Once barren and depressing to contemplate, the Nationals’ recent minor league drafts have brought a cornucopia of talent and highly rated prospects.
With three farm teams within easy driving distance of the Washington area in Harrisburg Senators (AA), Potomac Nationals (High A) and Hagerstown Suns (Low A), fans have numerous chances to see these youngsters prosper — or wither.
Minor League baseball is affordable and accessible. Smaller parks provide the chance to see future stars up close for $10 or less. Parking is usually free. The atmosphere is laid back, with player development more important than wins and losses. In Harrisburg, the Senators’ Metro Bank Park is considered one of the most beautiful in the nation, unlike Potomac and Hagerstown who play in outdated, aging stadiums.
But what if you seek more than a restful summer night at the ballpark and want to spend the evening as an amateur scout, evaluating the Nats’ prospects, perhaps finding one the experts have overlooked? What should you watch for when you watch minor league baseball?
What to observe depends on the level you’re watching. At the lowest levels (Gulf Coast League, Penn League, Low A), look for the dominant athletes. Who seems bigger, stronger, and faster than the others? Who throws harder? (Insider tip — At nearly every minor league games, scouts behind home plate have radar guns. Slip in behind them and you can see how hard a player is throwing). Look for hitters who smash line drives to the gaps or make “loud outs” with long fly balls and liners. Promising pitchers will dominate, racking up strikeouts and inducing weak contact.
At the High A level, for position players, look for the ones with multiple tools. Did the guy who just blasted a home run, later beat out an infield single and steal a base? In the field, did he show great range, smooth hands, and a strong arm?
An example — in 2008 I saw Danny Espinosa play in Potomac. While he had a bad day at the plate, he made an unforgettable play at shortstop. On a hard hit ball up the middle that looked like a certain single, Espinosa ranged far to his left. Impressive, but with a fast left-hander at bat, he had no chance to get the runner. Except, on the run, he transferred the ball from glove to arm in one motion and fired the ball to first. It was amazing how fast the ball whizzed across the infield, cracked into the first baseman’s glove, and beat the runner by a half-step. Unforgettable.
I turned to the person next to me and said. Wow! If this kid can hit we’ll see him in D.C. one day. He just smiled and nodded. That was an easy one to predict.
At the AA level, top prospects can no longer dominate solely on their superior athletic skills. At this level, both multiple skills and baseball smarts become key factors. When you attend a game at Harrisburg, look for a hitter who can drive a variety of pitches, not just the fastball, and who can handle different pitching strategies. How does he adjust when a soft-tosser replaces a flame thrower? Can he foul off tough two-strike pitches?
In the field, range and strength remain key factors, but so is decision-making. Does a player know when to eat the ball instead of trying to make an impossible play? How smoothly do the middle infielders turn the double play? Do outfielders hit the cutoff man or ignore him?
Pitching also becomes more challenging at the AA level. Look for pitchers who have more than one “go to” pitch to retire hitters. For starters, does he have a good repertoire of at least three pitches (2 for relievers)? Can he work both sides of the plate and stay out of the middle? With two strikes on a batter, does he blow them away with a strikeout or weak contact or can the batter foul off his pitches until he gets one he can hammer? Does he pitch as well from the stretch as the wind-up? Can he hold runners on first or do they distract him or steal at will? How is his emotional maturity? Do teammates’ mistakes steel his resolve to overcome them or does he melt down? How does he approach the first pitch after he allows a home run? Do jams seem to strengthen him or break him?
At AAA, the menagerie of players, older veterans, players not good enough to make the majors (the “4-A” guys), and top prospects at their last stop before the big leagues, make things tough to evaluate. It’s probably best to just try to gauge the abilities of the top prospects.
At this level, you really need to look at statistics over the long term in addition to what you might see at a game or two. For the top prospect hitter, how do his numbers (OPS, stolen base success rate if he’s a speedster, BAbip at .300 or less, proving strong numbers aren’t just lucky) rate? For pitchers, what is his WHIP, K/BB ratio, ERA, and FIP? If these metrics are all strong, look for a promotion soon.
Who should you watch?
Well, most fans know the Nats top prospects — Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Matt Purke, Eury Perez, Tyler Moore, Brian Goodwin, Corey Brown, Michael Taylor. To discover others a bit more below the radar, I recommend the fine Nationals Prospects blog. It has the most up-to-date, comprehensive coverage of the Nationals’ farm system.
Overall, try not to get so caught up in your evaluation work that you miss the innocent, quirky joy of minor league baseball. It can be an educational night out, but also quite fun. And if the Nats should falter, you still have other teams to support. The Potomac Nationals have won the Carolina League Championship twice in the past four seasons.
And if you can’t wait until the season begins, you can see the beautiful Metro Bank Park at the Harrisburg Senators’ fanfest on Saturday, March 31,11:00 – 2:00.