The Washington Nationals have traded away some of their prospect depth in the past two winters, dealing pitchers like Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole (though he was reacquired) and Alex Meyer in trades that brought them Gio Gonzalez and Denard Span in return from the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins, respectively. Top backstop prospect Derek Norris was included with Milone, Peacock and Cole in the deal last winter that brought Gio Gonzalez to D.C. from the Athletics. Meyer, a 2011 1st Round pick, and the top pitching prospect in the system before the trade, was dealt to the Twins straight up this winter to get the center fielder/leadoff man the Nationals wanted in Span.
Nats' general manager Mike Rizzo talked to reporters last December about his willingness to trade prospects for what he felt the team needed at the major league level and Rizzo also spoke about his confidence in the organization's ability to restock the system they're depleting in the process of filling holes on the roster in the nation's capital.
The Nationals added a young, controllable Gio Gonzalez last year, giving them a top three of the lefty, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann that helped them win the NL East. Before the season started, Rizzo praised the young pitching the team had assembled.
"Our core rotation is very, very young," Rizzo explained, adding Ross Detwiler's name to the mix, and he said there's more to come. "We've got great depth behind them on the major league level, major-league-ready. We've got a wave of pitchers coming behind them and even a further wave beyond that and I put the onus on [Asst. GM] Roy Clark and [Scouting Director] Kris Kline and Doug Harris our farm director to keep identifying, signing and developing good, young, power starting pitching." The Nats' 52-year-old GM and Executive Vice President expressed similar sentiments after trading Meyer for Span this past December.
"We continue to call upon our scouts and player development to add to that system each and every year," Rizzo told reporters, "and to give up an Alex Meyer for a Denard Span is always a difficult decision to make, but one that we felt fit our time frame, fit our skill set and was something that the front office and ownership was willing to do."
Asked about working for the Nationals' general manager this afternoon, one of the men Rizzo mentioned as being responsible for developing the talent they find through the draft and trades, Doug Harris, the Nationals' Director of Player Development, told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Mike Ferrin that it helps to have a former scout and scouting director at the helm. "He's got such a great eye for talent," Harris said, "His background, his history through the drafts with Arizona shows that and continued here. He's got a very keen eye for what plays in the major leagues and what doesn't [and] he has a vision of what he wants to bring in here to put us in a position to compete for a championship on a regular basis."
The trade for Gio Gonzalez left the Nationals lacking depth in terms of major-league-ready arms, and Harris said today it's sometimes tough to part with players you've developed. "We're very blessed with the players we have in here," he explained. "As a player development guy, Jim, you know very well it's very difficult to part with those young men. You get an attachment to them and they're all very talented kids. The onus is on us in the player development department to develop the next player. It's kind of like the Ravens said the other day, it's next man up, and the onus is on us to keep the ball rolling."
Anthony Rendon, the 2011 1st Round pick out of Rice who is the top-ranked Nationals' prospect on just about everyone's list, appears to be next in line among prospects who could make an impact at the major league level in the near-future, if he can stay healthy. Rendon started the 2012 campaign at High-A Potomac, but suffered an ankle injury two games into his first pro season. The right-handed hitting and throwing infielder returned later in the summer and worked his way up to Double-A, putting up a combined .233/.363/.489 line with eight doubles, four triples and six home runs in 43 games and 160 plate appearances. Doug Harris said today, the quick jump to Double-A was designed to test the talented third baseman.
"He's a very gifted young man," Harris said, "I think everybody knows that. For him it's just keeping him on the field and getting him repetitions to put him in a position to help our big league club. I think early on we challenged him with some steps that were aggressive but gave him a taste of what he was going to be seeing in the Fall League, but once he piled on some at bats in the Fall League he really settled in and we began to see the type of player he has a chance to be." That type of player put up a .338/.436/.494 line with 10 doubles, a triple, 15 walks and 14 Ks in 77 at bats over 22 games in the so-called "finishing school" for the game's top prospects.
• A.J. Cole: In discussing the three-team trade with the A's and Mariners this winter that brought right-hander A.J. Cole back into the fold a year after he was dealt to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal, Mike Rizzo said including Cole in last winter's transaction was the, "... toughest part for me of the package for Gio [Gonzalez]."
So the Nats went and got Cole back and even after he struggled in his first taste of High-A competition with the A's affiliate in the California League. The Nationals watched Cole closely and they were comfortable with what they saw and eager to bring him back to the organization. As for his issues in the A's system, Harris said, "There's a couple layers to that. First, our scouting department did a great job following him throughout the course of the year. Early on seeing him and some of the challenges he had in the [California] League and the differences between the success he had had the year before and where he was at that point. Also staying with him when he went back to the Midwest League and seeing the adjustments that he had made.
"And honestly, I think one of the biggest things for him is some things mechanically that he does when he's going well and he did those things at the end of the year and began to show the quality and consistency of his stuff and our guys did a great job in recognizing that and the dialogue that was involved in that was significant in the trade."
• Harris On Lucas Giolito: The Nationals drafted Lucas Giolito knowing full well that Tommy John surgery was a possibility for the 18-year-old who'd suffered a slight tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his senior year at Harvard-Westlake HS. Giolito made one start in the Nats' system before he injured his elbow and had the procedure, but the Nationals, who've helped Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Sammy Solis and more through the recovery process are apparently confident in their ability to get talented pitchers back to their old selves after surgery.
"Steve Gober, [who is] our medical coordinator, and Spin Williams, our pitching coordinator, do a great job individualizing the plans," Harris said, "You talk about Solis and Giolito, we've got a pretty good track record with Zimmermann and Strasburg as well as other guys within the system. Christian Garcia is a two-time Tommy John guy that has come back and had a nice run for us and put himself in position to compete for a job on that club. But we individualize it. And that's the important thing through that process, is [that] no guy [is] going to be exactly the same as they come back from that and they've done a great job tailoring each one of the rehab programs for the player that they're dealing with at the time."
Giolito himself reported on Twitter this afternoon that he'd taken a big step in the rehab process:
Even though it was thirty feet, feels so good to be throwing a baseball again!— Lucas Giolito (@LGio27) February 6, 2013
• Brian Goodwin: The Nats' 2011 1st Round pick and top outfield prospect started the year at Class-A Hagerstown, jumped to Double-A Harrisburg and finished the year in the Arizona Fall League. He's moving up quickly... how quickly?
"We challenged Brian last year," Doug Harris said, "taking the double-step from Low-A to Double-A. Part of the rationale behind that was he really had such a great feel for the strike zone and his approach was very simple. He had a compact short swing. Give him a chance to compete at that level. As a whole, Brian's got a chance to do a lot of things within the context of the game. Scouts talk about five tools and he will show parts of all five of those on any given day. He's a very good defender, he can throw, he can run, he's got some power and he's got a chance to be a top-of-the-lineup, leadoff-type guy.
"As far as the timeline. We're going to put him in a position to be successful when he gets to the big leagues. Having acquired Denard Span allows us a little more time to do that. He's got a chance to be a really exciting player when it's all said and done."
• Matt Purke: One last note on Matt Purke, 2011 3rd Round pick, who fell to the 96th overall pick after a shoulder issue caused his stock to drop. He's since had surgery and Harris said today that he thinks we'll finally see the real Matt Purke this season...
"Right now he's doing very well," Harris said, "He's healthy and strong and we're looking forward to getting him into camp and cranking him up. I think it's unfair right now to really judge Matt at this point in his career. I don't know that we've seen the real Matt Purke at this point and we feel like right now where he is physically, we will see that this year. At this point, he had very, very limited innings last year. He got acclimated to the pro game, so really it's just a matter of him getting a ton of repetitions and going from there."