to say low-A. Meyer is too advanced for that league and should have been in high-A to start. Now that he’s in Potomac, I think we’re going to get a better sense of him competing against his peers.

    My point about mentioning “who in our draft class would fetch a top prospect” wasn’t about picking nits about the fact that 2012 draftees cannot be traded; it was to talk about relative talent levels in farm systems.

    You think teams are jumping up and down to trade for Meyer and Goodwin? Sorry I disagree. A mid-1st rounder who didn’t shut down low-A and a supplemental first rounder who is putting up great numbers in (again) low-A are not the centerpieces of a major acquisition. AJ Cole, a high schooler who dominated low-A last year, was one of four players to acquire a marquee player.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 4:00 pm

  14. A.j. Cole dominated in htown but meyer didnt? By what metric? I know Cole was much younger but meyer has completely owned low A the past two months.

    And yes, two Top 100 prospects is a great start to any trade.


    19 Jul 12 at 5:14 pm

  15. Meyer starts for Potomac tomorrow nite, so we’ll see in a couple starts. I’m very optomistic.
    Renden played his first game since the injury today, he should be in Potomac in a week or two.
    After the Gonzalez trade and the Gomes blunder, the system is thinner, but not thin.
    Being an Arms blog, you should be all over Karns, he’s been dominant at High A after missing 2 years for exactly which injuries we don’t fully know. He sure looks healthy now.

    Mark L

    19 Jul 12 at 5:32 pm

  16. Very happy to see Karns’ comeback for sure. He was a very Robbie Ray esque signing at the time, getting 4th round money as a 12th round pick. Exactly the kind of signings the Nats loved making but which now are virtually eliminated in the CBA. Grr. Larger issue for this blog; I Just have no time this year for the in-depth deep dive into pitching prospects. When I can squeeze time I spout out an opinion piece that gets a bunch of comments back :-)

    I may have tempered my tone just slightly had I know that Rendon not only wasn’t out for the season but was going out on a rehab assignment. Still worried about Purke, but having Rendon back on the field eliminates a lot of the glass-is-half-empty in that post.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 5:45 pm

  17. Its all about age-context. Lets go to the numbers.
    – AJ Cole’s 2011 numbers in low-A, as an 18yr old: 4-7, 4.04 era, 1.24 whip, 108/24 k/bb in 89 innings.
    – Meyer’s 2012 numbers in low-A, as a 22yr old: 7-4, 3.10 era, 1.13 whip, 107/34 k/bb in 90 innings.

    Ok, i’ll admit the word “dominate” was incorrect (I think I mixed up Cole and Ray’s performances from last year). However, if you didn’t have names attached and just saw that an 18yr old had a better k/bb ratio in low-A than a 22 yr old, who is the better prospect?

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 5:50 pm

  18. Todd, sometimes (and I say this with respect) you don’t seem to be having very much fun. In simple terms, your posts here are a neverending series of fretful pessimism. I went back to the beginning of the season, and there is not one moderately happy, optimistic cheerful post. It’s all “the farm system stinks” and “they are drafting the wrong people” and “boy, Wang stinks” and “why did they DFA Lidge when the whole bullpen is melting down” (etc) – altough you did digress once with a post that amounted to “no wonder the Nats beat the Rays – those guys really stink.”

    I’m not saying you have to be a polyanna or anything, or even Panglossian. But the Nationals are in first place, with the best record in the NL despite having played one of the toughest schedules in MLB. Smile. Praise them. Be happy. Not all the time, but just occasionally. After all, someone in the organization must be doing something right! :)

    John C.

    19 Jul 12 at 6:57 pm

  19. Oh I don’t know Todd Mike Rizzo and Roy Clark seem to have done pretty well with third base?
    1. Carlos Rivero 23 years old AAA Syracuse IL All Star
    2, Zach Walters 22 years old raking in AA Harrisburg just promoted
    from Potomac. Acquired for Jason Marquis.
    3. Anthony Rendon 22 years old top offensive prospect just back
    from his ankle surgery doing rehab in GCL headed
    back to AA Potomac.
    4. Matt Skole 22 years old 21 homers in low A Hagerstown.

    CF (why does everyone want broken players like Span and +30 expensive free agents like Bourn? Seems pretty silly to me? )

    1. Bryce Harper (He is still THE top prospect since this is his rookie year … in the majors at age 19.
    2. Corey Brown age 26 AAA Syracuse IL All Star 21 home runs, 19 doubles, and 7 triples .300 avg and a huge OPS?
    3. Eury Perez AA Harrisburg … you mention him above?
    4. Brian Goodwin 21 years old soon to be in A+ Potomac to replace Michael Taylor.
    5. Billy Burns 22 years old A Hagerstown.

    You’re right the system has suffered quite a number of key injuries to starting pitching … but has also [re]discovered some sleepers.

    Looks like Jeff Mandel the Mathematician has finally “got it”. He’s in AAA looks just about ready to start in the majors and honestly I think he’d be a better choice than John Lannan. There’s Nate Karns’ the 12th round sleeper everyone gave me grief about when I kept bringing him up. Let’s see there’s Meyer who is progressing … Ryan Perry looks like he just might resurrect his career as a starter in Harrisburg. There’s a lot of ceiling for both Lucas Giolito AND lefty Brett Moneyham. Taylor Hill is back.

    When they get Purke and Solis back … there’s Dupra and Demny.

    I think they’ll end up looking a lot better than you expect!


    19 Jul 12 at 10:10 pm

  20. Fair point. Last year I did these rotation reviews (both major and minor) which allowed for gushing over the progress of guys like Robbie Ray and Brad Peacock and Christopher Manno. I’m just not in the same place this year, time wise. When I can find a spare hour here or there and if something strikes me, I’ll write about it.

    I’ve also thought about blogging in general, in terms of the content here, and have thought about the kind of content I like to read myself. Personally, I don’t need or want a blog that just recaps the games; there’s beat reporters that are paid to do that sort of thing. I like columnists, opinion pieces. That’s what i’ve tried to put here, trying to state and opinion and back it up with facts and information.

    Problem is … what opinion piece is there to write about a 1st place team? I guess I could write about how great our rotation is. But that kind of piece is sort of, “yeah duh.” So i’m kind of in a quandry. I want to write about something and not seem like a total homer. But your point is noted. I’ll find something positive to write about.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jul 12 at 11:39 pm

  21. Todd – even though I was fairly critical I want you to know I do enjoy your blog very much.

    May not always agree, but you always make me think.


    20 Jul 12 at 8:24 am

  22. Just for you, i’ve thought of a positive analysis piece to write. It stems from something I heard recently about the team’s scoring lately.

    Todd Boss

    20 Jul 12 at 11:53 am

  23. Todd, you may tend toward the critical at times, but yours is still my favorite Nats site around. I don’t need cheery pieces all the time (I can read Boswell for those, and I do). But even when I disagree with you, I still love the in-depth discussion that follows between a smart bunch of guys who know this stuff way better than I do. I know your time is limited, but keep it up, buddy.


    20 Jul 12 at 2:18 pm

  24. I’m not sure we’re all on board with you having a life apart from Nats Arms! :)

    Mark L

    20 Jul 12 at 2:44 pm

  25. New house, new kid on the way. BUT a slow work week. 2 posts!

    Todd Boss

    20 Jul 12 at 2:50 pm

  26. Thanks man. I too love the discussion and commentary. It can be tough to put an opinion out there sometimes. You take a beating. But, opinion leads to discussion which leads to discovery and analysis following on analysis. I like it too.

    Todd Boss

    20 Jul 12 at 2:53 pm

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