On Monday, two potentially key pieces of the Nationals’ future took another step in their development. After Nate McLouth landed on the disabled with an inflamed shoulder, Steven Souza Jr. was called up to the majors in the midst of his monster season at Class AAA Syracuse. And Michael A. Taylor, who had been tearing up the Eastern League with Class AA Harrisburg, was promoted to Syracuse.
Both moves underscored the Nationals’ outfield depth. Because of the experienced outfielders on the Nationals bench, Souza had to bide his time and wait his turn despite a .354/.435/.601 slash line along with 18 home runs and 24 stolen bases. With the opening created by Souza and other injured players at Syracuse, Taylor was promoted after hitting .313/.396/.539 with 22 home runs at Harrisburg.
With the breakout seasons of those two players, the Nationals’ outfield depth become even stronger, particularly at the higher rungs of the minor leagues. Destin Hood, on Syracuse’s disabled list, is also enjoying a breakout season. Brian Goodwin, a 2011 first round pick, is also on the disabled list. His development has lagged in his first season at Syracuse but has the tools to be a force. Although Souza and Taylor are considered higher-ceiling prospects, Syracuse’s roster also has Eury Perez and Jeff Kobernus, and both have already made their major league debuts.
“We like our outfield depth,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We like our depth in general. We think we’re deep in talented players at a lot of different positions. And outfield, in the upper minor leagues, is a lot of depth and we’ve got good controllable guys already in the big leagues.”
Souza, 25, proved everything he could at Syracuse this season. In his eighth professional season, after some personal struggle in previous seasons, Souza turned himself into the Nationals’ No. 5 overall prospect in MLB.com’s rankings.
“He’s had really a breakout season for himself,” Rizzo said. “He’s a kid that when we drafted we saw a big time tool package with him. Guys always develop at their own pace and this guy is finally starting to take off and play to what we thought he would when we drafted him.”
Before Monday’s game, Souza took early grounders at first base, a position he last played in 2011 at Class A Potomac before he was moved to the outfield. Souza will be the Nationals’ third-string first baseman in the meantime. But his future is in the outfield. The Nationals had Souza play center field two to three times a week this season at Syracuse. Rizzo said Souza, however, projects as a corner outfielder.
“We bounced him around with a plan in mind that we want him to get familiar and comfortable with all three positions,” Rizzo said. “It gives us a lot of flexibility in the future.”
Taylor, 23, also shot up to the prospects rankings with his stellar season, jumping to the Nationals’ No. 3 prospect on MLB.com’s list. Some believe Taylor could step into a major league game and play stellar defense, but his bat lagged behind. Taylor finally made big strides at the plate this year, only his fourth professional season. He went 2 for 2 with two walks and an RBI in his first game with Syracuse on Monday.
“He’s a guy who we’ve taken it a little slower with because we drafted him as a shortstop out of high school and then made the transition to the outfield,” Rizzo said. “But a guy whose development has finally caught up to his natural physical skills and tools and is having a breakout season also.”
While both players took big steps in their development on Monday, there are many factors in play regarding their future and how they fit in the Nationals’ plans. Will Jayson Werth play right field through the end of his contract, which ends after the 2017 season? Will Bryce Harper stay in left field or shift to any of the other outfield positions? Will the Nationals pick up Denard Span’s 2015 option and, if so, will he depart in 2016?
Those questions will work themselves out over time and the Nationals have set themselves up favorably with options in the future. When asked, Rizzo said he could even envision Souza and Taylor playing the outfield together with the Nationals one day. “I think they’re both everyday big league players,” he said.
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 7, Scranton/WB 6: Michael A. Taylor went 2 for 2 with an RBI and two walks in his Class AAA debut. Brandon Laird went 2 for 4 with a home run and three RBI. Will Rhymes went 2 for 4 with two RBI. A.J. Cole allowed four runs, three earned, and walked four over 4 1/3 innings. Ryan Mattheus allowed two runs, one earned, and his ERA is up to 5.83. Matt Grace earned the win with 1 2/3 scoreless innings.
Reading 5, Harrisburg 1: John Simms gave up five runs, four earned, on eight hits over 3 2/3 innings. Drew Vettleson drove in the lone run and Kevin Keyes smacked two hits.
West Virginia 5, Hagerstown 2: Wander Suero allowed only one hit and one unearned run over five innings. Andrew Cooper gave up four runs. David Napoli lowered his ERA to 0.40 ERA with 2 1/3 scoreless. Spencer Kieboom and Carlos Lopez homered.
Auburn 7, Staten Island 6: Travis Ott allowed three runs on three hits and five walks over four innings. David Ramos earned his first save and lowered his ERA to 1.93. Jeff Gardner homered and drew two walks. Five players had two hits each.