Lost amid the constant discussion and analysis of the decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals announced this past week the winners of their highest organizational honors for the 2012 minor league season. Third baseman Matthew Skole and right-hander Nathan Karns were named the team’s Player and Pitcher of the Year, respectively.
Skole spent the better part of the season with Class-A Hagerstown, earning 448 plate appearances over 101 games, before earning a promotion to High-A Potomac to finish out the season. In 524 combined plate appearances on the year he finished with a .291/.426/.559 line, 27 HR, and 104 RBI. His play at Hagerstown, however, earned him further honors. He was named to the league’s postseason all star roster and took home the South Atlantic League MVP Award, leading the league in home runs and slugging percentage.
A 5th Round pick in the 2011 Draft out of Georgia Tech, Skole will likely climb a few rungs this offseason in many of the team prospect rankings that will come out but and will likely head into next season with high expectations. While repeating High-A Potomac remains a possibility, there may be enough inclination within the organization to see how he handles the next challenge with a promotion to Double-A to start the season next Spring. If he doesn’t begin the year advancing a level, he likely could make the jump not long into the year if he can continue to hit the ball with such impact. Regardless, Skole’s future within the organization remains in flux. He’s likely blocked at third base, by both Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon, meaning a position change down the road may be needed in order for Skole to reach his potential and climb to the Major Leagues. He’s going to need to develop further defensively as well, as he committed 23 errors on the season. Nationals fans shouldn’t be dismayed, however. Continued development and progress from Skole makes him more valuable to the organization, either forcing their hand to play him or making him an invaluable trade chip down the road.
Meanwhile, Karns has taken a different route to this point. A 12th Round pick in the 2009 Draft, the former Texas Tech product underwent surgery on his right shoulder and didn’t make his professional debut until midway through the 2011 season. He took a big step forward this year, appearing in 24 games and making 18 starts, with strong overall results: 116.0 innings, 1.009 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9, 11.5 K/9. Like Skole, he split his year between Hagerstown and Potomac. With the Suns he spent part of the year working out of the bullpen before shifting back to the starting rotation. There he went 3-0 with a 2.03 ERA and a pair of saves over 11 games (5 starts). Once he was promoted to Potomac, however, he remained in the rotation for the remainder of the year. Through 13 starts he went 8-4 with a 2.26 ERA.
Karns’ future is also a little unclear, as Luke Erickson of NationalsProspects.com points out, there was some speculation going back to last winter that Karns could be moved to the bullpen in an effort to expedite his climb through the minor leagues as another option to help the big-league bullpen. Karns will be 25 before next Spring and will likely still be among the older players in his league even with a jump to Double-A, but it’s tough to say that his future value is tied more in his role as a starter or a reliever. His future could in fact be dictated by how the other starting pitching options within the system continue to develop, either letting the organization convert him into a reliever by choice or keep him as a starter out of necessity.