The Nationals have a lot of holes to fill this season. Rebuilding isn’t a place we’ve been in a decade. While we won’t be winning much, there’s still a lot (that isn’t Juan Soto) to be excited about! The Nats may not have the best farm system in baseball, but I can say, there are 5 players that’ll make a difference for the club in 2022.
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5. LHP Matt Cronin (12)
Cronin all in all had a very solid 2021. The 24-year old put up a 3.00 ERA over 3 levels of the minors, though he struggled substantially at the upper levels. Cronin’s main tools are a 65-grade fastball and a 60-grade curve which MLB.com calls “near MLB ready”. Despite these tools, Cronin’s value for me is the fact that he’s a left-handed reliever.
The Nats have a dearth of lefties in their bullpen. Francisco Perez, Sam Clay, and Alberto Baldonado make up the Nationals’ collection of southpaws, and uh, that’s not particularly impressive. I believe that the Nationals will need to call on Matt Cronin this year, and he can become an effective part of the roster.
4. RHP Cole Henry (7)
I know what some people will say “Henry hasn’t pitched above A+!” and that’s (partially) true, but in Wilmington, he dominated. Henry had a 1.88 ERA and an outrageous 0.79 WHIP over 8 starts.
While those numbers are enough to put him on this list, regardless of his experience, what he did in the Arizona Fall League definitely solidified it for me. For those of you who don’t know, the AFL is an off-season league where every team sends its best prospects. Henry faced off against top talent like JJ Bleday, Lars Nootbar, Triston Casas, and Jeter Downs. This opposition, in such a high offense environment, can destroy pitchers. Teammate Jackson Rutledge put up an ERA nearing 7! But Henry? No challenge. He tore it up, with a 3.32 ERA, and 14 K/9. Cole Henry has proven he has what it takes against MLB-level talent, and with the Nationals’ lack of consistent starters, he may just find his way into the rotation.
3. RHP Joan Adon (22)
Yes, this list is pitcher-heavy. This is more a result of the Nats’ lack of solid pitchers than insane talent from the prospects, (though there are some elite prospects. We’ll get back to that later.) it’s more to do with the lack of consistency on the Nationals. Look at that starting rotation, is there anyone on there who you can trust to pitch 150 innings and have a sub 4.50 ERA? I can’t find anyone.
Back to Joan Adon, Nats fans were introduced to Adon as he made a spot start on the final day of the season. Joan Adon went 5.1 innings of 2 run ball, striking out 9. He did this against a Boston Red Sox lineup which would go on to hammer AL Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole in their next game. Judging his talent on one start is a little bit pointless, so if we look at his full season, a bizarre narrative emerges.
Joan Adon got rocked in A+ ball, he had an ERA of 4.97 over 17 starts, so for some reason, the Nats decided to send him up to Harrisburg, where he had an ERA over 6! All of this suggests he shouldn’t be ready for the MLB level talent sitting in AAA, and (obviously) the MLB. And then they send him up again, and he has a scoreless start at Rochester before the aforementioned game vs the Red Sox. Though a small sample size, his success in the upper levels juxtaposed with his difficulties in AA, and A+ makes for a really weird season.
All in all, Adon is a bit of an enigma, but I have faith that he can deliver (at least as a spot starter) in the Nats’ pitching staff.
2. RHP Cade Cavalli (2)
If there is one Nationals pitching prospect to bet on, it would be Cade Cavalli. After dominating at Oklahoma as a two-way star, Cavalli’s entrance to professional baseball was delayed as the 2020 minor league season was canceled.
He didn’t skip a beat with a 1.77 ERA in Wilmington, before skyrocketing to AAA by the end of the year. The question for Cavalli isn’t whether he’ll be a National this year, but when. Cavalli did struggle at Rochester, so unless he shows out in Spring Training (assuming it happens), he’ll stay in the minors to start the year. If he pitches well in AAA, we’ll probably see him mid-may at the earliest, if we get this Cavalli, the league may be in trouble.
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With his 6’4” frame, 3 quality off-speed pitches, and his electric fastball, Cavalli could very well surpass Stephen Strasburg’s rookie season, and not just make the rotation, but be its ace.
1. C Keibert Ruiz (1)
There isn’t much to say about Keibert Ruiz that hasn’t been said. Many people will point to his ceiling; his .310 avg, and .993 OPS in AAA last year, his All-Star potential. All of that is great, if he hits his potential I’d be overjoyed, but I’d like to draw your attention to how he’ll contribute now.
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Keibert Ruiz has a 106 OPS+ on his career. That means he’s 6% better than the average hitter, except that’s not totally true. The average OPS+ for catchers is around 92, and Yadier Molina has a 97 OPS+, so Ruiz’s current offensive production is already well above average.
My placement of Ruiz at the one spot has to do with the fact that I have complete confidence he will be at least a league-average hitter playing decent defense, and after years of dealing with top prospects (Kieboom and Garcia I’m looking at you) floundering in the MLB, it feels nice to know that we have a true big leaguer (at minimum) with us for the next half-decade.