It’s been over half a decade since the Washington Nationals have been widely considered to have one of the top farm systems in baseball.
As the years went by, a trend emerged, as ESPN’s Keith Law noted recently: The Nats hold onto a few gems at the top of their prospect rankings and make almost everyone else available in trades. The state of Washington’s farm system represents that line of thinking, as the team only has three prospects ranked among MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects — with two of them in the top 40.
However, despite not receiving a ton of national attention, a few young players in the Nationals’ system have the chance to make an impact at the MLB level over the next few years. Yet before they can do that, they each have to navigate their respective path to the majors.
Below is a list of MLB Pipeline’s top 10 Nats’ prospects with a look at how each of them can get to the big leagues. Scouting grades are based on the widely used 20-80 scale, as determined by the writers at MLB.com. Ages reflect how old the player will be April 1.
1. OF Victor Robles (age: 21 | grade: 65 | highest level reached: MLB)
No one in the Nationals’ farm system has a clearer path to MLB than Robles, who’s projected to be the team’s Opening Day center fielder in 2019.
Robles, a consensus top-five prospect prior to the elbow injury that sidelined him for a majority of last season, has shown flashes of his potential in multiple September stints in Washington (.843 OPS in 93 plate appearances). He’s a five-tool player who likely still needs to develop his power but is an excellent fielder and most heralded for his speed.
While he may eventually be a leadoff or No. 2 hitter as he develops, the Nats are unlikely to slot him at the top of the order to start the year. If he adjusts well to major-league pitching, however, that could very well change pretty quickly.
2. SS/2B Carter Kieboom (age: 21 | grade: 55 | highest level reached: AA)
Perhaps the most-talked-about prospect in the Nationals’ system over the past year, Kieboom has been held onto tightly as the team fielded trade offers for the middle infielder.
Although he’s spent most of his time in the minors as a shortstop, Washington views Kieboom as the team’s second baseman of the future. It signed Brian Dozier to a one-year deal this offseason as a stopgap to give Kieboom a chance to get his legs beneath him at second before moving up to the majors in 2020.
That being said, an injury to Dozier or Howie Kendrick (who’s rehabbing from a torn achilles tendon) could pave the way for Kieboom to get a shot this summer if he does well enough in Double-A. After an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League during which he hit .295 with an impressive 17/18 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 96 plate appearances, it certainly isn’t out of the question.
3. SS/3B Luis Garcia (age: 18 | grade: 55 | highest level reached: A+)
Garcia has raked at every level so far in his minor-league career, resulting in a meteoric rise that has him projected to start the year in Double-A less than two years removed from his professional debut.
A toolsy infielder who can play second, short or third, Garcia is the team’s likely insurance plan in case Anthony Rendon doesn’t agree to an extension past this season. If the team does re-sign Rendon, Garcia would still be in the team’s plans as an everyday player in the event that Kieboom doesn’t pan out.
Given the fact that Washington doesn’t have a first baseman signed beyond 2020, Garcia could also replace whichever of the Nationals’ infielders starts to decline defensively first, pushing that player across the diamond. If the team deems him expendable given their infield talent, he would then make for a decent centerpiece with which to form a trade package at the deadline.
4. SP Mason Denaburg (age: 19 | grade: 50 | highest level reached: high school)
Although he has yet to pitch at the professional level, Denaburg fit the Nationals’ mold of top-tier draft talent who slipped down big boards because of an issue unrelated to performance. As a result, Washington selected him 27th overall despite concerns about his health (biceps tendinitis) and he instantly became the team’s top pitching prospect.
The Nats have struggled to develop young pitchers since Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann each made the majors, failing, so far, to convert fellow first-round picks Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde into serviceable starters at the MLB level. The hope is for Denaburg to buck that trend, and there will be plenty of room in the team’s starting rotation if he does.
Strasburg can opt out of his contract after each of the next two seasons, while Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are only under team control through 2021. Denaburg won’t be the first of the pitchers on this list to make the majors, but if he pitches well enough the Nats would be thrilled to have a dependable starter signed to a rookie contract to balance out how much they’ll be paying the rest of the staff.
5. SP Wil Crowe (age: 24 | grade: 50 | highest level reached: AA)
Crowe turned some heads when he made seven starts at Low-A Auburn in 2017 and finished with a 2.61 ERA in 20.2 innings. He moved up to High-A Potomac and thrived there too, earning a 2.69 ERA in 15 starts before finally stumbling at Double-A Harrisburg (6.15 ERA in five starts) down the stretch.
The Nationals have a history of promoting players to the majors straight from Double-A, so if injuries strike their rotation and depth pieces like Erick Fedde, Henderson Alvarez and Austin Voth don’t provide the solution then Crowe could be the next man up.
Of course, Crowe must first make the necessary adjustments at Double-A. His projected ceiling is only a No. 4 starter, but the former second-round pick is worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
6. SP Seth Romero (age: 23 | grade: 50 | highest level reached: A)
The Romero saga, which started when he was dismissed from the University of Houston’s baseball team prior to the Nationals drafting him in the first round of the 2017 draft, reared its head once more when Washington suspended him during Spring Training for violating team rules.
Romero didn’t appear in a game until June and only ended up making seven appearances with uninspiring results. His season ended with a torn UCL and Tommy John surgery.
If he recovers from the injury and begins to live up to the hype that earned him a first-round draft grade, Romero could end up in the Nationals’ rotation in the future, but he’ll spend most of 2019 rehabbing.
7. SS/3B Yasel Antuna (age: 19 | grade: 50 | highest level reached: A)
Antuna, whose $3.9 million signing bonus is the most Washington has ever handed to an international amateur player, has already played three different infield positions since joining the team’s minor-league system.
After hitting .220 at Single-A Hagerstown last season, Antuna likely won’t be making a Juan Soto-esque rise to the majors in 2019. Considering he’s also behind Kieboom and Garcia on the organizational depth chart, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the Nats move him if they need to make a major acquisition at the trade deadline.
Antuna still has the highest ceiling of the three and could push the Nationals to trade Garcia instead if he gets off to a strong start, but the team doesn’t have room for all three on its MLB roster and it’s a good bet that at least one of them will be traded before making it to the majors.
8. SP Tim Cate (age: 21 | grade: 50 | highest level reached: A)
In his first season since being selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, Cate posted a 5.02 ERA between Low-A Auburn and Single-A Hagerstown. As of right now, he’s several years away from the majors.
Cate was projected to be picked late in the first round before a forearm injury allowed him to slide down to the Nationals in the second. The ceiling is enticing but the team will need to see a lot more out of the young lefty before he’ll be sniffing the majors.
The one thing in Cate’s favor is that he’s a bit more polished after spending three years at UConn. A strong performance in 2019 could get him up to Double-A by next year and put him on the doorstep of a promotion to the big leagues.
9. C Raudy Read (age: 25 | grade: 45 | highest level reached: MLB)
After Pedro Severino failed to take advantage of extended playing time last season, Read is likely the Nationals’ fourth option at catcher behind Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki and Spencer (the other) Kieboom. Read might have a slightly higher ceiling than Kieboom but was suspended for PEDs prior to last year’s campaign and likely lost some favor in the Nats’ front office.
When Read returned from the suspension, he bounced back and forth between Double-A and Triple-A before playing in the Dominican League over the winter. He’s projected to be a defense-first player similar to Kieboom — making the 17 home runs he hit at Double-A prior to the suspension likely an outlier.
Read could definitely see some playing time if either of the Nats’ starting catchers hits the shelf and Kieboom struggles as a backup. But in order for that to happen, Kieboom would have to see extended playing time and that’s not likely as long as the team’s starters play well.
10. OF Gage Canning (age: 21 | grade: 45 | highest level reached: A)
There might not be a worse place to be as a prospect than an outfielder in the Nationals’ farm system, but that’s exactly where Canning finds himself after splitting last season between Low-A Auburn and Single-A Hagerstown.
A former fifth-round pick, Canning is still several years away from the majors. That’s a good thing too, because Soto and Robles are locked up through 2024 and Adam Eaton is under team control for the next three years.
Canning is projected to be a fourth outfielder at the MLB level, and could forge himself a Michael Taylor-type role as a solid defender and plus speed. However, he still has a few years to go in his development and likely won’t be added to the 40-man roster for at least another two seasons.