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Arizona Fall League, Week 1 (10.8–10.14)

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Each week, we will recap the performances of the eight members of the Nationals organization participating in the Arizona Fall League, a “finishing school” for top prospects.

The eight Nationals players are members of the Mesa Solar Sox, which is comprised of young stars from the Nationals, Angels, Athletics, Cubs and Tigers farm systems. The Solar Sox will battle the Glendale Desert Dogs, Peoria Javelinas, Salt River Rafters, Scottsdale Scorpions and Surprise Saguaros during the six-week season, with each team made up of players from five MLB organizations.

Here is a look at how each of the Nationals participants in this year’s Arizona Fall League performed during the season’s first week:

Weekly Totals: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO

Reliever Robert Benincasa made one appearance for the Solar Sox during the first week of the season, closing out the ninth inning of Mesa’s 13-3 victory over the Glendale Desert Dogs on October 9.

Despite allowing a leadoff home run to White Sox prospect Brandon Jacobs, Benincasa settled down to record the final three outs, including a strikeout of Reds farmhand Travis Mattair.

Brian Goodwin collected two doubles on October 14. (photo by Will Bentzel)

Brian Goodwin collected two doubles on October 14. (photo by Will Bentzel)

Weekly Totals: .357/.438/.500, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 2 R, 1 BB in 16 plate appearances

Brian Goodwin, rated the 65th-best prospect in baseball according to, got off to a quick start in his second appearance in the Fall League, after playing for the Salt River Rafters in 2012.

He collected two hits in the season opener on October 8, drove in a pair of runs on October 10, and went 2-for-4 with two doubles on October 14. His work at the plate helped Mesa to a league-best 4-0-1 record (the Solar Sox tied their opening contest against Glendale).

Weekly Totals: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO

Former 45th-round draft pick Richie Mirowski earned one appearance during the first week of the Arizona Fall League campaign, a 1-2-3 seventh inning in the Solar Sox 7-3 victory over the Surprise Saguaros on October 11.

The right-hander stymied all three hitters he faced, including a strikeout of Red Sox prospect Mookie Betts ­– who fanned just 57 times against 81 walks during his impressive 2013 season at Single-A and Double-A.

Weekly Totals: .500/.556/.667, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 2 R, 1 SF, 2 BB in 9 plate appearances

Cuban-born backstop Adrian Nieto had a successful first week for Mesa, catching the team’s wins on October 9 and 14 over Glendale and Scottsdale.

He went 1-for-2 at the plate with a double, a walk and a sacrifice fly in the first of those two contests, then collected two hits and a walk in five plate appearances five days later. The 23-year-old had a slash line of .285/.373/.449 this season for the High-A Potomac Nationals.

Weekly Totals: (1-0), 3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO

Pitching prospect Matt Purke cruised in his first appearance of the Arizona Fall League season, allowing an unearned run in three innings of work in an October 10 win over Salt River.

The 6-foot-4 southpaw surrendered two hits and a walk, striking out two, while throwing 30 of his 46 pitches for strikes. He was credited with the win in Mesa’s 8-1 victory.

Weekly Totals:  .250/.400/.625, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 R, 2 BB in 10 plate appearances

Corner infielder Matt Skole received the Opening Day nod at designated hitter on October 8, clubbing a game-tying, two-run home run as part of a 2-for-4 afternoon. He drove in a total of three RBI in the slugfest, which ended in an 8-8 tie between the Solar Sox and Desert Dogs.

Skole made an important step physically on October 10, getting the start at first base for the first time since an injury to his non-throwing elbow prematurely ended his 2013 campaign. He walked and scored a run in support of Purke in the Solar Sox 8-1 win.

Weekly Totals:  (1-0), 3.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO

Sammy Solis earned a start and victory for Mesa on October 9, tossing three scoreless innings in 13-3 rout of Glendale. The 6-foot-5 left-hander threw 56 pitches in the effort, allowing three hits and a walk in 3.2 innings of work, striking out two batters.

Solis, a native of nearby Avondale, Arizona, threw 59.2 innings this season after missing the entire 2012 season due to injury.

Souza made the most of his two starts during the past week. (Diamond Images)

Souza made the most of his two starts during the past week. (Diamond Images)

Weekly Totals: .375/.500/.500, 1 2B, 3 RBI, 1 R, 5 SB, 2 BB in 10 plate appearances

One of the biggest stories of the Arizona Fall League’s first week was Souza’s performance on the basepaths. The big, physical athlete stole five bases in his two starts, giving him the league lead in the early going.

Souza’s most impressive individual performance came in a 7-3 win over Surprise on October 11, in which he went 2-for-3 with two walks, a double, three RBI and a trio of steals. He followed that up by representing the Nationals in the AFL’s inaugural Bowman Hitting Challenge on October 12, a competition similar to a Home Run Derby. Souza was also a finalist for the Arizona Fall League Player of the Week.

Down on the Farm: Arizona Fall League

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Though the regular season has come and gone and the postseason has entered its second week, eight members of the Washington Nationals organization will have the opportunity to continue their development this year in one of baseball’s most talent-rich environments.

Pitchers Robert Benincasa, Richie Mirowski, Matt Purke and Sammy Solis will be joined by catcher Adrian Nieto, infielder Matt Skole and outfielders Brian Goodwin and Steven Souza in the Arizona Fall League, a self-described “finishing school” for top prospects. The Nationals players will compete for the Mesa Solar Sox, which is comprised of Minor League stars from the Nationals, Angels, Athletics, Cubs and Tigers organizations.

Souza has slugged 38 home runs over the past two seasons.

Souza has slugged 38 home runs over the past two seasons.

Over the course of the six-week schedule, the Solar Sox will battle five other teams located throughout the greater Phoenix area – each featuring prospects drawn from five clubs – showcasing their talents in front of scouts, front office executives and fans of the game.

The Solar Sox open their season today at 3:30 p.m. ET when they take on the Glendale Desert Dogs. Center fielder Brian Goodwin has been penciled into the No. 2 spot in the batting order this afternoon for Mesa, while Matt Skole will hit eighth and serve as the designated hitter. Former Nationals farmhand David Freitas, now with Oakland, will do the catching for the Solar Sox, which will be opposed on the mound by Minnesota prospect Alex Meyer –  the former first-round pick for whom the Nationals acquired center fielder Denard Span this past offseason.

The season’s midway point will be marked by the Rising Stars Game on Saturday, November 2, and will conclude with the Arizona Fall League Championship on Saturday, November 16. Both November showcase games will be broadcast live on MLB Network.

Here is more a comprehensive look at the Nationals participants in this year’s Arizona Fall League:


Age: 23 (9.5.90) | Height: 6-2 | Weight: 180 | Bats: Right | Throws: Right

Selected in the seventh round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of Florida State University

Robert Benincasa has solidified his place as a dependable bullpen arm in the Nationals organization, saving 27 games between Class-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac during the 2013 season. The 23-year-old right-hander showed a strong command of the strike zone, totaling 64 strikeouts against just 14 walks in 51.0 innings pitched across both levels.

The Florida State University product was also a closer at the college level, saving 16 games and compiling a 1.32 ERA as a junior with the Seminoles, earning first team All-ACC as well as first team All-American honors from Baseball America.

Brian Goodwin heads back to the Fall League for a second year.

Brian Goodwin heads back to the Fall League for a second year.


Age: 22 (11.2.90) | Height: 6-1 | Weight: 195 | Bats: Left | Throws: Right

Selected in the first round (34th overall) of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of Miami Dade CC

Brian Goodwin, rated the 65th-best prospect in baseball according to, is an energetic young outfielder who just completed his first full season with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. He collected 40 extra-base hits (19 doubles, 11 triples, 10 home runs) on the year, adding 19 steals on the base paths.

“(Brian) is a rangy center fielder who gets good jumps,” said Nationals Director of Minor League Operations Mark Scialabba during the 2013 season. “He has the potential to play center field in the Major Leagues, and is a very athletic, dynamic baseball player who can show you flashes of all five tools.”


Age: 24 (4.30.89) | Height: 6-2 | Weight: 190 | Bats: Right | Throws: Right

Selected in the 45th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of Oklahoma Baptist University

Like Benincasa, Richie Mirowski is a talented right-hander who tallied eye-popping numbers out of the bullpen during the 2013 campaign. The 24-year-old breezed through High-A Potomac en route to Double-A Harrisburg, going a combined 10-3 with a 1.83 ERA, seven saves, and 88 strikeouts against just 15 walks in 68.2 innings of work. His 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings and 0.90 WHIP both ranked among the best in the organization.

Mirowski has emerged as a late-round steal from the Nationals talent-rich 2011 Draft. Selected in the 45th round out of Oklahoma Baptist University, the Nationals converted Mirowski from a college starter to his current relief role.


Age: 23 (11.12.89) | Height: 6-0 | Weight: 200 | Bats: Switch | Throws: Right

Selected in the fifth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of American Heritage (FL) HS

Cuban-born catching prospect Adrian Nieto enjoyed the finest season of his professional career in 2013, contributing in the batter’s box and behind the plate for the Potomac Nationals. The 23-year-old switch-hitter slashed .285/.373/.449 in 452 plate appearances, with a career-high 11 home runs and 53 RBI. He also threw out an astounding 42 baserunners, giving him a total of 100 caught stealings since 2010.

Nieto, whose family defected from Cuba when he was a child, teamed up with future Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer to win a Florida state championship in high school. The 2008 fifth-round pick participated for Team Spain in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.


Age: 23 (7.17.90) | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 205 | Bats: Left | Throws: Left

Selected in the third round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of Texas Christian University

Talented left-hander Matt Purke will try to build on a successful – and healthy – 2013 campaign when he takes the hill for the Solar Sox this fall. Purke completed 90 innings between Class-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac this season, hinting at the dominance that made him a consensus All-American during his freshman season at TCU in 2010.

Purke started six games for the Suns, striking out 41 and walking just seven in 29 innings, before earning a promotion to the P-Nats. He finished the year with a flourish in Woodbridge, going 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over his final seven starts of the regular season.

Skole was a non-roster invitee to Major League camp this spring.

Skole was a non-roster invitee to Major League camp this spring.


Age: 24 (6.30.89) | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 220 | Bats: Left | Throws: Right

Selected in the fifth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of Georgia Tech

Nationals 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Matt Skole will have an opportunity to further his development in the Arizona Fall League, after suffering an injury to his non-throwing arm in the second game of the year and missing the entire 2013 season.

Skole, a physical specimen at 6-4, 220 pounds, is expected to play third base for Mesa after serving as a first baseman this spring. The Georgia Tech product hit an impressive .291/.426/.559 with 27 home runs and 104 runs batted in a season ago, earning an invitation to big league camp.


Age: 25 (8.10.88) | Height: 6-5 | Weight: 230 | Bats: Right | Throws: Left

Selected in the second round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of San Diego

Solis, the Nationals second selection in the 2010 Draft (Bryce Harper being the first), will continue his road to recovery from Tommy John surgery, which wiped out his 2012 campaign. The big left-hander completed 59.2 innings in 2013, going 2-1 with a 3.43 earned run average across 14 games for the Gulf Coast League Nationals and the Potomac Nationals.

The Avondale, Arizona native and University of San Diego star will pitch in the Fall League for the third time in his young career, after throwing 23.2 innings in the circuit in 2010 and 26.0 more in 2011.


Age: 24 (4.24.89) | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 220 | Bats: Right | Throws: Right

Selected in the 3rd round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft out of Cascade (WA) HS

Souza has come into his own during the past two seasons, hitting 38 home runs and stealing 34 bases in 174 games between Class-A Hagerstown, High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. In 77 games with the Senators in 2013, Souza compiled a .300/.396/.557 slash line, earning All-Star Game and Home Run Derby appearances at the Double-A level.

“(Steven) is a big, strong, physical presence with big-time raw power to all fields – and he can fly,” Scialabba said about the 24-year-old slugger. “He’s someone who has the potential to hit in the middle of the lineup and be a run producer.”

Down on the Farm: Taylor Jordan

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Stop us if this sounds familiar.

A promising young pitcher, in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery in 2011, is raising eyebrows and rising quickly through the organization. Following the same path as Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and more recently Nathan Karns, another powerful right-hander is looking to claim the title of “next.” His name is Taylor Jordan, and if you don’t know who is already, you will soon.

Jordan began the 2013 campaign at High-A Potomac, where he cruised for six starts, amassing a 2-1 record and a 1.24 ERA (5 ER/36.1 IP). He also showed impressive peripheral numbers, striking out 29 while walking just six over that span.

That earned him a promotion to Double-A, long considered the truest test for a rising prospect. Through his first seven starts at his new level, Jordan has passed with flying colors.

Jordan has only gotten better since his promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. (Paul Chaplin/

Jordan has only gotten better since his promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. (Paul Chaplin/

“The competition is better,” says Jordan of the Double-A level. “The hitters have a much better approach. If you miss a pitch, it seems like they all have a chance to capitalize.”

And while it may indeed seem that way to Jordan, few if any actually have done so against him. Despite getting shelved by a rain delay just one inning into one of his outings, Jordan breezed to four wins in his first six outings before compiling a masterpiece in his most recent start, a five-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts. He is now 5-0 with a 0.66 ERA (3 ER/41.0 IP) and has struck out 39 against just six walks. He’s holding opposing batters to a .181 average and has yet to allow a home run, his WHIP an eye-popping 0.78.

The lack of power numbers against Jordan is no coincidence. Ranked the Nationals 13th-best prospect coming into the year by Baseball America, his repertoire begins with a heavy, sinking fastball in the low to mid-90s, very similar to that of Ross Detwiler’s.

“Ever since I was 11 years old, or younger, my coach told me that I was a little sinkerballer,” recalls Jordan. “I didn’t really understand that, didn’t know what it meant at that time. I always had one, whether or not I knew what it meant.”

His natural movement had translated into great success so far. Combined with a change-up that sinks and fades away from lefties and a slider with hard, late break away from righties, the rest of Jordan’s repertoire more closely mimics Zimmermann’s, one which all of baseball has seen just how effective it can be this season.

Following in the footsteps of those who have undergone the same surgery, the same long road to recovery, has helped Jordan see the light at the end of the tunnel, making his current success that much sweeter.

“It’s nice to see that hard work has paid off,” he says of Strasburg and Zimmermann’s returns to the big leagues. “It’s a good thing to see other people who’ve had surgeries do well as well. It gives me hope that I’ll get there as well.”

If Jordan continues to succeed at the level he has to this point in the season, it won’t be too long before he gets that opportunity.

Down on the Farm: Jeff Kobernus

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The Rule 5 Draft is one of the most intricately constructed of baseball’s many minutiae. It exists to give veteran Minor League players who are not on their team’s 40-man roster a chance to make another team’s Major League roster. However, if the players aren’t able to break camp with their new team, they are given back to their original club. Four Nationals Minor Leaguers were taken by other teams in last offseason’s draft, but two were returned in the final week of Spring Training, including the 50th overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Jeff Kobernus.

The UC Berkeley product batted .220/.291/.300 with a pair of triples and three RBI in 50 at-bats this spring for Detroit, and was thought by many to be a fairly strong candidate to make the 25-man roster out of camp as a reserve player. Instead, he rejoined an ever-strengthening Nationals Minor League squad at Triple-A Syracuse.

Kobernus is off to a scorching start since his return to the Nationals.

Kobernus is off to a scorching start since his return to the Nationals. (Will Bentzel)

It is easy to see the tool that stands out the most in Kobernus’ game by looking at his stat line. The speedster has swiped 95 bases while being caught just 19 times over the past two seasons, good for an 83 percent success rate. But he has also maintained his other offensive numbers steadily as he has progressed through the system each year, despite missing time to injury.

“He’s a toolsy player who can run, swing the bat, play second base,” said Nationals Assistant GM Bryan Minniti of Kobernus.

After playing almost entirely at second base throughout his career, the Tigers began trying Kobernus in the outfield this spring. After all, their infield was full, and the 24-year-old’s athleticism and speed seemed to profile well for such a switch. Clearly, the Nationals saw the same in Kobernus when they first selected him back in 2009.

“There are some guys where that’s the only tool they have and that gets them to the big leagues,” Minniti explained of Kobernus’ speed. “Jeff has more than just one tool that can play in the big leagues.”

Kobernus’ ability to take his talents and use them in multiple spots around the field may be key in his advancement. With a Nationals squad fairly deep at most positions, it’s an asset to be a player able to fill in anywhere around the diamond.

“It helps you for when there’s a time that a position needs to be filled,” said Kobernus of his versatility. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the one position that you play. If you can play multiple, it gives you a better chance of being able to go up there and stay up there.”

Kobernus need only look as far as Steve Lombardozzi to see his theory in action. A second baseman throughout his minor league career, Lombardozzi was able to stick in the majors last year thanks to his versatility, particularly at third base and in left field.

Kobernus has taken full advantage of his current situation, bursting out of the gates to post an absurd .579/.625/.885 slash line with a triple, a home run, eight runs scored, six RBI and three steals in his first five games with the Chiefs. And while he was understandably disappointed not to make a Major League club out of camp just yet, the experience he gained – especially in terms of mental preparation – was invaluable.

“It was really fun seeing all the big-name guys over there, how they work, how they go about their business,” he said. “Not just preparing for a season, but preparing expecting to get to the World Series.”

That experience will no doubt serve him well as he strives to make it to the Major League level on a Nationals squad filled with many of the same expectations.

Down on the Farm: Rob Wort

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Following Baseball America’s ranking of the Top 10 Nationals prospects earlier this week, we turn our attention to a prospect whose journey has largely escaped the spotlight to this point. Rob Wort, the Nationals 30th-round draft pick in 2009, burst onto the scene this past season with the highest strikeout rate in all of Minor League Baseball.

Featuring a power fastball/slider combo, the lean, 6-2, right-handed reliever wrapped up his second full season at High-A Potomac with eye-popping numbers. In 56.2 innings, Wort notched 95 strikeouts against just 19 walks, earning 13 saves for the P-Nats and a spot on the Carolina League All-Star Team.

Wort's solid campaign landed him on the Carolina League All-Star Team.

Wort’s solid campaign landed him on the Carolina League All-Star Team.

Wort’s performance was even more impressive in comparison with his peers. Among the more than 2,300 Minor League pitchers to complete at least 40.0 innings in 2012, Wort ranked first in both strikeouts per nine innings (15.1) and strikeout percentage (41.3). The only two professional pitchers with more dominant strikeout numbers than Wort were Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel and Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman, both of whom had historically great seasons in the Major Leagues.

Chris Michalak, Potomac’s pitching coach and a former Major Leaguer himself, has overseen Wort’s development at two Minor League stops. Before his 2012 breakout season, Wort was at his best in 2010 at Low-A Hagerstown – with Michalak coaching him there as well – where he went 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 43.1 innings. After Wort suffered through a lackluster 2011 campaign, the newly promoted Michalak guided a change in approach for the 23-year-old hurler.

“The biggest thing (prior to 2012) was that Rob was able to get by with his fastball and a little different arm angle,” Michalak said. “This year we worked on two things: using his backside and legs to leverage the ball and get later movement on his pitches, and developing his slider. His slider became a legitimate out pitch down and away to right-handed hitters.”

Opposing righties stood little chance against Wort this past season, batting a meager .174/.243/.265 and striking out an astonishing 69 times in 144 plate appearances. Lefties fared only marginally better, hitting at a .247/.349/.392 clip with 26 punchouts in 86 trips to the plate. This was a huge improvement for Wort, after lefties batted .354/.475/.625 and struck out just eight times in 64 plate appearances against him in 2011.

Wort notched the highest K rate in the Minor Leagues in 2012.

Wort notched the highest K rate in the Minor Leagues in 2012.

Michalak explained the specific changes that led to Wort’s dramatic improvement against batters from the left side of the plate.

“We wanted to give him more weapons against left-handed hitters,” Michalak said. “Rob tried out a new two-seam fastball and a change-up, which added a couple of wrinkles to what he was doing before. Those became effective pitches for him.”

Should Wort continue his development and eventually earn his way onto the Nationals roster, he would join Toronto left-hander Mark Buehrle as the second Major League player to attend both Francis Howell North High School (St. Charles, Mo.) and Jefferson College (Hillsboro, Mo.). Buehrle was also a late round pick, going to the Chicago White Sox in the 38th round in 1998. Michalak, who was a 12th-round selection out of college and fought his way to the big leagues for the first time at age 27, thinks his pupil has a good shot.

“This year really opened up (Rob’s) eyes a little bit, gave him confidence he could get there,” Michalak said.  “If he continues to make adjustments throughout each season, throughout his career, and he’s not afraid to take those adjustments into the game, I don’t see why he doesn’t have a chance.”

Down on the Farm: Aaron Barrett

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We’ve brought you Down on the Farm reports of several of the top prospects in the Nationals system this fall after their participation in the Arizona Fall League. And while most fans already were familiar with names like Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin, far less are likely to be acquainted with the likes of 24 year-old Aaron Barrett. The Evansville, IN native also played in the AFL this year, but the fact that he ended up there was anything but preordained.

Barrett's 2012 campaign began in Hagerstown and ended in the Arizona Fall League. (Richard Dougan/Hagerstown Suns)

Barrett’s 2012 campaign began in Hagerstown and ended in the Arizona Fall League. (Richard Dougan/Hagerstown Suns)

Barrett began his career with back-to-back seasons in the Short-season New York Penn League, where he posted impressive strikeout totals (57) but unnerving walk totals (44) in 47.2 total innings. He showed flashes of the talent that led him to be drafted four separate times by four different teams – the Dodgers in the 44th round out of high school, the Twins in the 20th round out of Wabash Valley Junior College, the Rangers in the 27th round as a University of Mississippi junior, and finally the Nationals in the ninth round following his 2010 senior season. He was the second Bulldog to be taken in the draft that year (behind fifth-overall pick Drew Pomeranz), and continued a solid trend of talented players emerging from the SEC school, joining Lance Lynn (’08) and Zack Cozart (’07). But it took until this year for Barrett to begin to fully realize his potential on the mound.

The 6’4” right-hander opened his third professional campaign at Low-A Hagerstown pitching out of the back of the bullpen, where he quickly established himself as the Suns closer. Barrett converted 16 of 18 save opportunities, striking out an eyebrow-raising 52 batters in just 34.2 innings pitched while notching a 2.60 ERA. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was walking just 11 over that span. The hurler’s impressive performance earned him a late-season promotion to High-A Potomac. Barrett took the move in stride, actually improving upon his already excellent season.

With the P-Nats, Barrett fanned 21 hitters while walking just three in 17.0 innings over 11 relief appearances. He yielded just a pair of earned runs, bringing his ERA for the season down to a paltry 2.09. His improved peripherals led to an overall 5.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an 0.93 WHIP. That earned him a trip to join some of the top prospects in the game in the AFL, where he posted a respectable 3.27 ERA with 10 strikeouts against just two walks in 11.0 innings for the Salt River Rafters. More importantly, he showed no signs of being overmatched by the high level of competition, twice fanning both former first-rounder Grant Green and former number one overall pick Tim Beckham.

Showcasing mostly a two-pitch repertoire, Barrett flashes a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a slider as his out pitch. Despite his short time at Potomac in 2012, he has a chance to crack to Double-A Harrisbug roster by Opening Day, and certainly figures to advance there at some point in 2013, so long as he continues to exhibit the improved control that led him to success this season.

Down on the Farm: Erik Davis

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Before we get too deep into our next Down on the Farm report, let’s explain the significance of the recent roster designation of a couple players. Both Erik Davis as well as Nathan Karns, who we profiled last week, were added to the Nationals 40-man Roster, guaranteeing them an invitation to Major League Spring Training in February. In the meantime, though, the moves had a more immediate purpose: they protected the two players from potentially being snagged away by another club in the Rule 5 Draft, an annual ritual which took place Thursday morning in Nashville.

For those not well versed in this process, allow us to explain how the process works, and why it can be a very big decision. The Rule 5 Draft stands in contrast to the Rule 4 Draft, which takes place in June and is more commonly referred to as the First-Year Player Draft. It is a process in which any Minor League player who was 18 years or younger when drafted who has accumulated four years of service time (or 19 and up at time of selection with three years service) becomes eligible to be taken by other teams. However, that team must keep said player in the Major Leagues for the entire season to follow, or else the player is returned to his original team. Due to that requirement, in the last 60 years, a range of just three to 24 players has been taken per year.

Davis was recently added to the Nationals 40-man Roster.

Davis was recently added to the Nationals 40-man Roster. (Will Bentzel/Harrisburg Senators)

So why does all of this matter? Well, both Davis and Karns are Rule 5 eligible, so the Nationals added them to the 40-man Roster in order to protect them. That means they are safely in the farm system for another year, and each could be called up to the Major Leagues at any time without making a 40-man roster move. For Karns, who topped out at High-A last year, that possibility may seem more remote for the 2013 season. But for the 26 year-old Davis, who put up impressive numbers at Double-A in 2012, it could mean much more.

We spoke recently with Harrisburg Senators Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations Terry Byrom, who shed some light on the skill set Davis brings to the diamond. A former starter who throws downhill with a great off-speed pitch and a solid curveball, he has drawn some comparison to current Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard. But Byrom had another member of the Washington bullpen in mind.

“I would say at this point that he and Christian Garcia are very similar,” he explained. “Garcia probably has better stuff, but I’m not sure I would say it’s a lot better. Erik’s stuff is good enough to play in the big leagues, absolutely, no doubt about it. He could make that roster out of Spring Training.”

Those are likely reassuring words for Davis, who saw Garcia’s ascent first-hand, both as a teammate and a roommate at various stops in the minors. And with Washington still sorting out its final bullpen spots for 2013, Byrom’s projection is not such a stretch. Given the organization’s track record of converting starters into quality relief arms once they reach higher levels of the Minor Leagues (see: Clippard, Craig Stammen, Zach Duke), there is no reason to believe Davis couldn’t follow the same path.

“I think that’s something that the Nationals have been incredibly successful at,” said Byrom, who has seen many of those pitchers make their way through Harrisburg. Especially the Minor League (instructors), they do a really good job of migrating guys from starting roles.”

After shining in Double-A, Davis was even more impressive in the Dominican Winter League.

After shining in Double-A, Davis was even more impressive in the Dominican Winter League. (Will Bentzel/Harrisburg Senators)

Once a promising starting prospect in the Padres organization, Davis won 16 games for Low-A Fort Wayne back in 2008, and owns a career Minor League record of 45-24. The former 13th-round selection out of Stanford was acquired prior to the 2011 campaign for infielder Alberto Gonzalez, and ran into his first trouble as a starter, going just 5-12 between two levels of Washington’s farm system.

After that disappointing 2011 season, Davis moved to the ‘pen and rebounded with a very strong 2012 campaign. In 40 relief appearances with Double-A Harrisburg, Davis went 7-3 with five saves and a 2.52 ERA (18 ER/64.1 IP), striking out 69 while walking just 18 and stranding 20 of 25 inherited runners. He was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse for a short stint in August, but might have put up his most impressive showing in the Dominican Republic this fall. Pitching for Los Gigantes del Cibao, Davis went 3-0 with a 0.47 ERA, holding opponents to a .149 batting average while fanning 19 in 19.0 innings pitched. Davis credited a greater comfort in his second season with the Nationals as a reason for his improved numbers.

“When you go into a new system, obviously it’s a good thing because they traded for you, so that means they want you,” he explained. “But it’s tough not to put extra pressure on yourself to go out and do more than you’re capable of.”

Given a second chance to make a first impression, Davis has made the most of it. And despite a longer road than he may have initially expected, pitching in the Major Leagues is as close a reality as it has ever been before.

“I have the same goal with the Nationals that I did with the Padres,” he said. “I still haven’t really accomplished that goal of getting there and staying there.”

Byrom believes Davis’ continued improvement is certainly possible given his talent, and explained that if the pitcher can maintain his big league work ethic in 2013, it could very well lead to big league results.

“If he chooses to put the time and effort into it, I think that Erik Davis is going to be a guy that pitches for a long time in the bullpen in the Major Leagues.”

Down On The Farm: Nathan Karns

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If you follow the Nationals Minor League system at all, the name Nathan Karns probably sounds familiar. Often the subject of our in-park Down on the Farm reports during the 2012 season, the tall right-hander worked his way from the bullpen to the starting rotation, then impressed enough to earn a mid-season promotion to a higher level, where he continued to succeed. When the dust had settled on his campaign, he was awarded the Nationals Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award for his efforts.

Karns was promoted mid-season and continued to shine at High-A Potomac. (Gary Dize/

Karns was promoted mid-season and continued to shine at High-A Potomac. (Gary Dize/

As a result, Karns was one of two players (along with fellow hurler Erik Davis) that the Nationals added to the 40-man roster last week. We will get into more detail about the particulars of that designation next week in advance of the Rule V Draft, but suffice it to say that the organization has liked the early returns from Karns thus far in his professional career.

At 6’5”, 230 pounds, Karns has the big, projectable pitching body type that makes scouts drool. Originally drafted in 2009, Karns fell to the 12th round and got hurt before ever pitching as a professional, requiring labrum surgery in his throwing shoulder that cost him his entire 2010 season. As a result, he did not begin his journey into the professional ranks until 2011 at age 23, where he put up some silly numbers in Rookie Ball (two hits, six walks and 26 strikeouts in 18.2 scoreless innings pitched) and continued to find success despite some wildness following a promotion to Short-Season Auburn.

Karns visited Nationals Park to receive his Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award.

Karns visited Nationals Park in September to receive his Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award.

The Texas Tech product, who turned 25 earlier this week, expanded upon the success he found at the lower levels of the system in 2011, enough to earn Baseball America’s designation as the number 15 prospect in the Carolina League this season. This year, Karns amassed an 11-4 record and a 2.17 ERA (28 ER/116.0 IP) over 24 appearances (18 starts) between Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac. While many numbers pop off the stat sheet – anything from his 1.01 WHIP to his 148 strikeouts in just 116 innings – perhaps the most impressive one has been the Texan’s ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. In 171.1 total innings as a professional, Karns has allowed just three home runs, or less than one for every 57 innings of work. Even Gio Gonzalez, who was the best qualifying starter in the Majors at limiting the longball, allowed nine in 199.1 innings, a rate more than two-and-a-half times as great as Karns.

The good news is that even areas of potential weakness improved this season for Karns. There were concerns about his control in college, where he averaged about 6.0 walks per nine innings over his last two years in Lubbock. The right-hander improved slightly in his first season as a pro (5.4 BB/9.0 IP), then lowered his walk rate to 3.6 – a 33 percent drop – this season. Factor in higher strikeout totals, and Karns made a significant jump from a modest 1.79 to a commendable 3.15 K/BB rate.

Karns’ strength lies in his best two pitches, a fastball that sits in the low 90s and can touch 96, complemented by a swing-and-miss, plus breaking ball which he will showcase at his next likely stop, Double-A Harrisburg. He will need to continue to develop his off-speed pitch there to give himself three plus pitches, the full arsenal to progress to the highest level of the game in a starting role.

Down on the Farm: Ryan Perry

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Nationals fans who attended games early in the season may remember Ryan Perry’s name and wonder why he is the subject of a Down on the Farm report. Wasn’t he, after all, a Major Leaguer already? In fact, Perry has pitched parts of the past four seasons in the big leagues, logging a 6-6 record and a 4.36 ERA over 169.1 innings pitched, all out of the bullpen. While he has showed promise since his debut as a 22 year-old back in 2009, he had yet to progress in the way that his powerful arsenal of pitches promised.

Ryan Perry began the year with the Nationals before converting to a starter.

As such, Perry and the Nationals both came to the same conclusion earlier this year – perhaps it was time to give starting a shot. Often times starters from the college ranks will move into the bullpen as they reach the higher levels of the Minor Leagues. Perry, however, possesses a potent array of pitches, including a high-90s fastball to go along with his changeup and slider. It was that raw talent that led the Tigers to draft him with the 21st overall selection back in 2008. But the transition to using those weapons over 100 pitches or more, instead of simply an inning or two, required an overhaul in approach. So the 25 year-old Perry packed his bags for Double-A Harrisburg to stretch out his arm, build his workload and try to make the successful conversion to the rotation.

“I’ve been in the big leagues, but I’m still learning,” Perry reflected when we caught up with him towards the end of his Minor League season in Harrisburg back in August. “There are still many things for me to learn and to hone in on to get back there.”

Perry made 13 starts for the Senators, his 2-4 record undermining his 2.84 ERA (23 ER/73.0 IP) over that span. He allowed just three home runs, while posting an impressive 1.11 WHIP and striking out more than twice as many batters (46) as he walked (22). That was enough for the Nationals to send Perry, along with some of their top prospects, to the Arizona Fall League.

Perry has been on both sides of the success spectrum so far in the AFL. He allowed seven runs over just 5.0 innings in his first two starts, walking four while striking out five. But he rebounded to throw four perfect frames in his next start, then followed that up with five innings of one-hit ball, completing a nine-inning stretch in which he allowed just one baserunner while fanning seven.

While his overall ERA sits a shade below 5.00 at 4.98, his peripheral stats have mirrored those he put up in Double-A. With a 1.15 WHIP and a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk rate, the tall, powerful righty continues to show the type of promise the Nationals were hoping when the two sides agreed to the experiment earlier this year. Keep an eye on Perry and the rest of the Nats prospects as they wrap up their AFL schedule this week.

Down on the Farm: Anthony Rendon

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Considering that our last Down on the Farm subject won Arizona Fall League Player of the Week after we featured him, we figured it was high time to pick another AFL’er to break down for you. As the headliner of Washington’s 2011 draft haul selected with the sixth overall pick, many considered Anthony Rendon to have the best bat of the class. And while a fractured ankle in just his second professional game at High-A Potomac derailed his 2012 season, since his return, the Texas-born infielder has shown the baseball world why he was so highly regarded coming out of Rice University a little over a year ago.

Rendon blazed through three levels of the minors upon his return from injury in mid-July, batting .308/.444/.585 with 11 extra-base hits (five doubles, three triples, three home runs) in 34 games before stalling a bit upon his promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. But with less than 200 plate appearances under his belt for the season, the Arizona Fall League presented a perfect opportunity to see how he would fare against some of the brightest prospects in the Minor Leagues with less than a full season of pro ball under his belt. So far, so good.

Rendon’s first professional season continues in the Arizona Fall League.

The infielder is coming off of back-to-back multi-hit performances, stretching his hitting streak to four games. Overall, he is batting .271/.357/.375 through 13 games, reaching base at a solid clip. Another encouraging stat lies in the fact that he has stolen three bases in as many attempts, a good sign that his ankle is healed and holding up just fine. Beyond the box scores though, club officials have been particularly impressed with Rendon’s defense at third base, where he has made great strides this year. ranks the prospect 33rd overall in the Minor Leagues, taking over the top spot among Nationals farmhands since the promotion of Bryce Harper back in April.

“When healthy, Rendon is a plus defender at third,” proclaims the site, but focuses more on his offensive prowess. “At the plate, he has the kind of advanced approach that should allow him to move quickly while hitting for average and power.”

Keep an eye on Rendon and the rest of the Nationals prospects with the Salt River Rafters throughout the AFL season. His performance the rest of the way in Arizona and in Spring Training in Viera (as a 40-man roster member, Rendon will start in Major League Camp) will go a long ways towards determining just how high this fast-moving talent will rise come Opening Day. Check him out as he spoke to us before the 2012 season began at his first camp back in February.


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