We paid a visit to a Class AA Harrisburg recently and the following are a handful of observations and notes about several Nationals prospects.
>>> A.J. Cole, the right-handed starter and Nationals’ second-rated prospect, has been working on adding a slider to his pitching repertoire. He debuted it in spring training and has been using it early this season. He already throws a mid-90s fastball and a change-up, along with an occasional curveball. But Cole, 22, wanted a hard breaking ball to mix in as well.
“It’s not going to be an early in the count pitch yet,” he said. “Maybe later. Either they’re going to swing and miss it or watch it for a strike.”
Cole, listed at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, is working toward being more consistent with the slider. “It’s been hit or miss with him,” Manager Brian Daubach said. “He’s throwing it and he sticking with it and convicted to it.”
Overall, Cole has a 3.63 ERA over five starts with Harrisburg this season with 16 strikeouts and only four walks. His biggest goal this season is to improve his secondary pitches.
“My change-up, I have a lot of confidence throwing that in any count,” he said. “Breaking ball, I do have confidence in it but I struggle to be consistent with it. … It’s just the consistency part of it. When I attack hitters, just trying not to be too fine and trying to get ahead.”
>>> Outfield Michael A. Taylor is an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on this season. Baseball America rated him the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals’ system before left-handed starter Robbie Ray was traded away, so he should be higher now. Taylor, 23, is considered the best defensive outfielder in the system and, according to some evaluators, could be a standout outfielder in the majors now.
But his bat has lagged behind his speed and glove. Taylor, listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, hit .263/.340/.426 with 10 home runs, 87 RBI, 51 stolen bases and 131 strikeouts last season. So far this season, he has hit six home runs in 26 games, a higher home rate than in the past. Even recently he had a three-homer game. The improved power isn’t a conscious effort.
“I’m just focused on squaring up the ball and hitting it hard,” Taylor said. “Caught a couple breezes lately and the ball is leaving the stadium but it’s really not anything different that I’m doing in my swing and not trying to get long like that. I’m trying to stay up the middle and hit it hard.”
Taylor’s career high in home runs was 13 in Class A Hagerstown in 2011. The power has just needed to be honed, Daubach said.
“If you watch him take BP, it’s in there,” he said. “It’s a matter of betting him at-bats, getting in a hitting position, more consistent and more experience, and you’ll see some damage.”
So far this season, he is hitting .260/.351/.500. He has struck out 43 times and walked 12 times in 111 plate appearances, both numbers he wants to change. He is hitting leadoff for Harrisburg, which he did in Hagerstown and in winter ball, but not as often last season with Class A Potomac.
“It’s definitely a big focus of mine: getting the strikeouts down,” he said. “I’d like to be a top-of-the-order guy and kind of a table setter but drive in some runs at the same time. Putting the ball in play more is definitely a focus of mine. I think I’m headed the right direction. I know right now it’s been kind of a rough start but trying to stay short.”
>>> Daubach said one of the pitchers who has stood out so far is right-handed sidearm reliever Neil Holland. The 25-year-old has a 2.76 ERA in 16 1/3 innings spread over nine games. He has struck out 17 and walked six. According to Daubach, Holland’s velocity is up so far this season, even hitting around 92 and 93 mph.
“He’s really pounding the zone and pitching with a lot of confidence right now,” Daubach said.
In 50 games last season with Harrisburg, Holland had a 2.84 ERA, and a 11.2 K/9 rate and a 5.73 K/BB, both astounding. The right-hander was drafted by the Nationals out of the University of Louisville in the 11th round of the 2010 draft.
>>> Felipe Rivero, the left-hander acquired from Tampa Bay in the Jose Lobaton trade, has struggled early this season. He has a 5.04 ERA in six starts. He has struck out 17 batters but also walked 11 in 25 innings. In spring training, the Nationals were impressed with Rivero’s powerful arm. But this season, he needs to harness it and hone his command. He is working on repeating his delivery consistently from the stretch and from the wind-up.
“He’s got such a good arm that he’s gotten away with mistakes,” Daubach said. “You get to a higher level, guys will get a little more patient and make you get it over the plate. When he does, it’s really good.”
>>> Matt Purke has also struggled but more than Rivero. The left-handed starter, who a $4.15-million deal after he was drafted in the third round in 2011, has a 9.30 ERA in five starts. He has allowed 21 earned runs, walked 13 batters and struck out 14 in 20 1/3 innings. Last season was his first full season since shoulder surgery in mid-2012, and he said he was relieved to feel fully healthy in spring training this year.
>>> Matt Skole, rated the Nationals’ fourth best prospect, is hitting .165 with 32 strikeouts in 85 at-bats. The Nationals want the infielder to get a lot of at-bats because he missed most all of last season with Tommy John and wrist surgery. After so much time away, the results matter less for Skole now.