Tonight, we begin a new series here at District On Deck where we will give an update on the Washington Nationals’ minor league affiliates by talking to some of the writers who cover those respective teams. For part one of our weekly series, we take a look at the Hagerstown Suns, who are the Nationals’ low-A Affiliate in the South Atlantic League.
This season, the Suns are 56-55 and 21-22 in the second half of the season, but they have been on a hot streak of late as the team has won six of their last eight games. This includes a four game sweep of the Delmarva Shorebirds (Baltimore Orioles) over the weekend.
Tonight, one of the Nats’ top prospects, Erick Fedde, is making his low-A debut for the Suns as they go up against the Augusta GreenJackets (San Francisco Giants). With the short season Auburn Doubledays, the 22-year-old right-hander, who was the team’s first round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, went 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA in eight starts:
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This season, Hagerstown’s pitching as a whole has a 4.11 ERA, which is the fifth highest of any team in the South Atlantic League. The problem for their pitchers has been the inability to strike out hitters, since their total of 722 K’s is the lowest in the league.
On offense, Patrick Anderson’s squad has six players that have driven in 30 runs or more. However, the Suns’ team total of 485 runs is the fifth lowest in the league. One player to watch on offense is first baseman Jose Marmolejos-Diaz. The 22-year-old has a slash line of 297/.345/.471 with nine home runs and 67 RBI’s, which leads the entire league. Plus, outfielder Andrew Stevenson, who was one of the Nats’ second round picks in this year’s draft, is hitting .347 in his first 12 games and has ten RBI’s.
To get the inside scoop on some of these players for Hagerstown, I spoke with Zach Spedden who is the editor of the Hagerstown Suns Fan Club and he covers the Nats’ farm system for The Nats Blog. We at District On Deck would like to thank Zach for taking the time to answer these questions:
Ricky: Tell us a little bit about how you went about founding the Hagerstown Suns Fan Club site.
Zach: When I joined the Fan Club’s board of directors in 2009, the organization was trying increase its online presence. One of the other board members suggested the blog, and she immediately asked me to join as a co-founder and contributor.
Since then, it has really evolved from being something that the Fan Club used for updates to being a news source on the team. I think that for the hardcore Suns fans and for the Nationals fans who want to follow the minors more closely, it has really filled a niche because it covers the Suns year-round and explores a lot of different stories and angles that were not always covered before.
R: What have been your first impressions of Andrew Stevenson since he was called up to low-A a couple of weeks ago?
Z: Stevenson has really taken off, both offensively and defensively. The outfield at Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium is not very easy to play because it’s a hard surface, the dimensions are irregular, and the balls often deflect off of the wall at weird angles, especially in centerfield. He has wasted little time in adjusting to those challenges, however, because he does a very good job reading the ball off of the bat and has tremendous speed.
I would not be surprised if the Nationals continue to work on tweaking Stevenson’s swing, which many pre-draft reports cited as a weakness. If they could smooth out his hands a little bit, I think he could start pulling the ball with more authority, which would certainly add another dimension to his game. If that all comes together, it is easy to see Stevenson being a valuable contributor on both sides of the ball, because he is already so good defensively.
R: First baseman Jose Marmolejos-Diaz currently leads the league in RBI’s and is hitting .321 in his last 43 games. Is this a player that you think has the potential to rise up the Nationals system with his raw power?
Z: Before the season, Suns manager Patrick Anderson said that he was impressed with how far Marmolejos had come with his power over the last few years. That progression has definitely continued this year and, for not being an exceptionally big guy, he can hit the ball a long way.
As for where he goes long term, that remains to be seen. Based on what he has showed this year, Marmolejos offers some potential with the bat and he has been getting on base more often in the second half, which is an encouraging sign. If he continues to improve his defense and handles the move up to High-A effectively, he might wind up making it.
R: Osvaldo Abreu has been one of those players that has risen up the rankings in the Nats’ farm system on MLB.com and has 24 stolen bases this season. With the Nats having Trea Turner and Wilmer Difo in the system, what do you think the future might hold for a player like Abreu?
Z: I really like Abreu. For someone, again, who is not that big, he generates a surprising amount of power, which is reflected in the fact that he’s been among the league’s leaders in doubles for much of the season. Another plus with him is how he has adjusted his approach throughout the year to become more patient—his walks are up from where they were last year, and he has looked more like a prototypical top-of-the order hitter.
For a player with his skillset, especially if he is going to compete long-term with the likes of Turner and Difo, the key for Abreu is maintaining a patient plate approach and perhaps becoming more versatile in the field. If he cannot establish himself as an everyday second baseman, Abreu will have an easier time getting to the big leagues if he improves at shortstop. He has had his up and downs there this year, but I don’t think that any of the adjustments he has to make will be insurmountable. In fact, I would argue that Abreu is ahead of where Difo was defensively with the Suns in 2013. While Difo struggled, it was clear that he had the athleticism to get better, and I expect that to be the case for Abreu.
R: Last year, the Hagerstown rotation featured the likes of Lucas Giolito, Nick Pivetta, and Reynaldo Lopez. Who have been some of the pitchers that have stood out to you in this year’s Suns’ rotation?
Z: The guy who carried the rotation until he was promoted in July was Austen Williams, who was not only the Suns ace but one of the better pitchers in the league. He doesn’t throw as hard as pitchers like Giolito and Lopez but he had excellent command throughout his time with the Suns. When Williams was on the mound, you knew that it would be a fast-paced game, because he seemingly never worked from behind, generated a lot of ground balls, and could keep the hitters off balance to pick up strikeouts.
Command is often hard to project, but if Williams continues to do that at the higher levels, he could provide some value down the road. Keep in mind as well that the Nationals have gotten production from control-oriented right-handers like Tanner Roark and Craig Stammen in the past, so the organization does have a track record of developing similar pitchers.
R: Who has been the biggest surprise and disappointment of this year’s team?
Z: For the surprise, I think it goes back to Abreu. Seeing him develop from a player who was really inconsistent at Auburn last year to—in my opinion—one of the best second baseman in the league has been one of the better parts of this season. While it might not him put him in anyone’s Top-10 list, Abreu has clearly been getting more attention and I think his is a name that will be talked about often going forward.
As for disappointment, that can be kind of subjective, because it all comes back to individual expectations. If there is a player that I think can improve greatly based upon his skillset, it’s Jefry Rodriguez, a hard-throwing right-handed starter who struggled in Hagerstown for a few weeks before being demoted to Auburn in June. He’s been kind of erratic there as well, but when you watch him pitch you can see that the potential is there. As a converted shortstop who has had to make a series of mechanical adjustments, it’s going to take time for things to click and hopefully that happens sooner rather than later.
R: If fans were to check out a game at Hagerstown, what is the first thing that they should expect?
Z: What makes Hagerstown unique is that it’s a small, old ballpark with seats that are really close to the field. That is not to stay that there isn’t a bad seat in the house—there’s obstructed views in the grandstand, and the VIP sections on the third base side are too low to provide a good view—but the size amplifies the atmosphere. The fans in Hagerstown are serious and hang on every pitch in tight games. As a result, even if there are less than 1,000 people in attendance, the fans have a way of making it seem far more crowded. The best example from this year was when the Suns carried a no-hitter into the ninth. Only a few hundred people were there that night, but once Phillips Valdez (the starter) got through the sixth, they hung on every pitch and organically created a pretty electric atmosphere.
I frequently travel to other stadiums throughout the season. I can definitely say that I have been to nicer, more modern facilities, but there is something special about the way Hagerstown’s fans get into the game.