Recently, Baseball America released its top 10 ranking of the Nationals’ best prospects. We devised our own list here of the Nationals’ farm system, before the prospect bible announced its own, as a way for avid followers to learn a little more about each of the players: What are their skills, where do they stand in their development and when could they make it to the majors? We won’t rank the 10 players here, but we obviously start in a specific order. We started recently, looking at two players at time, and it ends today with our final two prospects.
C Sandy Leon, 23
Catching is perhaps the Nationals’ deepest position in the organization. They have four players who can, at least, hold their own in the majors: Wilson Ramos, Kurt Suzuki, Jhonatan Solano and Leon, in addition to long-time minor leaguer Carlos Maldonado. And of that group, Leon is the most promising prospect. The Nationals, and fans, saw glimpses of his ability last season when he was their first call to serve as Jesus Flores’ backup following Ramos’ season-ending knee injury.
Leon’s reputation is as a defensive catcher but, in the majors and last season in the minors, he proved he was also capable at the plate. In 36 plate appearances over 12 games in the majors, he hit .267 with two doubles — his stint in the majors was interrupted by a brutal stoke of bad luck, suffering a high ankle sprain during a collision at the plate during his major league debut. After posting an average no higher than .251 in his five previous minor league seasons, Leon hit .322/.396/.460 last season across three levels. He jumped from rookie ball Auburn to Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Syracuse. (Leon credited the improvement to working with Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein and Syracuse hitting coach Troy Gingrich in helping him change the positioning of his hands.)
“This year was by far his best offensive year,” said Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris. ”He made a significant change in approach and setup, and changed his hand positions and improved his balance. And really had a strong year offensively.”
The Venezuelan native, who signed with the Nationals in 2007, is the organization’s top fielding catcher. Nationals scouts clocked him throwing to second from home in less than two seconds. He has an accurate and quick arm, posting a caught stealing rate of 51 percent in 2010, 53 percent in 2011 and 41 percent in 2012.
The Nationals aren’t in need of a backup catcher at the moment, with Suzuki expected to be the opening-day starter as Ramos is eased back from two knee surgeries. So, barring any injury, Leon will remain in the minors, likely at Syracuse, and expected to continue working on his offense. Suzuki, acquired from Oakland in a trade last August, has a $8.5 million club option for 2014 that vests at $9.25 million if he makes 113 starts next season. Leon could be Ramos’s backup in 2014, if Ramos does indeed recover well from his knee injury next season.
INF Zach Walters, 23
Being an infielder, let alone a middle infielder, in the minor leagues of the Nationals organization can be tough. With Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond in the fold, it’s hard to see any room in the upcoming seasons. But Walters, along with Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole, could be pushing for playing time in a few years.
The Nationals acquired Walters in a 2011 trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for Jason Marquis. Walters, drafted by the Diamondbacks in the ninth round of the 2010 draft out of the University of San Diego, is a big (6-foot-2, 195-pound) and athletic player.
“He’s a very talented young man,” Harris said. “Gifted athletically. He can play multiple positions, a switch hitter. He can show parts of all five tools. Has an above average arm, can steal a base. Good hitter and with power.”
The Nationals have options at middle infield in the lower rungs of the minor leagues but aren’t as deep at the higher levels. Last season, as the Nationals searched for a backup player to serve as insurance for the injury Desmond, they promoted Walters to Syracuse. He was hitting well in Harrisburg (.293/.326/.518 in 172 plate appearances) and they were comfortable with him. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson was impressed with Walters in spring training after he played a couple of games in major league camp.
Walters has played mostly shortstop in the minors, but has also seen some time at second and third base. (He has played some third base for the Leones de Ponce, his winter league team in the Puerto Rican.) He is athletic enough for all three positions, and he has enough arm strength to continue playing shortstop.
Though he’s not a power hitter yet, Walters has shown the ability to develop into one. He hit only four home runs in 2010, jumped to nine in 2011 and 12 last season. Harris said Walters is learning how to rely on his strength and size to generate power with a simple and short swing, instead of a conscious effort to hit the ball hard.
The Nationals want Walters to keep developing and refine all facets of his game. He seems like a candidate to start at Syracuse next season and spend his first full season at Class AAA, where he hit .214 in 105 plate appearances last season. And, while the Nationals have other options for September call-ups such as Rendon or Carlos Rivero, he could also be in that mix.