This was supposed to be the season that Fredericksburg landed its own Single-A minor-league team with young players working their way up the ladder.
Instead, the city of about 30,000 people got something else – a bevy of baseball players with Major League resumes. But the good folks of Fredericksburg, about 55 miles south of Nationals Park, won’t be able to get a first-hand look at these players due to the pandemic.
The Nationals are using Fredericksburg as their alternate site for workouts for members of the 60-player pool who are not on the game-day or taxi squad roster for Washington. After being in Woodbridge since 2005, the Nationals’ Carolina League affiliate was supposed to play in the new stadium in Fredericksburg in 2020.
Now, players with Major League time such as pitchers Aaron Barrett and James Bourque, infielder Jake Noll and outfielder Andrew Stevenson are staying ready in case they are needed at Navy Yard.
“I think they are motivated because they want to get to the big leagues,” Mark Scialabba, who was promoted to assistant general manager in December, told Federal Baseball on Monday about some of the more veteran players in camp.
Also in Fredericksburg have been top prospects such as pitchers Tim Cate, Jackson Rutledge, Seth Romero, and infielders Luis Garcia and Yasel Antuna. Romero and Garcia joined veteran reliever Will Harris, outfielder Stevenson, and catcher Raudy Read on the taxi squad Monday in New York.
“Our goal is to prepare each player to (potentially) help us in D.C. It is a great opportunity to continue their development and work on things,” Scialabba said.
Most afternoons, according to Scialabba, there is an intrasquad game that sometimes allows position players to get anywhere from six to 12 at-bats, depending on the day.
Cate, a second-round pick out of the University of Connecticut in 2018, was 11-9 with an ERA of 3.07 in 26 starts last year split between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac.
“He threw the ball well today,” Scialabba said of Cate’s four-inning outing Monday. “His curve has been a go-to weapon.”
A native of Texas, Rutledge was a first-round pick in 2019 and was 2-0, 3.13 in 10 starts at three levels last season as he advanced to Single-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League.
“He worked extremely hard during the shutdown,” Scialabba said. “He has a great work ethic. He was prepared from one day” for the alternate site.
Romero, a first-round pick in 2017 out of Houston, has dealt with off-field and arm issues since being drafted. He last played in the minors with Hagerstown in 2018, posting an ERA of 3.91 in seven outings.
Garcia, who can play second and short, reached Double-A Harrisburg last year and hit .257 in 129 games. Antuna, 20 and a shortstop, began his pro career in 2017 and played in three games last season in the Gulf Coast League.
“The only good thing about this corona-Spring Training and the alternate facility is we do get to see these young players play an hour away from us. So, the amount I’ve seen the players, the Cates, the Rutledges, the [Cade] Cavellis, the Romeros of our system, the more I like them,” Washington general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters. “We are very, very happy about the progress that the Antunas and the Garcias have made. It’s just a talented bunch of young players down there.”
“I see a system that is full of guys that are going to impact our big league club in the very near future and guys that can really help a championship-caliber club,” Rizzo added. “Hats off to those player development guys down there and the scouts that drafted these players, because there are some impact guys down there and I know what the periodicals say about our minor league system, this system is full and it’s flourishing and with high-end, high-impact caliber players in there and you’re going to soon see those guys migrating up here to D.C.”
In the Baseball America midseason rankings, Washington third baseman Carter Kieboom was the No. 1 prospect in the system.
He was followed by Garcia, Rutledge, Cavelli, right-handers Cole Henry, and Wil Crowe and lefty Cate. Antuna was ranked No. 12 by Baseball America last month while Crowe made 16 starts at Double-A Harrisburg and 10 with Triple-A Fresno last year.
“He is in a good place right now,” Scialabba said of Crowe. “He is improving his fastball command. His change has been his best secondary pitch.”
Among the instructors on hand is James Madison University product Jeff Garber, who has worked 13 years in the system with infielders at every level. For the past few seasons, he has also been the co-field director in the minors with Tommy Shields, a Fairfax native who played in the majors with the Cubs and Orioles. Shields played at Prince William in Woodbridge and Double-A Harrisburg in the Eastern League in the 1980s when both were part of the Pittsburgh system.
Other instructors on hand include Shields and members of the Triple-A coach staff, including Randy Knorr, hitting coach Brian Daubach and Michael Tejera, who would have been the pitching coach had their been a minor-league season.
Also in Fredericksburg: Brad Holman, the Triple-A pitching coach last year who became the minor league coordinator to take the job held by Paul Menhart; and Gary Thurman, an outfield/baserunning coordinator in player development.
“Everyone is working hard here and staying ready for any opportunity to help the big league club,” Garber wrote in a text to Federal Baseball.
“The limited number of players (about 25) we have here produces some challenges. We are making the most of it,” Scialabba said.
That group in Fredericksburg aided the taxi squad for the Nationals this week in New York for the Mets series.
“I want them to get used to just being around us. But also too, Garcia can play short, he can play second, and he can even play third base if needed if something happens. So it’s good,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Romero is just another left-handed arm. He’s been throwing the ball well in Fredericksburg, so I wanted to put eyes on him and get him up here, but if somebody goes down, he’s another guy who we feel like can help us in the bullpen or even spot start.”