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Pitcher Cole Henry’s stock is rising in the Nationals’ system

Baseball America recently ranked Cole Henry, a second-round pick in 2020, as the Nationals’ sixth-best prospect. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Cole Henry has massive hands. It seemed reasonable, then, to ask whether that has helped him throw baseball after baseball past some of the game’s top prospects.

“Maybe?” Henry said last week, smiling. “I’m still figuring that out.”

With that, he jogged to the left field corner, toed the foul line and ran a go route before a teammate lobbed a football his way. Pitchers like to check their pregame conditioning box by pretending to be wide receivers. At the Arizona Fall League, where Henry is pitching for the Surprise Saguaros — a team made up of minor leaguers from the Washington Nationals, New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals — this is a daily routine. Once caught, the football looked normal on Henry’s fingertips. A baseball, on the other hand, can appear more like an oversize egg.

Whatever the case, the 22-year-old has thrived for Surprise, leading the league with 30 strikeouts in 19 innings through Tuesday. Elbow soreness limited the Nationals prospect to 43 innings with high Class A Wilmington in 2021. In them, though, he posted a 1.88 ERA, struck out 63 batters and walked 11. The Nationals sent Henry to the Fall League because they wanted to see him pitch more, plain and simple. And all he has done is improve his spot in the organization’s plans, even landing a spot in the league’s Fall Stars Game.

Drew Millas is a young catcher with a distinct skill set. That’s intriguing for the Nationals.

“The hitters here, man, these are really good lineups,” Henry said. “There are no easy outs, really. But what’s working for me is just both fastballs, four-seam and two-seam, two-seams in and four-seams up or away. Beyond that, mixing in my change-up and curveball. Just keeping it simple and throwing strikes.”

Baseball America recently ranked Henry, a second-round pick in 2020, as the Nationals’ sixth-best prospect. Other arms in the mix are Cade Cavalli (ranked second), Andry Lara (fifth), Joan Adon (seventh), Gerardo Carrillo (eighth) and Jackson Rutledge (ninth). Then there’s Josiah Gray, 23, who arrived in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade and pitched for Washington in August and September.

Two National League scouts at the Fall League said Henry is behind only Cavalli in “pure stuff” among the Nationals’ young pitchers. (The scouts spoke on the condition of anonymity because their employers do not allow them to speak publicly about other teams’ players.) Rutledge, who also is on Surprise’s staff, is in that discussion, too, but he’s coming off an injury-filled year. Henry’s stock is rising fastest.

His four-seam fastball typically sits in the mid-90s. Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager in charge of player development, called Henry’s change-up his “most consistent off-speed pitch.” On Friday, Scialabba predicted Henry’s change-up could be a swing-and-miss weapon against righties and lefties down the line. Drew Millas, a minor league catcher for the Nationals, also has been impressed.

“Cole’s fastball command is always going to be there, and that’s huge,” Millas said. “That may fluctuate with the two-seamer at times just because it has so much run to it. But he’s a really dynamic pitcher.”

“With two fastballs, he can consistently change eye levels,” Scialabba said. “He controls both pitches and can mirror well with his change-up, keeping hitters guessing. It allows him to throw to all quadrants of the zone.”

The Nationals’ rebuild takes another step at the Arizona Fall League

In June, Henry didn’t think any of this was possible. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch — but he was rehabbing in Florida, at the Nationals’ complex in West Palm Beach, and his next innings felt far away. He woke up at 6:30 a.m. every day, was at the facility by 8 and later watched games he couldn’t pitch in.

The sun felt a little hotter. The days felt very long.

“I was basically trapped in Florida, wondering if I’d ever leave,” Henry said with a laugh. “I never want that to happen again. Not playing was the hardest part. The whole thing was a total grind.”

It took close to three months for him to rejoin Wilmington. But when he did, Henry was sharp until the season ended in mid-September: four scoreless innings, back-to-back starts of five scoreless frames and a five-inning start in which he allowed a run and struck out nine.

The Nationals started Henry, Cavalli and Rutledge with Wilmington before they sprayed in different directions. Rutledge made 13 starts among Wilmington, low Class A Fredericksburg and the Nationals’ complex league team. Cavalli dominated in Wilmington, dominated with Class AA Harrisburg, then met his match in a late-season stint with Class AAA Rochester, showing room to grow. Henry logged strong numbers with Wilmington and appeared in two rehab games in West Palm Beach.

This was the first professional season for Henry and Cavalli. Rutledge, similarly, has just 73⅔ innings to his name. The Nationals are hoping each of them blooms into a major league starter, fueling their next title chase. Henry’s charge, in the interim, is to take care of his arm, striking the right balance of offseason training and between-starts work next year. He’s still figuring that out, too.