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Introducing: Washington Nationals, the Next Generation

Greetings! Most of you know me already - I’ve been a member of Federal Baseball since 2009, and thoroughly enjoy learning about baseball and experiencing the Nationals with my fellow fans at FB. One of the things that really helped me, as a fan, was Souldrummer’s postings about the Nationals’ minor league players. The fact that the Nationals had just drafted some phenom pitcher from San Diego State might have helped as well – I joined FB the same week that Strasburg signed his rookie contract. Since that time I’ve become a lot more interested in how players develop into major leaguers. So when Patrick contacted Jeff550 and me about providing some minor league coverage I was definitely interested. So we present to you: WN:TNG, the first of a series of posts providing you with a window into a part of the organization that takes place beyond South Capitol Street. Patrick generally mentions the day-to-day game results as part of the daily Wire Taps. We will be looking to go beyond that. It's my hope that, like Souldrummer did for me, Jeff and I can open a door to another level of baseball appreciation for some of you.

One disclaimer right up front: we are not scouts. I’ve been to minor league games a number of times (I highly recommend it), but I don’t pretend to any special expertise. I follow the game as a fan and as someone who plays in recreational leagues, but no one is going to pay me for my ability to judge talent. But we can and will point you to a variety of sources that do provide outside opinions on the Nationals Farm system. These can vary from sites with a broad focus on all minor league players and prospects, such as SBNation's John Sickels or Keith Law at ESPN, to sites focused on the Nationals, such as Luke Erickson at Nationals Prospects or Byron Kerr’s work at MASN. What we will try to do here is pull together information from various sources and distill it in a way that we hope you find interesting and informative. Here’s hoping you learn something – and find new favorite players to root for along the way.

Just because we’re not scouts, that’s not to say that we won’t have our favorites. Just last year I jumped onto the Matt Antonelli fanship. That came from my going to the Syracuse Chief’s stats on to keep track of Stephen Lombardozzi and Brian Bixler. I kept noticing that some guy on the team was out-hitting everyone else on the team. Who was this guy Matt Antonelli? He’s got a great backstory, and a blog. Now he’s on the 40 man roster of a ML team – OK, the Baltimore Orioles – and I still root for him. We’ll have favorites, and you can feel free to pick your own. It’s part of being a fan!

So, where will the next generation come from? I thought we’d start with the basics, the minor league system. The Washington Nationals have seven minor league teams:

Syracuse Chiefs (International League, AAA)

Harrisburg Senators (Eastern League, AA)

Potomac Nationals (Carolina League, High A)

Hagerstown Suns (South Atlantic League, A)

Auburn Doubledays (New York-Penn League, Low A/Short Season)

DSL Nationals (Dominican Summer League – Rookie)

GCL Nationals (Gulf Coast League – Rookie)

The general concept is easy to understand. Young baseball players enter the organization through the MLB draft in April or are signed as free agents.They are sorted into the various leagues from AAA down through the Rookie Leagues and advanced to higher leagues as their skills progress. Some concepts, however are harder. One is that the records of the teams are not indicative of the strength of a minor league. The Yankees in the 1980's had minor league teams with great records, because George Steinbrenner liked to see WINZ! The problem was that to do it he stocked the teams with older veteran players and former major leaguers. The Yankee farm teams won a lot of minor league championships in the 1980's. The Yankees, despite Steinbrenner throwing money around like, well, Steinbrenner - did not. And this was largely because their farm system was ineffective. The mission of a minor league system is not to win baseball games - it is to develop talent for the major league team. Sometimes that results in wins, sometimes it doesn't. Never forget the primary purpose of the minor league system.

I'll close today's entry with a couple of concepts that you will often see when reading about minor league teams and systems: (1) age appropriate players; and (2) prospects vs. organizational depth.

Age Appropriate Players. One way of checking whether a minor league system is working properly is to check the age of the players at the various levels. Rookie league players tend to be international free agents or players just out of high school. The average age is around 19. Low A ball involves some advance high school players, or mid round draft picks. Most players drafted out of college are started at A (Hagerstown) or High A (Potomac) level. AA ball is generally regarded as the true launching point for prospects into the major leagues; the average age at this level is about 23. AAA ball is a mixture of players getting a last bit of seasoning before the majors (Harper) and as the taxi squad for the major league team in case of injuries (Lannan). Occasionally you will see a player putting up tremendous stats at a lower level but no one seems to notice. When that happens, check the player's age; often the stats are essentially the result of a man playing among boys.That older player is often "organizational depth."

"Prospects" vs. "Organizational Depth." No system is composed completely of true prospects, i.e., players that the team has a realistic expectation of playing in the major leagues someday. These players, the "OD," are the foot soldiers, the grunts of the minor league system. The prospects are the players that show up on prospect lists and watch lists. The categories are not absolute; a prospect that fails to advance in an age appropriate manner will find himself demoted to organizational depth. This pretty much happened to Corey Brown over the past couple of years. He went from being a top prospect for the A's at the age of 24 in AA to being an afterthought by midsummer last year as a 26yo struggling in AAA. But he also shows that it plays in reverse a bit, too, as he closed the season strong and earned a late season callup, followed by a solid spring and a good start in AAA. Brown is not a top prospect - but he's back on the radar screen. Another example is Rafael Martin, sometimes called "Beer League" because he was playing in an independent league in Mexico when the Nationals signed him at the age of 26. Although old for a minor leaguer, he put himself on the radar with a very strong season at AA last year. This is a put up or shut up season for Martin, as he will be tested in AAA to see whether he is a prospect or was merely a man among boys.

Thanks for reading this far, and continue checking Federal Baseball for future entries of WN:TNG!