Welcome back to Minor League Monday, our weekly look at the goings-on around the Washington Nationals’ minor league affiliates. Last week, we addressed the growing legend of Juan Soto, who has since been promoted again. This week, we’re going to do something slightly different: look at how a few prospects the Nationals have traded away the past two years are performing.
The Nationals could have traded Victor Robles or Juan Soto, or both, this offseason to make immediate roster improvements for 2018. It wouldn’t have been difficult. They were the first two players rebuilding teams — the ones most likely to trade productive major leaguers — asked about in trade talks. Each could have been the centerpiece in a package for a high-profile major leaguer to help the Nationals win now.
But the Nationals held onto the prized outfielders, and both may play prominent roles in their future. While Robles suffered a left elbow injury while playing for Class AAA Syracuse that could keep him out for the remainder of the season, he impressed at the major league level late last year and during spring training. He’s a five-tool talent who ranks among the top 10 prospects in baseball. Meanwhile, the hype surrounding Soto has amplified to match the Nationals’ internal assessments. He has slugged his way to two promotions in 18 days — Class A Hagerstown to Class A Advanced Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg — and has been one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues this season.
Things can change, of course. Prospects don’t always pan out, even ones that seem as sure to develop into productive major leaguers as Robles and Soto, for whatever reason. On the other side, teams can decide to flip them because internal projections change or because a too-good-to-pass-up deal surfaces or because the pieces needed for a World Series title in the more immediate future are available. Or some combination.
And while General Manager Mike Rizzo hasn’t budged on Robles or Soto, he has not shied away from dealing talented prospects, especially pitchers, in the right deal, which has left the pitching cupboard somewhat bare in the upper minors. It’s the price of doing business and remaining a playoff contender for what’s now going on seven years, which is possible when a club is as good at scouting and recognizing potential as the Nationals have been. A team needs prospects to flip prospects.
Last week, MLB Pipeline released its updated top 100 prospects list and the three biggest “risers” were Soto, Jesus Luzardo and Dane Dunning. Luzardo and Dunning are two of the four prominent pitching prospects the Nationals have traded in the past 18 months to shore up their roster with proven major leaguers.
Again, Luzardo and Dunning — like all prospects — are not sure things. Pitching prospects are even less predictable, more prone to injuries that could derail development. And they’re not the only potential future big leaguers the Nationals flipped to get better immediately. Here’s a look at how the four notable pitching prospects the Nationals have traded in recent years are faring.
LHP Jesus Luzardo
Luzardo was a first-round talent out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2016 but was coming off Tommy John surgery at the time of the draft. The Nationals, who have a history of success with drafting Tommy John recipients, pounced when he slipped to the third round. After taking that season to rehab, Luzardo appeared in just three games for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast affiliate before they traded him to the Oakland Athletics last July as part of the haul for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.
Now 20, Luzardo has cemented himself as one of baseball’s top pitching prospects and was recently promoted to Class AA. The left-hander features a plus change-up and a 98-mph fastball. He has a 2.43 ERA and 0.876 WHIP while striking out 13.3 batters per nine innings in six starts between Class A and AA.
RHP Dane Dunning
A first-round pick in 2016, Dunning was the least-talked-about prospect sent to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton in December 2016. But there’s a chance he ends up being the best one. While Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito are already major leaguers, the 23-year-old Dunning pitched to a 2.94 ERA in 26 starts between Class A and Class A Advanced last season. The right-hander was recently called up to Class AA and has a 2.68 ERA between Class A Advanced and Class AA in eight outings.
RHP Lucas Giolito
Giolito, another pitcher the Nationals drafted after Tommy John surgery, is an example of a prospect not quite panning out as projected. Giolito doesn’t turn 24 until July, but he doesn’t resemble the pitcher who was widely regarded as baseball’s top pitching prospect and a surefire future ace just two years ago. The Nationals recognized the slide and traded him after he pitched to a 6.75 ERA in six games in 2016. He was better in seven starts for Chicago last season, posting a 2.38 ERA, but he wasn’t missing many bats, and his 4.94 FIP suggested he wasn’t as good as that ERA made him appear.
Compounding his troubles this year, Gioito has encountered severe command problems. The right-hander leads the American League with 25 walks in 36 innings across seven starts, and he walked seven in a two-inning outing last month. He has limited the free passes to two in each of his past three outings, but his ERA stands at 7.25, and he’s striking out just 5.3 batters per nine innings.
RHP Reynaldo Lopez
The other pitching prospect with major league experience the Nationals traded for Eaton, the 24-year-old has been better than Giolito this season, logging a 2.44 ERA and going at least five innings in each of his seven starts. But he’s striking out just 6.3 batters and walking 3.9 per nine innings. Both of those numbers — and a 4.93 FIP — indicate the right-hander has had some luck on his side. Perhaps Lopez’s future is in the bullpen, where his stuff could play up in shorter bursts.
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