Capitol gains: A look at the Nationals farm system
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The most sustainable way to win in Major League Baseball is to do so with a steady stream of homegrown players. Teams draft and sign talented amateur players, develop them until they’re ready to contribute at the major-league level and then reap the benefits while those players remain employed for a fraction of what they’re actually worth. This starts a financial cycle in which the players (mostly by winning) collectively generate revenue that exceeds the payroll. The team makes a ton of money, ideally reinvests it in the roster and voila, a juggernaut is born. It’s clear this is where the Washington Nationals are heading. After an expensive, aggressive 2011 draft, Washington has a farm system filled to the brim with talent. Below, I do my best to profile the more prominent members of that system — good, bad, overrated, sleepers, everything — in no particular order.
Matt Purke (LHP) — Purke was a much-talked-about amateur prospects early in his career at TCU. Arm troubles caused a dip in his velocity and a subsequent drop in the 2011 draft. That Nats took a flier on him and sent him to the Arizona Fall League as he begins to recapture the form from his freshman year as a Horned Frog. The results have not been encouraging. When I saw him in Surpise for his first start, Purke was leaving lots of pitches up in the zone (when he could find the zone at all) that were spanked into gaps, his fastball velocity was still in recovery and he had no feel for his secondary pitches (slider and changeup). His release point was the most inconsistent I’ve ever seen from a professional. It doesn’t make sense to draw finite conclusions about Purke’s long-term viability until at least next spring when he’s had a full winter to shake off what is clearly a mountain of rust. After the dumpster fire I saw this fall, I’m not exactly optimistic.
Sammy Solis (LHP) – A second-round selection in 2010 out of The University of San Diego, Solis was another AFL prospect I had the pleasure of scouting. The towering lefty boasts a three-pitch mix consisting of a mid-70s knuckle curve which he’s still trying to master, a low-90s fastball that was showing more velo in the AFL than is typical for Solis, and a true plus change-up with great fade and arm side action. His lower half is stiff and lazy during his delivery but there’s nothing about the arm action that screams, “I’m going to get hurt.” One cool things about Solis is, despite his size, his pop times from the stretch are above average, so he won’t be abused by the running game like so many guys of similar stature have been before him. The prognosis on Solis is one of a mid-rotation starter, but if the uptick in velocity he showed in the Fall League holds, that ceiling would need to be reconsidered. Since Fall Leaguers only throw around three innings per start, they can let it rip without having to worry about maintaining their stamina for 6+ innings. So, that might be why his velocity has spiked.
Pat Lehman (RHP) – A 13th-round selection out of George Washington University in the 2009 draft, Lehman has a shot to be a decent bullpen arm. The 25-year-old, fast-working righty has some above-average secondary stuff that’ll play in the majors. While Lehman’s fastball is a little fringy, his changeup is above average and his command of a two-plane slider makes up for the fact that it’s a little short. He reached double-A Harrisburg in 2011, so he’s a little behind schedule as far development goes.
Rafael Martin (RHP) – Martin was signed out of Mexico as a 25-year-old in 2010. He’s now 27 and, after a strong performance in double-A, he needs to be given a shot in the majors at some point this season so we can find out exactly what the Nats have here. Martin works with a 91-93 mph fastball that easily plays above average thanks to its sink. He has a hard, upper-80s slider and a fringy changeup. He might be left in Syracuse as spring training breaks, but he’ll likely be one of the first arms up should someone get hurt or traded.
Steve Lombardozzi (INF) – Lombardozzi is nearly major-league ready (when I say that, it’s a nice way of saying he has no projection remaining) and will have some value simply because he can play shortstop in a pinch. He’d be a below-average starter, even as a second baseman, but is a better hitter than Ian Desmond. In my opinion, it’d be a net positive to move Danny Espinosa to short and start Lombardozzi at second base until a better option arrives, either from within the organization or otherwise.
Bryce Harper (OF) – There are only two players in all of baseball that I’m comfortable handing a grade of 80 for raw power. Harper is one of them. I can’t decide what I’m most impressed with, Harper’s raw abilities or how advanced he is for a hitter his age. Having just turned 19 years old a month or so ago, Harper’s already made it to double-A, and had two stints in the Arizona Fall League.
Everyone who has seen Harper a few times has some kind of story to tell. It might be some freakish batting-practice bomb he launched into the batter’s eye or a throw he made on the fly to third base from the warning track. Mine comes from this year’s AFL. Harper was facing the 2011 draft’s first overall selection, Gerrit Cole. Cole tried to blow a 99 mph fastball past Harper on the inner half of the plate. Harper, without cheating on it, opened his hips, got the bat head on the ball and ripped a screamer into right field. For a teenager to react on the fly to that kind of velocity and make high-quality contact is awe inducing.
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