The Arizona Fall League is known as the “finishing school” for the game’s top prospects. Over the course of the season, we will give readers a chance to get to know the players representing the Nationals as members of the Mesa Solar Sox.
Next up: right-hander Neil Holland.
Holland appeared in a career-high 46 games between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse in 2014, going 7-4 with a 3.40 ERA (29 ER/76.2 IP), including 63 strikeouts. He earned Eastern League All-Star honors for his efforts out of the Harrisburg bullpen in 2014.
Holland features a sidearm delivery that he started using during his junior year at the University of Louisville. He has appeared in eight games for the Mesa Solar Sox during this year’s Arizona Fall League season.
We recently spoke with the 2010 11th round pick about his season and experience in Arizona.
Can you describe your experience so far in Arizona?
My experience in the Arizona Fall League has been amazing. I’ve enjoyed everything about it. The facilities, fields, the cities. Everything. It’s been a great experience.
How does it feel to put on the Nationals uniform every night?
I feel incredibly honored to put on the Nationals jersey out here. It just makes me realize even more that I’m close to my dream, and with a really good organization.
What have you/are you going to use the AFL to work on? What are your goals?
There are a lot of good hitters are out here with good approaches at such a young age. One big thing, being a sidearmer, is getting ground balls. I’ve learned to throw down in the zone to create ground balls. I’ve also worked on a new changeup, which is coming along pretty well, as well as a lower arm slot on my slider. These are all good, positive things to work on in the offseason.
How have you been adjusting to the “pace of play” rules that are being implemented in the AFL?
I feel like it took everyone a few games to feel comfortable with the new rules implemented, but I seem to be getting used to it. It doesn’t bother me too much, anyways, because I work fast. But there are still some things about the rule I have a hard time getting on board with.
What has it been like, getting to know your Mesa teammates/the other top prospects in the game?
I didn’t know exactly what to expect meeting all my new teammates and having to get to know each other so quick but it’s been surprisingly great! All the guys have been awesome, especially the bullpen guys.
What have you done on your off days?
I’ve gone golfing a few times on my off days and watched a lot of football, which is a new concept for us ballplayers, always having Sundays off each week. I enjoy playing, but definitely enjoy the off days just to relax.
I starting throwing side arm my junior year of college. I wasn’t having success at the University of Louisville my first two years throwing over the top and was getting ready to transfer.
Right before I was getting ready to transfer, my throwing partner (also one of our captains) suggested that I go side-armed because I would sometimes throw him some side-armed pitches that were really good and moved a lot. He told my pitching coach that I should try a bullpen that way, and it ended up working out better than we all imagined. I became the closer basically my whole junior year, and the rest is history.
There are two coaches on the Mesa staff with significant Big League experience (Ron Villone and Matt Wise). What, if anything, have you learned working with them for a few weeks?
Both are amazing coaches who have taught me a lot since I’ve been out here. They are both laid back and approachable, with a lot of knowledge, and you can pick their brain at any time. I’ve had a lot of good talks with both Wise and Villone after a bad outing and they helped me out a lot. They’re great coaches who know the game and also know a lot about the mental side of baseball.
The AFL is generally known as a “hitter’s league.” Have you seen that and has your approach changed based on the quality of hitters this league produces?
My approach hasn’t really changed since I’ve been out here, despite the good hitters I’ve been facing. I’ve always been known for being a ground ball thrower so I’ve been doing that, as well as working on my changeup. I go at the guys just like I went at the hitters during the season in Double-A and Triple-A — just trying to keep the ball low and work fast.
Is there an added level of comfort for you, and the other pitchers, having Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino behind the plate, fellow Nats catchers?
Absolutely, the Nationals pitchers are pretty spoiled having our own catchers here in the Fall League, and I’ve gotten on the same page with them very quickly. I also feel very comfortable throwing to them because they always know what I want to throw. Both Kieboom and Severino have been great with that.
You, Matt Grace and Derek Self have spent some time together in the bullpen over the years. Do you have any stories that you can share about those guys?
I’ve known both Derek and Matt for a while through my baseball career. I played with Derek two years in college too, so we know each other very well and have had a lot of good times together. Derek and I know how to push each other’s buttons, so we do make fun of each other a lot, but it’s all in good fun.
I’ve known Matt all five years I’ve played and we’ve gotten moved up together each year. He’s one of my really good friends so it was pretty cool that he and I got invited out here, too. We’ve roomed with each other off-and-on each year, and we’re also living with each other out here. So, whether it’s going out to eat, golfing, or going to the field, we’ve basically done it for five years straight now. I’ll be excited to finally get away from that guy when the offseason hits!
by Kyle Brostowitz
On Wednesday, three of the Washington Nationals’ minor league affiliates will kick off the 2014 postseason. Here’s a brief preview of each series:
Syracuse Chiefs (81-62), Northern Division Champion
Pawtucket Red Sox (79-65), Wild Card
Season Series: 8-8
Series Scoring: 66-56 (Syracuse)
Game Three starter, RHP Mitch Lively, stymied the Red Sox late in the season, going 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA (4 ER/11.0 IP) with 17 strikeouts and just four walks in his final two starts of 2014. In his final outing, on Aug. 30, Lively struck out a career-high 11 batters to propel the Chiefs to the division-clinching 6-2 victory over the Red Sox.
Former Nationals outfielder Corey Brown will face off against his former teammates in this best-of-five series. Brown went 10-for-33 (.303) with two doubles, four homers, six RBI, three walks and 5 runs scored in nine games against Syracuse in 2014. Brown played 357 games for the Chiefs from 2011-2013.
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 3 at Pawtucket, 7:05pm: RHP Taylor Hill vs. LHP Edwin Escobar
Game 2: Thursday, Sept. 4 at Pawtucket, 7:05pm: RHP Scott McGregor vs. RHP Matt Barnes
Game 3: Friday, Sept. 5 at Syracuse, 7:00pm: RHP Mitch Lively vs. LHP Henry Owens
Game 4: Saturday, Sept. 6 at Syracuse, 7:00pm: LHP Aaron Laffey vs. TBD **If necessary**
Game 5: Sunday, Sept. 7 at Syracuse, 1:00pm: RHP Paolo Espino vs. TBD **If necessary**
Potomac Nationals (78-58), Northern Division Champion
Lynchburg Hillcats (68-71), Wild Card
Season Series: 12-7 (Potomac)
Series Scoring: 96-90 (Potomac)
Potomac enters the postseason having won 14 of its last 19 games to finish out the season. Moreover, the Nationals have won four straight against Lynchburg, including a three-game sweep of the Hillcats, Aug. 19-20.
P-Nats second baseman Tony Renda claimed the Carolina League batting title, hitting .307 with 21 doubles, four triples, 47 RBI, 19 stolen bases and 75 runs scored. In 13 games against Lynchburg, Renda went 16-for-49 (.327) with a double, two RBI, three stole bases, four walks and 12 runs scored.
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 3 at Potomac: LHP Hector Silvestre vs. TBD
Game 2: Thursday, Sept. 4 at Potomac: RHP Brian Rauh vs. TBD
Game 3: Friday, Sept. 5 at Potomac: RHP Ian Dickson vs. TBD
South Atlantic League
Hagerstown Suns (87-53), Second Half Northern Division Champion
Greensboro Grasshoppers (87-53), First Half Northern Division Champion
Season Series: 6-5 (Hagerstown)
Series Scoring: 69-66 (Hagerstown)
RHP Reynaldo Lopez enters the postseason having allowed just one earned run in his last 39.2 South Atlantic League innings pitched, going 4-1 with a 0.23 ERA, with opponents batting just .115 against him. In his lone start against Greensboro on Aug. 19, Lopez fired 6.0 scoreless innings, allowing two hits while walking one and striking out four.
South Atlantic League MVP, INF Wilmer Difo, hit .460 (23-for-50) with a double, three triples, two homers, 10 RBI, two walks, three stolen bases and 13 runs scored in 11 games against Greensboro in 2014.
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 3 at Hagerstown: RHP Wander Suero vs. Domingo German
Game 2: Friday, Sept. 5 at Greensboro: RHP Reynaldo Lopez vs. LHP Chris Sadberry
Game 3 Saturday, Sept. 6 at Greensboro: RHP Nick Pivetta vs. RHP Kyle Fischer
Wilmer Difo named South Atlantic League MVP; Lucas Giolito named Most Outstanding Pitcher & Top Prospect
by Amanda Comak
Two more Washington Nationals prospects earned end-of-year accolades on Thursday with the South Atlantic League announcing Single-A Hagerstown infielder Wilmer Difo as the league’s Most Valuable Player and right-hander Lucas Giolito the league’s Most Outstanding Pitcher and Most Outstanding Major League Prospect. Additionally, Suns center fielder Rafael Bautista was named to the SAL post-season All-Star team and Single-A Potomac manager Tripp Keister was named the Carolina League Manager of the Year.
Difo, a mid-season SAL Northern Division All-Star and post-season All-Star second baseman, currently leads or is tied for the league lead in hits (174) and total bases (257). Hitting .321 this season, good for sixth in the league among qualifiers, Difo has worked to a .366 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage for the Suns.
The 22-year-old native of the Dominican Republic is among the SAL leaders in RBI (88, third), stolen bases (49, second), runs scored (90, tied for second), extra-base hits (50, fourth) and most plate appearances per strikeout (9.55, fifth).
Giolito, ranked by Baseball America as the No. 11 prospect in all of baseball at mid-season, went 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA for the Suns in 20 games this season. Over 98.0 innings he allowed 28 runs (24 earned) on 70 hits, including seven homers. Giolito, the Nationals’ first-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, walked 28 and struck out 110.
The 20 year old was named the SAL Pitcher of the Week on two occasions this season and represented the Nationals at the Sirius/XM All-Star Futures Game, along with outfielder Michael A. Taylor, in Minneapolis in July.
Bautista, like Difo, was named to the mid-season Northern Division All-Star team as well. The 21-year-old currently leads the league in stolen bases (66), and is tied with Difo for second in runs scored. Bautista is hitting .283 this year with a .337 on-base percentage and .373 slugging percentage. His 66 stolen bases are a Suns single-season record since the team has been a member of the South Atlantic League.
Keister managed Potomac to the first- and second-half Northern Division titles, clinching the second-half crown on Wednesday night. With a 75-55 record this season, Potomac will host Game 1 of the Northern Division Championship Series on Sept. 3 at Pfitzner Stadium.
by Kyle Brostowitz
The Arizona Fall League announced its rosters for the 2014 season on Tuesday and seven Washington Nationals farmhands, along with one manager and one trainer, will represent the organization as members of the Mesa Solar Sox during the 2014 season. The AFL, known as the “finishing school” for the game’s top prospects, will begin its season, Tuesday, Oct. 7.
Grace, 25, began the year at Double-A Harrisburg before getting promoted to Triple-A Syracuse in mid-June. In 47 combined appearances out of the bullpen, Grace went 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA (10 ER/74.0 IP) while striking out 60 batters and holding opponents to a .211 batting average. He experienced a remarkable run in which he allowed just one earned run over 39.1 IP (0.23 ERA), spanning 24 appearances for the Senators and the Chiefs. A ground-ball machine, Grace posted a ground-ball rate of 69 percent this season. For context, the Major League average is usually around 44-45 percent.
“He’s had a terrific year at two levels,” said Nationals Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Development Doug Harris. “The opportunity to go to the Arizona Fall League for him is a chance to work on and develop the breaking ball.”
Neil Holland – RHP – 2010 First-Year Player Draft (11th round, Louisville)
Holland, an Eastern League mid-season All-Star, went a combined 7-4 with a 3.27 ERA (26 ER/71.2 IP) in 44 games/one start between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. He was promoted from Harrisburg to Syracuse on July 7 and returned to Harrisburg 10 days later. Over his last nine appearances, the 26 year old has pitched to a 0.59 ERA (one ER/15.1 IP) while allowing 10 hits and striking out 15 batters along the way.
“Neil got a taste of Triple-A this year and got a chance to play at two different levels,” Harris said. “He’s a sidearm guy and we’re working with him on repeating his delivery, and repeating all three pitches from the same slot. The Arizona Fall League is a great venue for him to do that, against better hitters.”
Felipe Rivero – LHP – Acquired from Tampa Bay along with C Jose Lobaton and OF Drew Vettleson in exchange for RHP Nathan Karns.
Rivero was limited during the 2014 regular season due to injury, but returned to the mound in late July. In his last two starts for Double-A Harrisburg, the hard-throwing lefty has tossed 11.0 scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and striking out 11. Rivero, 23, was originally singed by the Rays out of San Felipe, Venezuela, on July 8, 2008.
“We’re just trying to continue to build his innings,” Harris said of Rivero’s AFL assignment. “Continue to build his volume. Since he’s come back he’s pitched arguably as well as we’ve seen him, and our hope is just to continue that process.”
Derek Self – RHP – 2012 First-Year Player Draft (9th round, Louisville)
Self earned Carolina League mid-season All-Star honors after going 3-0 with three saves and a 1.69 ERA (5 ER/26.2 IP) with 30 strikeouts and just five walks in 17 appearances out of Potomac’s bullpen. He was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg in early-June and tossed 37.2 innings of relief for the Senators.
“Derek had a strong year at Potomac and got a chance to touch Double-A, where he continued to learn at a higher level,” Harris said. “The Arizona Fall League is an opportunity for him to face a more diverse offensive player. The AFL is a hitter’s league and we want to continue to expose him to a better offensive player.”
Spencer Kieboom – C – 2012 First-Year Player Draft (5th round, Clemson)
After his 2013 season was cut short due to injury, Kieboom hit .311 with 27 doubles, four triples, seven home runs, 58 RBI and 47 runs scored in just 83 games for Single-A Hagerstown in 2014. Keiboom, 23, was a South Atlantic League mid-season All-Star selection and will help anchor an all-Washington catching corps for the Mesa Solar Sox
“After missing the 2013 season following Tommy John surgery, Spencer had a terrific year in Hagerstown,” Harris said. “The AFL will give him a chance to play with some older players and continue to advance his development.”
Pedro Severino – C – Signed as a non-drafted free agent, December 13, 2010
Severino will join Kieboom behind the plate for the Solar Sox. Known mainly for his above-average defensive abilities, Severino hit .248 with 15 doubles, one triple, eight homers, 31 RBI and 39 runs scored in 89 games for Potomac. This season marked his first season in the Carolina League after earning All-Star honors with Hagerstown (South Atlantic League) in 2013.
“Severino really turned his season around offensively,” Harris said. “Going to the AFL gives him a chance to continue that progression. He’ll get to see a little different pitching and continue to develop offensively.”
Tony Renda – INF – 2012 First-Year Player Draft (2nd round, University of California-Berkeley)
Renda, 23, led the Potomac Nationals and ranked among Carolina League hitters in batting average (3rd, 300) and runs scored (4th, 72). He also clubbed 21 doubles, four triples, 47 RBI and had 17 stolen bases in 100 games for Single-A Potomac. Known as a slick-fielding middle-infielder, Renda committed just eight errors in almost exclusive action at second base. In 2013, as a member of the Hagerstown Suns, Renda received the inaugural Washington Nationals “Bob Boone Award,” given to farmhand who best exhibits professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination, and work ethic required to play the game the “Nationals Way.”
“Tony has put himself in position to face the next challenge,” Harris said. “We feel like this is a good step in his preparation for that. He’s had a terrific year.”
Patrick Anderson – Coach – Manager, Hagerstown Suns
In his second year in the Nationals’ chain, Anderson has guided the Suns to a 84-50 record and a potential playoff berth in the South Atlantic League playoffs. Anderson led the 2013 Gulf Coast League Nationals to a 49-9 (.845) record and a GCL Championship in his first season as a member of the organization.
T.D. Swinford — Athletic Trainer, Potomac Nationals
Swinford just completed his fourth season in the Nationals’ organization, but his first with the P-Nats. Swinford spent the 2013 season in Hagerstown, and served as the Athletic Trainer in Auburn for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.