Nationals Prospects Shine in Arizona Fall League
By Andrew Flax
The Arizona Fall League’s regular season ended on Nov. 17th, and with it, the entire 2011 minor league season. The Nationals sent seven players to represent them on the Scottsdale Scorpions: Bryce Harper, Zach Walters, Derek Norris, Sammy Solis, Pat Lehman, Rafael Martin, and Matt Purke. Some of these players showed promise with strong numbers, while others faltered and for them, optimism waned.
The league’s headliner was, of course, superstar outfielder Harper. He was the subject of much speculation, with some whispering that with a strong performance here he could compete for a major league roster spot out of 2012 Spring Training. While this may be a bit unrealistic, Harper did not disappoint, showing off a stellar .333/.400/.634 line, and a 1.034 OPS that was good for 8th in the league. He started out slow, getting only one hit in his first sixteen at-bats, but then went on a tear, hitting .390 the rest of the season in 77 at-bats. Harper also slugged six home runs and knocked in 26 RBI, but his performance was not all positive. He struck out 22 times, compared to only walking 11 times, and had difficulty fielding at times. These struggles demonstrate his need for additional minor league polishing, but with an impressive showing in 2012, Harper could make his debut in Washington sometime around August.
Another player with encouraging numbers was Norris. After a regular season where he only hit .210, Norris was hitting .318 until he finished hitless in his last ten at-bats, posting a triple slash of .276/.367/.382. He only hit 2 home runs but managed 29 RBI and 13 runs, while also continuing to demonstrate great plate discipline, drawing 12 walks and striking out 14 times. Norris is also working on his defense, and most agree that he also needs more minor league time to develop. Norris is also blocked in the majors by Wilson Ramos, who is a defensive stud and hit .264 this past season, so he could become trade bait as the Nationals continue to search for a centerfielder and starting pitcher.
A third player who fared well in the AFL was starting pitcher Solis. He marked a 4.50 ERA in 7 starts (26 IP) with a WHIP of 1.73, striking out 25 and walking 16. While those numbers may not look good on the surface, the average team ERA in the AFL was 5.53, putting Solis’ numbers above average. Solis also flashed his dominating potential, such as in one start where he struck out 9 batters in only four innings of work. Solis projects to compete for a 2013 rotation spot, and could make a late-season cameo in 2012 if he continues his minor league success.
While those Nationals had great success in the AFL, others had mixed results in the fall league. Walters, a shortstop acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Jason Marquis trade, hit only .205, with an OBP of .253, drawing only 4 walks and striking out 21 times. Relief pitcher Lehman stumbled as well, earning a 9.82 ERA in 14.2 IP (12 appearances). However, Lehman did have a very impressive 17/3 K/BB ratio, which bodes well for his future. 27-year-old Martin had a very impressive 1.50 ERA in 12 IP, but had only a middling 9/6 K/BB ratio. This year’s third round pick, Purke, had an awful ERA of 13.50, but most of that damage was done over a short stretch where he allowed 10 ER in 1.1 IP.
As a whole, it was an encouraging fall for the Nationals’ prospects. While nobody wowed or made his case for a 2012 roster spot, and everyone has room to improve, the strong showings by these prospects only contributes to the optimism for the future in D.C.