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Washington Nationals’ prospect update: Majoring in the Minors

Several top prospects with the Nationals got valuable experience in Spring Training games …

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON – The minor league season will begin in early May, and that’s good news for several top Nationals’ prospects who missed out in 2020 when the minors were called off due to the pandemic.

But even before games begin in a few weeks, infielders Drew Mendoza and Jackson Cluff, catcher Israel Pineda, and pitchers Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli are building off March exposure as they got playing time with the major league club in Spring Training.

And while they didn’t get to face other teams in 2020, all five of the players were able to either be part of the alternate site in Fredericksburg with the 60-player pool or take part in Instructional League in West Palm Beach last fall – or both.

While Nationals fans know top picks Rutledge and Cavalli well, this spring provided the first look at Mendoza, Cluff, and Pineda for many.

“All three players were at the alternate site last year and at Instructional League,” Mark Scialabba, Assistant General Manager, Player Development, told Federal Baseball last week from Florida.

Mendoza, 23 and a product of Florida State, was taken in the third round by Washington in 2019. He also ended the 2019 season with Hagerstown.

“With Drew, he has really taken his approach to the next level with where he needs to be. He has an advanced approach and is really seeing the ball well,” Scialabba said. “We wanted to tap into his lower half … he is able to get to different parts of the hitting zone with a quicker stroke but is also able to drive the baseball.”

“He is really learning who he is as a hitter. He is able to use his lower half. He just needs game reps. We wanted to get him over to the first base side (on defense). He has to continue to work on his footwork around the bag; he will be fine. He is also someone who can move over to third and play there as needed,” Scialabba added.

“It was great to hear fans in the game and cheering and being locked in on every pitch. It was really cool to have that atmosphere again; it has been a long time,” Mendoza told Federal Baseball in March about Spring Training.

Cluff, 24, was drafted in the sixth round out of BYU by the Nationals in 2019. The infielder played for Single-A Hagerstown that year. His father also played at BYU and spent a year in the minors.

“He had a really good camp as well. He can impact the game in a number of ways,” Scialabba said. “He can get a bunt down, steal a base, make a play (at short) and play multiple spots up the middle. He can do a little bit of everything. His swing is starting to evolve; he hit his first opposite-field homer this camp. He is starting to show he can be an everyday player down the road.”

Pineda hit a homer to left field in late March in a spring game for the Nationals. Scialabba said he also smashed one of the longest homers of the spring on a backfield last month.

“He had a great camp. He just turned 21 on April 3,” Scialabba said last week. “He has all of the ingredients you want in a frontline catcher. He has bat speed and strength to hit the ball out. He hit a homer of 464 feet in a backfield game and a hit 114 miles per hour off the bat. Defensively, he brings energy; he is a solid receiver now. He does a good job of blocking the baseball.”

Rutledge, 22, was drafted in the first round in 2019 out of a junior college in Texas and advanced to Hagerstown last that year, pitching in three games for the Suns.

Cavalli, 22, a University of Oklahoma product, was the first pick of the Nationals last year.

“They are continuing their progression. Both of them have off-the-chart stuff,” Scialabba said of the two pitchers.

“They have to learn how to harness that. We are very high on both of them.

“Cavalli comes in every day with a strong work ethic and a lot of energy. Jackson is really starting to learn his strengths and focus on his changeup and make sure he has a weapon and is learning to pitch with his soft stuff as well.”

Cavalli and Rutledge have learned from veteran pitchers such as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin.

“Both of them are sponges in that camp watching Strasburg and Scherzer and Corbin go about their business and realize how important it is to be a professional each and how to utilize your stuff,” Scialabba said.

The minor league season will begin early next month at several levels. Fredericksburg, for instance, begins its season May 4 at Lynchburg in the newly formed Low-A East League.