At the lowest rung of the minor leagues, the Nationals have a juggernaut. The organization’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, comprised of many of the youngest players in the system, are an absurd 41-6, a crazy .872 winning percentage. They are riding a 17-game winning streak. They sit 22 games ahead of the second-place teams, the Cardinals and Marlins, in the East division. The next-best record in the entire rookie league belongs to one of the Yankees’ affiliates, a measly 30-17, a .638 winning percentage. The Nationals clinched the division crown last Friday after a 6-2 win over the Mets — with 17 games left in the regular season. They are the best team in the entire system, including the major leagues.
It is an astounding achievement considering how inexperienced the team’s players are, how this is often their first taste of professional baseball, how players were thrown together onto a team during extended spring training and how many of the players hail from the Dominican Republic and are new to the U.S. Most players are 20 or 21 years old.
“During extended, we just kept seeing guys competing and really jelling as a team,” GCL Nationals Manager Patrick Anderson said in a telephone interview. “And with the draft we were able to add key pieces to the puzzle. And as the season started, their confidence kept growing and their aggressiveness and discipline every day in this hot weather. It was awesome.”
This is Anderson’s first season in the Nationals system. He was Hofstra University’s head baseball coach for the past three years, and for the previous nine seasons served as a minor league hitting coach in the Kansas City Royals system. Nationals director of player development Doug Harris and director of minor league operations Mark Scialabba knew Anderson and talked about bringing him into the organization this offseason. Coincidentally, Anderson is from the Washington area. He played baseball at Paint Branch High, was named a second team All-Met catcher as a senior and won state titles in 1990 and 1991. He has worked with young players for much of his coaching career.
The GCL Nationals are, obviously, filled with young and budding talent. They boast the league’s best hitting squad with a .288 average. They hit few home runs but hurt opponents with aggressiveness, hits and stolen bases (league-leading 89 swipes). They also have the league’s best pitching staff with a 2.54 ERA.
Anderson struggled to name a handful of standouts, feeling guilty if he left out any names of a team that obviously has counted on many contributors. “There’s a bunch of these guys. I could sit here and tell you all day long,” he said. Instead, he spoke glowingly of the quality of talent and character of the young players signed or drafted by the Nationals.
The conditions of the Gulf Coast League, given the novice level of play, are understandably underwhelming. The Nationals play in Viera. The Florida summers are hot and, more than anything, oppressively humid. The games are held during the middle of the day. The playing fields are basic and few come to watch. The bus rides to other minor league complexes across the state can be long.
“It’s unbelievable,” Anderson said. “The discipline of them waking up so early in the morning. Getting to the ballpark. The routine. It’s been really fun to be around.”
There are, however, standouts. The most high-profile of the team’s arms belongs to 2012 first-round pick Lucas Giolito, who is returning from Tommy Johnn surgery. In eight starts for the GCL Nationals, the 6-foot-6, 19-year-old right-hander has a 2.78 ERA. He has struck out 25 batters and walked 10 batters over 22 2/3 innings. Giolito, an important piece of the Nationals’ future, has impressed team officials by already touching 98 and 99 miles per hour on the radar gun.
“To come back from Tommy John and to be able to develop the way he has and get his strength back is a tribute to his hard work and the organization and (rehab coach) Mark Grater, who has done a great job,” Anderson said. “… His strength has been really good. He just needs to get some inning under his belt just like everybody. He’s developing just like everybody else. It’s been fun to watch. All of them.”
Others have performed well. There’s 21-year-old, 6-foot-3 right-hander Wander Suero who leads the GCL with a 1.13 ERA over 40 innings. And there’s 20-year-old, 6-foot-3 left-hander Hector Silvestre who has a 2.29 ERA and a 6-0 record over 39 1/3 innings. And there’s 20-year-old, 6-foot-5 right-hander Jefry Rodriguez who has a 2.31 ERA over 39 innings. All three are from the Dominican.
Among the standout hitters is Drew Ward, the mammoth 18-year-old from Oklahoma who graduated high school early to enter the draft. Ward, a left-handed, 6-foot-3 third baseman who the Nationals selected in the second round of this year’s draft and signed above slot for $850,000, is hitting .300 with a .813 OPS in 43 games. Anderson said Ward’s plate discipline is “really above his years.”
“He’s a big strong kid,” Anderson added. “He hasn’t lifted a weight in his life. He’s just starting to do that.”
Ward along with other hitters have helped carry the GCL Nationals’ offense. Right-handed center fielder Rafael Bautista, a 20-year-old from the Dominican, is hitting .333 with a .428 on-base percentage and 23 stolen bases in 43 games. Left-handed first baseman Jose Marmolejos-Diaz, 20, is hitting .299 with two homers over 41 games.
“The overall hitting philosophy of this organization has really impressed me,” Anderson said. “Rick Schu is up in the big leagues but has really laid a foundation of letting these kids go when they’re younger. We’re letting them play. Down the road in instructional league they’ll get time to work on the things they need to work on.”
The Nationals believe that part of a player’s development is also winning. The GCL Nationals have certainly learned a fair share about that this season. Under two weeks remain in the season before the playoffs, which begin with a one-game semifinal between the four division winners and a best-of-three championship series.