ESPN.com's Keith Law put two Washington Nationals' farmhands on the list of potential impact prospects for 2016 he put together this week. One, not too surprisingly, was shortstop Trea Turner, who is in camp with the Nats' major leaguers, competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster. The second? Reynaldo Lopez, the Nationals' hard-throwing 22-year-old right-hander, who pitched at High-A Potomac in 2015, going (6-7) in 19 starts with a 4.09 ERA, a 2.95 FIP, 28 walks (2.55 BB/9) and 94 Ks (8.55 K/9) in 99 innings.
There is a difference of opinion among scouts about where Lopez will eventually end up, whether it's in the rotation or in a relief role, but Law seems to think the righty can fill a need in the Nationals' bullpen.
Law says that there's a "weak spot" in the back end of the 'pen and Lopez, "... might be their best option, considering he has a fastball that's already 95-99 in the rotation and impressive control."
Noting that he's not as highly-regarded as one of the Nationals' other top arms, Lucas Giolito, Law writes that Lopez, "... might get there faster because he profiles best in the bullpen."
Ranked no.5 on MLB Pipeline's list of the Nationals' Top 30 prospects when it was released earlier this month, their scouts wrote that after he was signed out of the Dominican Republic for $17,000 in 2012 and overcame arm issues early in his pro career, Lopez "emerged in a big way in 2014."
He pitched at Class-A Auburn and Low-A Hagerstown in 2014, going (3-2) in seven starts with the New York/Penn League's Doubledays, over which he had a 0.75 ERA, a 3.14 FIP, 15 walks (3.75 BB/9) and 31 Ks (7.75 K/9) in 36 innings and going (4-1) in nine starts for the Suns, putting up a 1.33 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 11 walks (2.09 BB/9) and 39 Ks (7.42 K/9) in 47 ⅓ innings.
Nationals' Assistant GM and VP of Player Personnel Doug Harris talked to MLB Network Radio last winter about what was behind Lopez's development in 2014:
"[Lopez] had an incredible second half last year. Very, very dominant. And that came with a really modest mechanical adjustment. His arm strength has grown incrementally year to year, probably a little bit quicker than his body has grown, so we've had to kind of slow that down a little bit, but once he got going and his body was able to handle the workload, we made a mechanical adjustment.
"He was kind of a lateral front side guy, where the velocity was more foul balls and fly balls, and Tim Redding and Spin Williams did a great job with him creating a little better front side where he worked top-to-bottom which created a better angle to the fastball.
"The velocity never changed, but now you have better angle, and rather than foul balls and fly balls we got ground balls and swings and misses.
"It allowed him to stay in the strike zone a little bit longer, modified the tilt to the breaking ball, where it went from a slurvy, curveball to more of an 11-to-5 with better depth and came with more swings and misses and it just allowed him to really take big steps forward."
Lopez made the jump to High-A Potomac in 2015 and was (6-7) in 19 starts for the P-Nats, posting a 4.09 ERA, a 2.95 FIP, 28 walks (2.55 BB/9) and 94 Ks (8.55 K/9) in 99 innings.
As MLB's scouts noted, Lopez was challenged in the Carolina League, "... but he finished on a high note, posting a 0.56 ERA and 21-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final three starts for Potomac."
"While some scouts view Lopez as a reliever in the long run," they write, "the right-hander's track record and overall capacity to make adjustments bodes well for his future as a starter."
Lopez landed at no.4 on the Baseball Prospectus' list of the Nationals' Top 10 prospects this winter, with their write-up on the right-hander projecting that, "Lopez’s ceiling is that of a no. 2 starting pitcher, but more realistically he’s a no. 3 starter with a nice fallback airing it out as a back-end relief ace."
Will Lopez start at Double-A this season? Could he be the next hard-throwing pitcher called upon to help out of the pen if the late-inning arms the Nationals have collected this winter struggle to bridge the gap to Papelbon in the ninth?