2013 Prospect Watch: Washington Nationals

Former first-round pick Anthony Rendon could move fast if he can stay healthy. (USATSI)

Before the start of the season, we'll highlight a few players in each team's minor-league system to let you know which players you should be paying attention to throughout the year. These aren't meant to be comprehensive top-prospect lists but should provide a look at some key players within each team's organization.

The Nationals' biggest stars were drafted and developed by the team. Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond are among some of the players who came up through the system. While they’ve done a good job getting that talent to the majors in recent years, the farm system is weak following last season’s trade for Gio Gonzalez. At the time, the team dealt away four of its top 10 prospects. Though there isn’t a lot of depth, there’s a lot to like among the team’s best prospects. 

2013 Impact Player

3B Anthony Rendon

This is an aggressive ranking for Rendon, who just completed his first professional season. If not for a shoulder injury during his senior year, Rendon might have been the top selection in the 2011 draft, so he’s far more polished than most prospects his age (23). Injuries have become a large issue, as he missed significant time with an ankle fracture last season. When he was healthy, Rendon produced enough to finish the season in Double-A. He had a great showing in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .338/.436/.494 in 22 games, quieting some of his doubters. If he can stay healthy, he could make it tough for the team to keep him in the minors. He’s blocked by Zimmerman at third, so the team will have to make some difficult decisions once Rendon is ready. 

Future Star

OF Brian Goodwin

The 34th pick in the 2011 draft, Brian Goodwin showed a lot of promise last season. Over two levels, the 22-year-old hit .280/.384/.469 with a somewhat surprising 14 home runs. He has above-average speed, making him a threat on the bases and on defense. Goodwin may already be a four-tool player but could become a five if he can improve his hitting. The most glaring problem was a 26.9 percent strikeout rate once he reached Double-A. He only received 186 plate appearances there, so the sample isn’t all that large. Still, he’ll need to work on improving his recognition at the plate, and cutting down on strikeouts. The Nationals are set in the outfield for multiple seasons after acquiring Denard Span, so they can allow Goodwin to develop at his own pace. 

Wild Card

RHP A.J. Cole

Cole’s projection looked a lot better last offseason, when he was thought to be the prize of the Gio Gonzalez deal for Oakland. A year later, the A’s had no issues shipping him back to Washington. Cole really struggled early in the season, posting an awful 7.82 ERA in High-A. He was eventually demoted and morphed into his former self, with a 2.07 ERA over 95 2/3 innings. His stock may be down after a difficult 2012, but his ceiling remains relatively high. Given what he’s shown thus far, there’s no reason to believe his stuff won’t play as he moves up each level of the minors. At age 21, there’s no reason to put him on an aggressive promotion schedule. At the same time, Cole is going to be tested after failing to make much progress last season. He could significantly boost his stock if he shows progress this season.

LHP Matt Purke

In recent drafts, the Nationals have shown a willingness to gamble on potentially injured prospects. This strategy allows the team to pick up high-ceiling players much later than usual. Matt Purke embodies this strategy. Purke showed a ton of potential as a freshman, but was hindered by a shoulder issue the following year. The Nationals selected him in the third round of the 2011 draft, and paid him first-round money. It hasn’t paid off yet, as shoulder surgery has prevented Purke from tossing significant injuries. Shoulder injuries can be devastating for pitchers, so Purke is facing a long road back. The team will likely be extra cautious with him this season, so he might not be able to truly show off his skills until next year. Getting him back on the mound and competing in games would be a significant step forward at this point. 

RHP Lucas Giolito

The Nationals employed the same strategy in the 2012 draft, selecting Lucas Giolito with the 16 pick. There was some thought that Giolito was the top overall player in the draft prior to spraining his UCL just months before the draft. He only tossed two innings before undergoing Tommy John surgery, so there’s not much to say about his professional debut. He has a tremendous amount of potential, but his true debut will be pushed to 2014. Nats fans will want to keep an eye on his rehab this year. 

The Nationals boast a ton of talent at the major-league level, and can afford to be patient with their prospects. Rendon is the real prize here, but needs to stay healthy enough to move up through the system. On the pitching side, things are not as clear. The team will need Cole, Purke and Giolito to show signs of progression this season. The club knew the risks of drafting these types of players, but decided the reward was too great to pass up. How the organization handles these injuries will play a major role on whether the system takes a major step forward, or a major step back, this year. 

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