Hagerstown Suns

While the Nationals’ minor league depth has been tested early this season, the best crop of budding talent may be concentrated in the lower rungs of the system. Class A Hagerstown, comprised of some of the players who led the Gulf Coast League affiliate to the best single-season winning percentage of any U.S.-based minor league team at any level last season, has a record of 18-5 to start the season.

And the team, led by last year’s GCL manager Patrick Anderson, is loaded with young talent. The starting rotation is made up of arms such as the  2012 first-round pick Lucas Giolito (2.95 ERA in five starts), the 2013 second-round pick Jake Johansen (5.21 ERA in four starts), ’13 fifth-round pick Austin Voth (3.24 ERA in four starts) and a ’13 fourth-round pick Nick Pivetta (4.57 ERA in five starts). All have fastballs that have been clocked, at least, in the low to mid 90s, led by the high 90s heat from Giolito and Johansen.

The bullpen also had standouts but lost two recently: Wander Suero has a 1.25 ERA over 21 2/3 innings, John Simms had a 0.98 ERA over 18 1/3 innings, Matthew Spann (acquired from Tampa Bay Rays in the David DeJesus trade last season) had a 1.20 ERA over 15 innings and Andrew Cooper has a 2.81 ERA over 16 innings. Simms and Spann were recently promoted to Class A Potomac.

“They’re the young wave of talent we have coming through the system from a pitching standpoint,”  said Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ director of player development. Scialabbba pointed to Giolito, Voth, Pivetta and Johansen as starting pitchers the Nationals are particularly bullish on.

The Hagerstown pitching staff has the third-best ERA (2.95) in the South Atlantic League and is tied for the best WHIP (1.21). Giolito has struck out 24 batters, and walked 11, in 21 1/3 innings. Voth has struck out more per inning; he has fanned 21 in 16 2/3 innings.

Hagerstown also has crop of talented but developing young hitters led by 6-foot-4 infielder Drew Ward (the 19-year-old athletic standout who left high school early and was drafted by the Nationals in the third round last year), outfielder Isaac Ballou (one of the best hitters in the Nationals 2013′ draft class) and infielder Wilmer Difo (known as one of the strongest, pound-for-pound players in the minor league system). Also, outfielders Estarlin Martinez, Rafael Bautista and Wilman Rodriguez, all hitting above .270, are part of the new crop of players signed and developed out of the Dominican Republic.

Of the group, two players stand out: Ward and Difo. Ward missed some time with pneumonia but is hitting .311/.382/.508 with two home runs and 21 RBI over 14 games. While Hagerstown was in West Virginia on a recent road trip, the third baseman hit a ball so hard it left the stadium entirely for a home run.

“He’s got power deep to right-center,” Scialabba said. “He can turn on a pitch and the ability to hit the ball the other way. An advanced approach for a 19-year-old.”

Difo, 22, a Dominican native, is listed at 6-foot, 175 pounds. He can play all over the infield but has played primarily at shortstop throughout his minor league career. Last year across the GCL affiliate, short season Auburn, Hagerstown and Potomac, Difo posted a .217/.296/.348 slash line with four home runs and nine stolen bases. Through 22 games this season, he has a .313/.346/.434 slash line with nine stolen bases in 10 attempts.

“He’s learning how to be a consistent and professional baseball player from game to game,” Scialabba said. “He loves to work out. In our November conditioning camp, he won the whole thing. He takes a lot of pride in his work ethic. He’s in tremendous shape. He’s built like a running back.  He’s an an exciting player. He’s taken a little longer but you’re starting to see the tools realized on the field.”