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 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. MLB.com 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.
Of all the names you may hear tossed around in association with the Nationals this offseason, one is of particular interest. In the midst of the potential free agent singings and the large number of returning players on the Nationals roster, few will have as much impact on the decisions made regarding the future of the Washington outfield as a young man who will not turn 22 for another couple of weeks. Perhaps you’ve already heard of Brian Goodwin, but it is safe to say that you will hear much more in the weeks, months and, hopefully, years to come.
Most Nationals fans have only seen Goodwin once, as one of the two short-in-comparison draftees smiling in the shadow of Alex Meyer at a press conference at Nationals Park last summer. Goodwin is actually 6’1” and a shade under 200 pounds, a left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing outfielder with the defensive tools to project as a Major League-caliber center fielder. Goodwin began his 2012 campaign at Low-A Hagerstown before skipping a level and finishing at Double-A Harrisburg, a very advanced level for a 21 year-old position player. He swatted 26 doubles, launched 14 home runs and stole 18 bases in 100 total games, posting a combined .280/.384/.469 slash line in his first year of professional ball, showing the promise that made him the 34th overall selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
Now Goodwin is showcasing his talents in the Arizona Fall League with fellow farmhands like Anthony Rendon, the third member of that draft class photo. Goodwin blasted his team-leading third home run in just eight games for the Salt River Rafters, where he has posted an encouraging early line of .294/.368/.618 while playing against some of the premiere prospects in the game. He reached base four times in Tuesday’s game, thanks to three hits, including that third home run.
Baseball America had Goodwin ranked as the number five prospect in the Nationals system going into last winter, behind only Bryce Harper, Rendon, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole. In fact, Aaron Fitt and the BA staff stated that Goodwin “has the tools to be an impact center fielder who hits in the top third of a big league lineup.” It was high praise for a player yet to appear in his first professional game, but he has done nothing to dissuade anyone of that projection to date.
With Harper’s ascension to the Major Leagues coupled with Peacock and Cole’s departure in the Gio Gonzalez trade, one figures Goodwin will find himself battling it out with Rendon (who missed a good portion of the 2012 season with an ankle injury) for the organization’s top prospect rank heading into next year. His continued success in the AFL would certainly help those chances, and offer him an opportunity to compete not just with the great talent in the Washington system, but the cream of the crop from around the game.
One of the names flying under the radar a bit in the Nationals Minor League system is switch-hitting infielder Zach Walters. Rated as the organization’s 12th-best prospect by MLB.com entering the season, Walters was acquired straight up from Arizona for right-hander Jason Marquis shortly before the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline. Originally a ninth-round selection from the 2010 First-Year Player Draft by the Diamondbacks, the infielder had not played above the Low-A Midwest League until coming over to the Nationals organization. That didn’t stop Washington from immediately promoting Walters to High-A Potomac, where he finished out the year with solid numbers, earning himself a call to the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase.
That performance earned him a couple of auditions as an extra man, joining the big league club for a few Spring Training games this March. On one notable occasion, Walters accompanied the club on a trip to St. Lucie to play a night game against the New York Mets. After entering the game off the bench in the late innings, Walters made a highlight-reel diving stop up the middle, capturing the attention of the press corps. However, shortly afterward he broke the hamate bone in his right hand, costing him the end of his spring and the first couple weeks of his season.
“It’s been a struggle,” explained Walters of the injury that stalled him early in the year. “Being hurt, you want to get back on the field as quickly as possible, even when you aren’t ready sometimes.”
The Cheyenne, Wyoming native got off to a slow start as he rehabbed from the injury, opening the year just 1-for-22 with 10 strikeouts at Potomac. But he recovered nicely and had a nine-game hitting streak going when he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg in mid-June. The infielder continued to produce with the Senators, posting a .293/.326/.518 slash line with 21 of his 48 hits going for extra bases in his 43 games played, all at shortstop. That was enough to earn him a second in-season promotion to Triple-A Syracuse, where he is currently playing. Once he processed his time on the Disabled List, Walters was able to make the most out of the experience.
“I feel like it was a blessing in disguise,” he says of his early-season speed bump. “I got a chance to go over some little things and really appreciate being out here on the field.”
Still just 22 years of age, Walters does not have any one particular skill that jumps off the page, but he is solid across the board. Standing an athletic 6’2” and just under 200 pounds, the University of San Diego product’s best trait might be his maturity, both on and off the field. While his skill set and versatility profile more like Steve Lombardozzi’s, his build and athleticism are more evocative of that of current Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. That combination of a solid work ethic, combined with an appreciation for his new organization have helped Walters move quickly through the system and raise his stock as a prospect.
“I’ve been thankful for everything this year,” said Walters. “It hasn’t been ‘work’ at all.”
The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft begins next Monday evening, June 4, providing 50 rounds for every club in the game to find fresh talent with which they can stock their farm systems for years to come. The Nationals have had some excellent drafts in recent years (as we detail in this homestand’s Inside Pitch, available at the ballpark beginning Friday!), and their haul from 2011 was especially impressive. Beyond their top four picks – Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin and Matt Purke – they also snagged talents like outfielder Caleb Ramsey (11th round) and Bryce Harper’s older brother, left-handed pitcher Bryan (30th round). But one of their most intriguing picks was fifth-rounder Matt Skole, a power-hitting third baseman out of Georgia Tech.
Skole belted 47 home runs and posted a slugging percentage above .600 over his three-year collegiate career with the Yellow Jackets. After signing last summer, he hit just five home runs, but rapped 23 doubles in 72 games for Short-Season Auburn. The 22 year-old has been able to carry more balls over the wall this year at Low-A Hagerstown, batting .306/.454/.561 with 11 doubles, 11 home runs, 38 runs scored and 50 RBI in his first 51 games played. Those numbers have him on pace for 30 doubles, 30 home runs, and a mind-blowing 135 RBI as the Minor League schedule passes its one-third mark. There are two numbers, though, that stand above the rest in the eyes of Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris.
The first is that gaudy on-base percentage. Harris, who estimates that he has already seen Skole about 10 times this season amongst his travels throughout the Washington farm system, points out the two components of the powerful lefty’s approach that have led to his success.
“When he did get a pitch to hit, he did a good job centering the baseball,” Harris says. “When they didn’t give him a pitch to hit, he did a good job controlling the strike zone and not chasing.”
That patient eye has paid dividends, as Skole has racked up 49 walks, a full dozen more than the next closest total in the South Atlantic League. That has been especially important, as the Suns have suffered the injury bug almost as bad as the one that has afflicted the Major League club. This has left Skole as one of the lone power threats in the lineup at times, and opponents have often pitched around him.
The second area where the left-handed Skole has made significant strides is in his situational hitting. After batting 120 points higher against righties last year (.323 compared to .203 vs. lefties), he is amazingly hitting better against southpaws, a rarity for those who bat from the left side. Skole’s .291 mark vs. righties is still strong, but his .329 against southpaws is especially impressive.
“He has done some things in his approach, staying in his legs, having more balance,” explains Harris. “He is just in a more consistent position to hit. When left-handers have a mindset of backing up contact, where they are willing to use the entire field rather than just look to pull, that puts them in a better position. He has done that.”
At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Skole came into the system as a big-bodied kid who projected as a power bat, but not necessarily a nimble defender. After assigning him to the hot corner, the Nationals were looking for Skole to take strides to improve his body composition to better allow himself to handle the position.
“A lot of big guys have to do a little extra to control their bodies,” explains Harris. “He has really done a nice job with his footwork and how he allows the rest of his body to get into position, both fielding a ball and throwing.”
After a rigorous offseason conditioning program, in which Skole worked with his brother Jacob, an outfielder in the Rangers organization, Harris has seen that transformation pay dividends. Both Skole’s willingness to adapt, and the results he has achieved, have left him in a good position moving forward.
“He’s done a lot of things you look for to consider advancement, in particular, controlling the strike zone,” says Harris. “He has certainly put him in a spot that awards consideration down the road.”
With the recent promotion of both Bryce Harper and Tyler Moore, we have had to shelve our Down on the Farm pieces we were planning to roll out in April. We listened to your calls for a report on Destin Hood. In fact, we took them seriously enough that we decided to put it into print, and will have it for you in the next edition of Nationals Magazine, available in-park for all June and July home games. But we’ve also been sitting on another particular prospect watch piece for a couple of weeks. That turned out to be fortuitous timing for us, as the man in question – left-handed starter Danny Rosenbaum – has gone out in the meantime and proven exactly why he should be featured in this space, and why you should read all about him below.
Currently heading up the rotation at Double-A Harrisburg, Rosenbaum was pointed out to us by Director of Minor League Operations Mark Scialabba back in Spring Training. If the southpaw was under the radar before the season started, this former 22nd-round pick out of Xavier need not worry about that for long. Blessed with a low-90s fastball that he can both cut and sink, a curveball and a developing changeup, he has succeeded at every level of the system so far, and is opening eyes and making headlines in 2012.
Rosenbaum has quietly posted impressive numbers at every stop so far in the Minor Leagues. However, he’ll have a hard time staying a secret for much longer with the tear he’s on right now in the Eastern League. Following another sparkling start on Monday – in which he struck out five without a walk, allowing six hits over 7.0 scoreless frames – Rosenbaum’s 2012 numbers are bordering on the absurd. His ERA stands at 0.76 (3 ER/35.2 IP) and he has struck out 23 against just two walks. He leads his circuit in ERA, innings pitched and WHIP (0.70), and is currently in the midst of a 24.2-inning scoreless streak that stretches all the way back to April 13. Opponents had hit just .232 against the lefty in his career before this season; in 2012, they are batting just .180.
Since beginning his professional career with the Gulf Coast Nationals Rookie League team in 2009, the lefty has posted a sub-2.50 ERA at each stop along his path through the minors. He has been remarkably consistent along the way as well, carrying a BB/9 of around 2.5 and a K/9 above 7.0 at every level. Never a high strikeout pitcher, his strong K/BB ratio and a very low home run rate (just 13 allowed over 388.0 innings in his career) have allowed him to continue to succeed.
“Danny’s kind of a later round draft pick who came in here and put up numbers right away,” said Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris. “He had a chance to advance and he’s been challenged with his progression.”
Rated just 23rd in Baseball America’s preseason organizational rankings and sixth among left-handed pitchers (those numbers coming before four of those above him, including fellow southpaw Tom Milone, were traded to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal), Rosenbaum has clearly exceeded outside expectations. But Scialabba suggests he may even be better than Milone, who is off to an excellent start out in Oakland.
“He compares with Milone physically,” said Scialabba. “But I think his stuff might even be a little better.”
In referencing a prospect, it always helps to try to make such comparisons, in order to help project the type of player he might become as he fully develops. When you are Jewish and left-handed, of which Rosenbaum is both, Sandy Koufax references are inevitable. There has been a deeper connection to the Dodger great than just that in Rosenbaum’s life, though, as he explains.
“Growing up you always heard about Sandy Koufax, who played at the University of Cincinnati,” he said, referencing the school the cross-town rival just a few miles down the road from Xavier. “People were always saying ‘Oh, there’s the next Sandy Koufax.’ It’s a real privilege to even be considered in the same sentence.”
A better recent comparison for Rosenbaum on the field might be Ted Lilly, a similarly-sized lefty with a strong cutter/curveball/changeup repertoire. Rosenbaum has actually posted better Minor League numbers in nearly every statistical category (save for strikeouts) than Lilly, who was twice an All-Star and posted double-digit win totals in nine consecutive Major League seasons. Lilly was a fairly low profile, 23rd-round pick by the Dodgers, but earned his way to the Major Leagues through his competitive, workman-like approach on the mound. While Rosenbaum was disappointed on draft day, he hopes to follow a similar path.
“I just used that as fuel for the fire, to really go out there and prove myself,” said the southpaw of his selection, which came 651 picks after the Nationals took Stephen Strasburg first overall in 2009. “It was a great situation, because there were all new front office people here. They came and talked to us and said ‘We don’t care if you’re a first-round draft pick or a 50th-round draft pick, everyone is right here,’” he recalled, holding his hand parallel to the ground to show that all players, regardless of their status as an amateur, would be evaluated by the same standards as professionals.
That came as a huge relief to Rosenbaum, who took the message to heart: for better or for worse, nothing you have done to this point matters. Coming off what he considered a disappointing final year at Xavier, it allowed him to have a new approach, one he has carried with him throughout his Minor League career.
“I just try to start each year over from the beginning,” he said. “If I have a good year, great, that’s awesome, but I just try to go back to Spring Training in better shape, with better conditioning, and better stamina than I had the year prior. That’s how I approach every offseason: just work harder than I did before.”
After proving himself over the past few years, Rosenbaum draws rave reviews from anyone and everyone in the Nationals front office. His tough mental approach has led him to become stronger physically as well, something that Harris believes will be the tipping point for his future success.
“He’s a strong-bodied kid,” explained Harris. “His body has continued to evolve. He has a better understanding of what he needs to do, particularly in his core and his lower half to allow him to be as successful as he can possibly be.”
That approach won’t change for Rosenbaum, who has seen his hard work translate not just into numbers, but more importantly, a shot at the ultimate goal of making the Major Leagues.
When the Nationals entered camp in Viera this spring, there were few positions on the field that were yet to be decided. In fact, one could argue that the only truly open position was in center field. Sure, there has been discussion over the last rotation and bullpen spots, as there is with most every team every year, but center field seemed to be the one position for which fans and media-types alike couldn’t arrive at a definitive answer. Needless to say, though, it will not remain a question mark in the long term. In fact, with the recent assignment of Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse with the specific task of playing in the middle of the outfield, the center field position might now be the deepest in the Nationals farm system. And whether Harper sticks in center or eventually shifts back to a corner outfield spot may depend less on him and more on another player many are talking about in the Nationals chain: Michael Taylor.
That may seem like an overstatement for a young man who has never played above Low-A and who won’t turn 21 until next Monday. But he has impressed enough both inside the organization and out to be placed fourth in Washington’s system in MLB.com’s most recent prospect rankings.
While Taylor’s career slash line through his first two seasons is just .240/.301/.400, that hides the progress he made in the second half of last year at Low-A Hagerstown, where he batted .291/.351/.498 after the break. At 6’2” and just 190 pounds, he is still quite slender, but has a projectable frame that coaches believe will fill out over the next few years, bringing more power along with it. If Taylor’s offense plays out according to plan, he could possess the full regiment of tools at one of the premiere defensive positions in the game.
Taylor was drafted as a shortstop, but the Nationals saw an athlete with great instincts and a solid arm that they believed could handle the premiere outfield defensive slot. Ironically, it was the defensive move that may have helped unlock Taylor’s offensive potential and allowed him to become the complete player the Nationals envisioned when they drafted him in the sixth round out of Ft. Lauderdale’s Westminster Academy in 2009.
“The move to the outfield freed him up a great deal offensively,” explains Doug Harris, the Nationals director of player development. “He’s a gifted defender, in part because of his athleticism, but he’s very instinctive as well. Physically, the sky is the limit for him.”
It is hard to imagine, though, that anyone saw that he would take to it as well as he has. Tony Tarasco, Washington’s Minor League hitting coordinator, saw him come to life in the instructional league last fall.
“I watched him go gap-to-gap his first day out there,” recalls Tarasco. “Of course his playing at shortstop helped him when he went to the outfield, because he could get rid of the ball quicker than a lot of other players. And he’s got a cannon arm, but he’s precise. He doesn’t miss the relay man often.”
Tarasco, who was has been very impressed with what he’s seen out of Taylor in his short time in the system, thinks that the change may have even occurred slightly earlier than when Harris saw it come about. He cites a change in attitude as a key factor in the young player’s development.
“He spent some time with Bob Boone in the cage,” recounts Tarasco. “Mike has always been a shy, quiet kid. He was so respectful that it made him almost timid. I think he left Boony with a little bit of aggression.”
Taylor himself recognizes that whatever his adjustments were, they required some work both with his physical and psychological approach. He is quiet, as Tarasco describes, and almost impossibly polite, and describes his progress earnestly.
“I think the work that I did on the physical side helped me relax more and I was able to be at ease in the box,” he explains of the work he did to improve his swing.
However, he goes on to describe the mental side of the adjustment as well, and in doing so, reveals that he is well beyond his years in terms of mental make-up. One of the words that you will hear the most around a professional baseball diamond is “consistency.” Those who can achieve it, who can ride out the slumps by simplifying the game to its individual pieces, are the ones that survive and move up.
“I really enjoy just having a routine,” explains Taylor, showing a keen understanding of that consistency. “That just keeps me focused on right here, on the field.”
According to Tarasco, for Taylor that means keeping a detailed black book of every at-bat, notes on every pitcher faced, for the entire season. Last year, that meant nearly 500 plate appearances, each tracked meticulously.
“I’ve seen guys start it,” says Tarasco of the exhaustive process. “But they get to July, then they don’t finish it. He was still doing it at the end of the year.”
It is that drive and approach, coupled with what Tarasco describes as a through-the-roof IQ, that he believes will help Taylor continue to progress in the years to come. For his part, Taylor is asking plenty of questions, trying to soak up as much as possible. He also appears to be listening, and not over-thinking when it comes to the larger picture.
“As long as I get my work in and stay focused on what I’m doing, everything else will kind of run its course and things will happen,” says the young outfielder.
In talking to Tarasco, it is easy to see where Taylor gets his approach to the game.
“Every single day, you wouldn’t know if he was 0-for-5 or 5-for-5, he continues to have that relentless attitude,” says Tarasco. “The willpower to move slowly, to go day-by-day, eventually is going to catapult him and spring him ahead.”
While there won’t be any rush to get Taylor to the big leagues, those in the Washington-area may have the chance to keep an especially close eye on him as he will likely make his 2012 debut at High-A Potomac in April.