A Minor Review of 2018: Washington Nationals

Welcome back to my annual off-season series that has a quick-and-dirty review of all 30 minor league systems around baseball. This feature began way back in 2008.

If you had been perusing this series back in 2016 you would have read:

The Lottery Ticket: Juan Soto (OF): The recent addition of Soto to the system adds yet another impressive athlete to the Nationals glut of outfield talent, which also includes Victor Robles (see above), Rafael Bautista and Andrew Stevenson. Just 17 during the regular season in ’16, Soto posted a .973 OPS in short-season ball. His advanced approach for his age was evident in his ability to hit .368 with just 29 strikeouts in 51 games. Soto also possesses above-average raw power but he has yet to fully tap into that in game situations. Once he does, he could become a true threat from the left side of the plate and projects to develop into a middle-of-the-order threat and corner outfielder.

Now on to the new stuff:

First Taste of The Show: Juan Soto, OF: Well, what more can be said about Soto? He absolutely rocketed through the minors in 2018 and took the Majors by storm. He has an exciting tool set and should be the next star outfielder for the Nationals for many years. The 20-year-old has an approach at the plate that belies his age and experience, and the make-up is also strong.

The Draft Pick: Mason Denaburg, RHP: A two-way prep player who participated in multiple sports, Denaburg is only beginning to scratch the surface on his potential. He has an excellent pitcher’s frame and is extremely athletic, which should help him repeat his delivery and throw strikes as he acclimates himself to pitching full time. He didn’t pitch in pro ball after signing but threw in the instructional league. He shows a quick arm from a low-three-quarter slot. Denaburg struggled with his release point and didn’t have great command after his long layoff. I’d start him off in extended spring training before unleashing him into short-season ball this summer but the Nationals like to be aggressive so he might open up in full-season ball this spring.

The Riser: Luis Garcia, SS: The Nationals have had success swiftly moving prospects through the minors and Garcia is the next in line. Just 18, he split the 2018 season between two A-ball levels and performed better than expected. He’s not a home run hitter but he has a chance to develop into a strong gap hitter with 30-40 doubles possible to go along with 10-12 homers. He already has outstanding bat-to-ball skills and a strong understanding of what pitchers are trying to do so he’s a threat to be a future .300 hitter. The Nationals will probably want to start Garcia back in high-A ball where he spent just 49 games in ’18 but it’s not hard to envision him reaching double-A by mid-season at which point he’ll be just 19 years of age.

The Fallen: Drew Ward, 1B: A former third round pick way back in 2013, Ward has never shown consistency with the bat. He didn’t have a horrible 2018 season in double-A but it was also his third taste of double-A action. This season may be his last chance to prove himself in the Nationals system and he needs to make more consistent contact or at least show much more power to justify the lack of balls in play. On the plus side, he’s shown a willingness to take a walk. Also working against Ward is the fact that he’s lost defensive value, moving from third base to first base.

The 2019 Contributor: Victor Robles, OF: Nationals fans already enjoyed watching a star-in-the-making breakout in 2018 but it wasn’t Robles as expected… it was Juan Soto, who leapt over an injured Robles to steal the limelight. Well, 2019 should be Robles coming out party. He’s MLB ready with a great approach, a wide skill set and athleticism to spare. Perhaps the most impressive part of Robles is the make-up which should allow him to squeeze out every ounce of potential. And although he’s never shown a lot of home-run pop in the minors, the bat speed and approach could eventually lead to some solid power numbers, even if speed is more of his game early on.

The 2019 Sleeper: Sterling Sharp, RHP: Sharp, 23, is an interesting pitcher in the system that hasn’t gotten much love until now. He’s tall and lanky and, when he throws, is all arms and legs leading to some additional deception. He’s extremely athletic but struggles with consistent command. The lack of swing-and-miss that he elicits will limit his overall ceiling but he generates a lot of weak contact that ends up on the ground; Sharp generates extremely high ground-ball rates. He has a solid low-90s fastball to go with an above-average changeup but the breaking ball remains a work in progress. There is perhaps No. 4 starter potential here with a little more patience.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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