July 30th , 2021, the day the Nationals' rebuild officially began. It wasn’t for several months later when this front office would recognize that they were in a rebuild, but nevertheless, the rebuild began on that day. Since that day, the Nationals have traded away: Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber to name a few. Those trades brought life into the 30th ranked farm system and at the time, things were looking great. Since then, the team has drafted 11th , 5th and 2nd (in the best draft class we have seen in a decade) in consecutive seasons. Add in those draft slots and high end trades and you’d expect the Nationals to have a top 5 farm in baseball, right? Right??
Well, here we are entering the third and a half season of this rebuild and the Nationals farm system ranks 15th on Baseball America and 16th on Baseball Prospectus. MLB Pipeline has the team with 3 top 100 prospects, Baseball Prospectus has 4 in the top 100 and Baseball America has 3 for this team as well. When you remember who they have traded away, and where they have been drafting, those numbers are worrisome. The Nationals farm has the top end talent. Dylan Crews and James Wood are two of the best prospects in baseball. They also have another great prospect in Brady House, but the issue is that this farm is full of question marks and a serious lack of emerging players or depth. The biggest concern about the current state of the farm is there were no major graduations and the system ranking fell 5+ spots from last year to this year. The Chicago Cubs, who began their teardown on the same day and also traded away several franchise cornerstones, have the 2nd ranked farm system on Baseball Prospectus, 4th ranked system on Baseball America and had the most top 100 prospects on MLB Pipelines rankings for reference.
Baseball Prospectus organizational rankings lists the Nationals farm strengths as “having two of the best prospects in baseball” and their weaknesses in “they don’t have much after their top 10” - the top 10 list is shown below. The system has several major questions. We saw a year of underperformances and concerning trends across the board. Cavalli had tommy john surgery and questions remain about how the surgery will impact him going forward, Susana despite throwing 100mph has a concerningly low whiff% and k% and the issues of Robert Hassell and Elijah Green are well discussed.
The Top 10 Ranked Nationals Prospects
1. Dylan Crews, OF
2. James Wood, OF
3. Brady House, 3B
4. Cade Cavalli, RHP
5. Yohandy Morales, 3B
6. Jarlin Susana, RHP
7. Travis Sykora, RHP
8. DJ Herz, LHP
9. Andrew Pinkney, OF
10. Robert Hassell III, OF
The Nationals farm questions go deeper than “this prospect only hit .245 last year.” Statcast and batted ball data is the most important thing to look at when evaluating minor leaguers because that data is the most transferable between levels. The Nationals org ranked 28th in pitchers stuff+ last year. They had a system stuff+ of 87 (league average for stuff+ is 100). Their system performed very poor across multiple pitch types when it comes to in-zone whiff percentage. They ranked last for in-zone whiffs against for four-seam fastballs, second to last for cutters, fifth worst in changeups and seventh worst for slider in-zone whiffs. They also ranked dead last in average fastball velocity in 2023.
The hitter side is equally as bleak. Their AAA team was tied 28th for the least amount of barrels per at bat in 2023. Their system ranked 28th in hit+ score where 100 is league average and the Nationals score was 87.20. While their 90th percentile exit velocity was above the average, they had the 7th highest chase % and 6th highest whiff %. That is a very bleak reality for this farm system. Those numbers for pitchers and hitters should be drastically better when (hammering home this point again) you look at who they have traded away and having three high draft positions. Those concerning trends are why there are legit questions about the ceilings of more than a few of this team's prospects. These trends are not new to last season - these are trends and issues we have seen from previous versions of the Nationals farm systems. The Nationals' farm system quickly and drastically falls off.
One of the ways teams build depth is by signing guys to one or two year deals for the sole purpose of being traded. Since the Nationals traded Soto we have seen the team sign: Jeimer Candelario, Stone Garrett, Trevor Williams, Erasmo Ramirez, Dominic Smith, Corey Dickerson, Nick Senzel and Dylan Floro. If you go back a little before that you add in Nelson Cruz and Kyle Schwarber. Of those signings, only Jeimer Candelario has accrued over 1 fWAR.
The issue is not just that the players signed to be traded were not tradable, which is a massive issue in itself. The issue is that many did not even have a chance to be good. Many will point to the Nationals alleged self-imposed budget, but you can find value in one year cheap deals. Mike Rizzo’s formula the last three offseasons has been to sign players who were coming off of down seasons and praying they bounce back to be traded. Outside of Candelario, that formula has not worked. The likes of Nelson Cruz, Asdrubal Cabrera, Trevor Williams, Corey Dickerson and Dominic Smith struggled so immensely they had zero trade market.
Those failures to trade players who were specifically signed to be traded is playing a massive part in why this farm system is seriously lacking depth. For years Mike Rizzo has stated that the industry is wrong and his prospects are great and year after year the industry was proven right. This new season of rankings and updates was not polite to this team. These new rankings and updates are not hit pieces - they are fact. A farm system full of question marks, players falling down rankings, not having any major graduations and dropping 5-6 spots, depending on the site, is enough to cause serious concern. As constructed, this farm is one medium breeze away from being a bottom 10 farm in baseball, despite all of the firesales and high draft picks.
Some will read this and say “well, all prospects have question marks” and yes that is true. Even Dylan Crews and James Wood have question marks. We saw Wood drop in several major publications' top 100 rankings due to his swing and miss concerns. Thankfully, the quality of contact Crews and Wood make are high enough to quell those concerns and question marks. It is the system's overall lack of quality contact, the consistent trends in swing and miss, bad approaches, pitchers losing velocity, pitches not having much movement, to name a few, that are the serious concerns for the rest of the system. These are all issues that we have seen from Mike Rizzo’s farm building before.
Questions need to be answered about this farm. Sure, the front office is saying they are overhauling their player development staff and embracing analytics, but Rizzo has said that four previous times. We better hope that this time is serious because as currently constructed, this franchise is putting a lot of pressure on three young prospects to succeed. We will see those three prospects this year and they will come up into a major league system that has seen young players be stagnant over the last couple of seasons. Remember, Victor Robles was once the 3rd ranked prospect in baseball. No pressure.
And who knows, maybe this time next year I will be writing an article about how this farm system exploded and guys like Elijah Green lowered their K rate while guys like Darren Baker lowered their ground ball rate - maybe some of the concerning trends started to get better. Maybe we see that the new staff in the minor league system that was recently hired will help lead to positive regression. For the sake of this franchise's future, hopefully we see positive regression across the board.
All organizational stats and information gathered from Baseball America.