Watching your favorite major league baseball players conduct fundamental drills on a daily basis, listening to the sound of baseballs hitting gloves and bats, all while standing 10 feet away in 75 degree weather with almost daily sunshine is all but a guaranteed rite of spring training.
Another rite of spring training is watching future big leaguers perform while regular starters watch from the bench or attend the Daytona 500, as Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Tyler Clippard and Adam LaRoche did.
So far, through two games, spring training has not disappointed on tradition. The weather has been great, the balls are flying into gloves and off bats on fields, all throughout the Nationals spring home in Viera Florida and many of the starters have yet to play.
Only Denard Span, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have seen significant action while players like Werth, LaRoche and Zimmerman have yet to make a plate appearance.
One of the only benefits to losing as badly as the Nationals did when they arrived in D.C. is having the ability to draft higher and the Nats took full advantage by grabbing and signing players like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.
However, the Nationals also grabbed some other quality players that will make an impact on this roster as early as this season and for sure by 2014.
While you watch to see if Strasburg, Harper and company are rounding into form, getting ready for April---- you may also want to keep an eye on the up and comers in the Nats organization. Here are several Nats players to watch this spring, as they are likely to make significant contributions to the already stacked N.L. East Champions.
Anthony Rendon has already made an impact this spring. Rendon hit a two-run, opposite-field home run on Sunday providing the Nationals only runs during a 2-2 game that was called after 10-innings. The shot took starter Jordan Zimmermann off the hook as the Nats projected No.3 starter in the rotation gave up a run over three innings in his first spring training start.
Originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 27th round of the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft from Lamar HS (Houston, TX), Rendon did not sign and instead went to Rice University to play for the Owls. Eligible to be drafted once again in 2011, the Nationals nabbed him with the sixth overall pick in the first round of the MLB June Amateur Draft.
He is the highest rated Nationals prospect on the Baseball America prospect-ranking list at No.30. The Nationals possible third baseman of the future certainly knows what the expectations are and is no stranger to accolades.
While at Rice, Rendon won just about every major college baseball award including the 2010 Dick Howser Trophy, which is bestowed annually to the national college baseball player of the year. As a freshman at Rice, Rendon hit .388 with 20 home runs and 72 RBIs. However, at the end of the season, he broke his ankle and needed surgery.
Rendon recovered and returned to the lineup as a sophomore. The offensive results were even better -- .394 with 26 homers and 85 RBIs.
Rendon earned a place on the United States team that competed internationally. In a game against Korea, he once again injured the same right ankle. Even considering his injuries, scouts were considering Rendon as a potential first overall selection for the 2010 Draft.
Then, while a junior, Rendon sustained a strained right (throwing) shoulder muscle. He was forced into DH duties. Even with some of his power limited by the injury, Rendon still hit .327 with six home runs and 37 RBIs. He finished his collegiate career with a reputation as an impact hitter with a tremendous future and even had a day named in his honor when Houston mayor Annise Parker declared June 29, 2010 to be "Anthony Rendon Day in Houston”.
Because of injury once again, Rendon's professional career began on a sour note. After only six plate appearances as a professional, he suffered a fractured left ankle trying to score from second base.
For the third time, (two to the right, one to the left) Rendon would face ankle injury rehabilitation. Rendon did not give up and recovered to play last season, his first overall, at four classifications in the Nationals' system.
So far, Rendon has not disappointed at the plate. Despite batting just .233 with four teams in four leagues from the Gulf league to AA, he has 31 hits in 43 total minor league games with six home runs and 12 RBI’s.
Rendon was an injury concern (shoulder, ankle) for many scouts during his draft but many still felt he was the best player. Despite not being considered big for a corner infielder (6′, 195), Rendon showed why, even with injury concerns he is considered a five-tool guy. His opposite field home run Sunday was no fluke shot.
His hands are fast and he has above average wrist control to match great plate discipline. Defensively, scouts like his skills at either 3B or 2B. Rendon is a future .300- 25-100 guy if he stays healthy. So far this spring, Rendon has been a joy to watch workout and it may be difficult to keep him out of D.C all season in 2013, especially if injuries and ehemmm-----strikeouts, play a major factor in the performance of a certain second baseman.
If there is one position the Nationals do not want for, especially after trading for Denard Span, it is centerfield. What does it say for the team’s future if the longest tenured player at that position in the organization is just 22?
Eury Perez has been around a long time in the Washington Nationals organization. He was signed back in 2007 and has been around for so long in fact, that during the 2012 winter Washington had to put him on the 40-man roster, or lose him.
Perez has been at the top of the Nationals’ top prospect list for several seasons now, and it is hard to believe that when he was called up last September, only Bryce Harper was younger than Perez, who will turn 23 on May 30.
In fact, Perez has been a pro for five years longer, but he is four months older than Brian Goodwin, the $3 million dollar 2011 draft pick regarded as the Nationals’ best outfield centerfield prospect.
Perez’s road to the majors has been an up and down one. He did not set the world on fire when he finally made it last September. He didn’t get a ton of time and had just five plate appearances earning one hit. He did steal three bases. But Perez can hit. In all of his time down on the farm, Perez has hit .306 with more stolen bases (217) than RBI’s (207). He hit .314 in 127 games with a .344 on-base percentage and 51 stolen bases, playing primarily for Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse last season.
The speed of Perez and athleticism give him chance to become a major league player and it is likely that he will once again, at some time this season see time on the Nats roster in D.C. Keep your eyes on him this spring, he likely to see a lot of action.
While I was standing behind this player on Friday, I was amazed at the resemblance between he and California Angels power hitting outfielder Josh Hamilton in size and mannerisms. Now, Nationals’ fans are hoping the organizations 2012 minor league player of the year, Matt Skole can also emulate Hamilton’s numbers with the bat as well.
Skole’s has been a very pleasant surprise this spring with an extremely dedicated work ethic in his first big league camp. Skole, who batted .291 with 27 home runs, 104 RBIs and a 438 on-base percentage for Class A affiliates Hagerstown and Potomac, has also impressed the front office by improving his footwork at third base.
It helped that he was in great shape, and he arrived at Spring Training this year ready to work extra on the deficiencies of his game.
Speaking to the Bill Ladson, assistant general manager Bob Boone said, “He has a great eye. He really knows where the ball is," "His improvement from the year before to last year, defensively, he really improved at third base. In the Arizona Fall League, he played first base and he likes it. He is going to be a decent defender. I think he is really going to hit. He is a hitter first and the power comes second."
Speaking of first base, on Friday, Skole fielded 75 extra balls at the position------this as Bryce Harper was leaving the facility in his four door pearl colored Mercedes S Class. Skole’s fielding was always seen as the question mark in his game and was once called “horrible” by one scout.
However, Skole is doing everything to avoid the label that one scout tagged him with in saying that “Skole would go as far as his bat takes him”. While in the end that statement is true for many in the game, Skole wants to be more than a fifth round, pick with big bat potential.
He told me that his goal this season is to force Washington into a win-win situation by having him D.C. at some point this season. While speaking to Nats beat writer for MLB.com, William Ladson, on his preference of playing first or third, Skole said, to him, it does not matter.
Again, speaking to Mr. Ladson-- Skole said, "We have great corner guys in the big league level with Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman. I'm just happy to be here. I'm learning from those guys. I see how they go about their business. I'm just trying to learn something new every day."
High Single-A Potomac Nationals manager Brian Daubach told Bryan Kerr of MASN.com recently that Skole’s fielding will help the big leaguers see him as versatile. "That versatility doesn't hurt," Daubach said. "When you are limited to one position, it is harder to get to the big leagues. I thought he played third really well for us and I heard he did a good job at first in the fall league. That can only help. I think the other thing that really helps him is his plate discipline. He takes a lot of walks. He lays off a lot of pitches. I know his strikeout out total is a little high. That will change with his improved plate discipline."
"He can hit, there is no doubt," Daubach said. "I think he can play in the infield, too. He put in a lot of work this year. You could see improvement daily. When he stays in the middle of the field and trusts his swing, you really see the results and that is when he is a tough out."
Skole will likely be teammates this year with outfielder Brian Goodwin and third baseman Anthony Rendon at Double-A Harrisburg. While he is in Major League camp, Skole wants to show manager Davey Johnson that he is all business on the field.
"Obviously, I want to show them I'm here for the team," Skole said. "I want to work hard. I want to go out there every day and bust my butt. I want to show them that I'm honored to have the privilege to be in big league Spring Training, and we'll go from there."
The Nationals had to go outside of the organization last season when Wilson Ramos tore his ACL for a catcher to handle the duties as Washington hit the prime of the pennant race. Not all prospects are five tool guys or destined to be great major league players and that is the current definition of Nats catching prospect Sandy Leon.
Leon will turn 24 on March 13, which is still considered young for a catching prospect in baseball. Leon was signed by the Nats as an amateur free agent in 2007, and is considered a defensive specialist who has an absolute cannon for an arm.
Two seasons ago in Potomac, he caught 53 percent of runners attempting to steal and has nabbed 46 percent for his career. While he wasn’t thrilled with the circumstances and neither was Lou Gehrig when he came in for an injured Wally Pipp, Leon was happy to get his chance at handling a major league pitching staff when Wilson Ramos went down with the injury.
He started nine games behind the plate for the Nats and appeared in 13 total. He batted a respectable .267 with two RBI’s but his inexperience showed, as he struck out 11 times in just 36 plate appearances. His lack of time behind the plate at the Major League level showed as well as Leon caught just one base stealer in six attempts (14%) against.
Leon was hitless on Sunday for the Nats but he is building on a season that saw him bat .322 in A, AA and Triple A ball. His OPS was .876, up from .675 the year before. Leon, like all of the Nats prospects knows that cracking this roster will not be easy. Hard work and production are necessary if any of these players are to see time this season with the big club.
When you look at the Nationals organization as a whole, they do not appear to be as deep as they were in years past. Last offseason, the Nats traded top pitching prospects Tom Milone, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, as well as catching prospect Derek Norris to the Oakland A's last winter for left-hander Gio Gonzalez and RHP Robert Gilliam. At the time, Washington was ranked 14th overall on Minor League Ball's John Sickels' 2012 Baseball Farm System Rankings.
The Nationals reacquired 2010 4th Round pick A.J. Cole in a three-team trade that sent Michael Morse to the Seattle Mariners and C John Jaso to the Oakland A's. Washington needed to deal Morse after re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche but the move did little to save the Nats from dropping to 25th on Sickels list in 2013.
According to Sickel, “Graduations and trades have quickly weakened the talent down on the farm over the last year, but Mike Rizzo and company should be able to recharge quickly and the major league roster is young and strong. Strengths: Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin have star potential. Considerable raw material for a pitching staff. Weaknesses: They are banking a lot on injured pitchers recovering well. Many prospects are too old for their levels."
Keep in mind Nats fans that what is on the field is likely to be staying for a while into the foreseeable future. At 26.7 years of age, Washington is the seventh youngest team in all of baseball and holds many of the options on most of the contracts.
With prospects like Anthony Rendon, Eury Perez, Matt Skole, Sandy Leon and even prospects we did not evaluate, like Brian Goodwin and Pitchers Lucas Giolito and Nathan Karns, the Nationals will be contenders well into the back half of the 20-teens.
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