Washington Nationals: What happened to the top pitching prospects

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 27: Starting pitcher Erick Fedde
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 27: Starting pitcher Erick Fedde /

The Washington Nationals have failed to convert pitching prospects into quality major leaguers. Where does the team go from here?

The Washington Nationals have built their entire franchise through the ‘draft and develop’ model.

Ryan Zimmerman – the organization’s first-ever draft pick – is still the team’s cleanup hitter over a decade later. The 2012 team that exploded onto the scene was led by homegrown players like Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Ross Detwiler, and Danny Espinosa. Toss in recent additions like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner, and the core of the team remains players who were developed by the Nationals.

But that is no longer the case on the mound where the Nationals are struggling to turn top prospects into quality major league starters.

Since 2011, Washington has had five different pitchers ranked in the top-five of its farm system, with four of them reaching the big leagues: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Erick Fedde, and A.J. Cole (Seth Romero is currently ranked fifth in the Nats’ system according to MLB.com, but he is still in Low-A).

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Here are the ERA’s for all four players as they climbed the organizational ladder:

Giolito#1 (2015)3.42 ERA3.96 ERA5.24 ERA
Lopez#3 (2015)3.18 ERA3.68 ERA5.30 ERA
Fedde#2 (2016)3.36 ERA4.76 ERA9.39 ERA
Cole#2 (2014)2.63 ERA4.17 ERA5.00 ERA

ERA is just a quick and dirty statistic with plenty of flaws, but more detailed metrics are just as harsh.

Giolito flopped in six appearances (four starts) with the Nationals last year and has since been traded to the White Sox. After an up-and-down season in Triple-A this year, Giolito is finally on the South Siders’ major league roster. His 2.77 ERA in two starts looks respectable; his mere eight strikeouts over 13 innings and the 6.05 FIP do not. Pitchers outperforming their FIP is possible. Just look at Gio Gonzalez this season. But, pitchers outperforming their FIP by nearly four runs does not happen.

Perhaps even more concerning is Giolito’s once electric fastball, which dropped to 93.4 mph last season, and 92.3 mph this year. GM Mike Rizzo was either lucky or smart to move him in the Adam Eaton deal in the offseason; its uncertain whether Giolito could still be the centerpiece of a trade today.

Lopez also moved to Chicago in the Eaton swap, and while he has more upside than Giolito at this point, he has struggled with walks and the long ball. Across both Triple-A and the majors this year, Lopez has surrendered 56 walks and 19 homers in 24 total starts. He has legitimate stuff – his fastball averages over 95 mph – but until he harnesses more control, Lopez will never be more than a middle rotation arm.

Fedde and Cole, who are both still with the Nationals, have looked even worse than the White Sox duo. Cole now has 14 big league starts over three seasons, just two of which were quality starts. He is no more than an emergency arm at this point; he cannot be trusted to win a game if the offense scores less than four runs.

Fedde is rapidly progressing on the ‘Lucas Giolito Meter. of Concern’ He made his third career start Sunday, and while his scouting report says mid-90’s fastball, the 24-year-old was sitting around 89 mph against the Mets. Dusty Baker did not seem pleased with his young starter, as detailed in this Washington Post story by Chelsea Janes.

Fedde did not dominate in Triple-A this year, and has now allowed 16 runs and five homers in 15.1 big league innings. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, so the drop in velocity could have to do with fatigue or another elbow issue. A second injury, while concerning, would at least be a reason for his struggles other than he simply can’t play.

The Nationals have not converted a top pitching prospect into a major league starter since Strasburg. Tanner Roark is certainly a quality arm, but he was nowhere near top prospect status as a minor leaguer. Robbie Ray was also not a top farm system arm, and he did not turn his career around until he found his third team. Joe Ross appeared to be on track after his first two seasons, but he struggled in 2017, and is now out for the foreseeable future following his mid-summer Tommy John surgery.

Of course, all four of Fedde, Cole, Giolito, and Lopez are still incredibly young and have plenty of time to turn it around. Cole is the oldest at 25, and Giolito and Lopez are only 23. It is rare for young starters to take the league by storm right away anyways. Sixteen of the top 20 pitchers in ERA this season are at least 26 years old. All hope is not lost for the Nationals (and now the White Sox). Just look at this Fedde strikeout of Kyle Schwarber:

The real issue for Washington is when a big leaguer is injured; there is no replacement arm readily available in the minors. Lopez was intriguing while with Washington, but not exceedingly effective. Giolito, Cole, and Fedde have all pitched to varying degrees of awful. If not for Edwin Jackson’s surprising emergence as a midseason free agent, every fifth day would have been a massacre this year.

Those issues won’t come into play in 2017, as the Nationals continue to nurse a double-digit division lead. And once October rolls around, Dusty Baker will cut down his rotation to his three aces, along with the steady Roark.

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But, in the seasons to come, the Nationals will be short on pitching when Max Scherzer ages, Gio Gonzalez moves on, and Strasburg breaks down. Free agency is a risky gambit, but Washington will be forced to dive in after years of misses in the development process.

All statistics via Fangraphs.