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Nats’ affiliates finish a critical year for club’s player development

The Nationals are in the midst of a rebuild. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Because of inclement weather Wednesday, the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings did not play their scheduled season finale, settling their record at 67-81. And like most of the Washington Nationals’ affiliates — save a strong year and early playoff exit for the low Class A Fredericksburg Nationals — the Red Wings’ spring and summer was something of a reflection of the club’s entire minor league system.

Strides in the right direction — mostly in pitching development but also by simply acquiring more players with upside — were counterbalanced by injuries and confusing performances. For the Red Wings in particular, a hot start was weighed down by a 19-game losing streak that stretched across July and August. Rochester regularly fed players to the majors, priming Carl Edwards Jr. and Erasmo Ramírez for important bullpen roles; sending Joey Meneses, Ildemaro Vargas and Josh Palacios up at the trade deadline; and eventually prepping top prospect Cade Cavalli for his debut in Washington.

Cole Henry, another top prospect, briefly pitched for the Red Wings before undergoing season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Matt Cronin, one of the Nationals’ main young relievers, was promoted to Rochester in late May and logged 35⅔ innings, taking some lumps along the way. When Washington traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres on Aug. 2, the return was sprinkled throughout the affiliates, with the whole system receiving a massive boost from popular rankings sites.

The implication, then, was twofold: Yes, the package for Soto and Bell reset the Nationals’ top prospects for the better. Shortstop CJ Abrams initially went to Rochester. Outfielder Robert Hassell III went to high Class A Wilmington and eventually leaped to Class AA Harrisburg. James Wood, a 19-year-old outfielder, joined Fredericksburg for the playoff push and flashed his potential. And Jarlin Susana, an 18-year-old fireballer, took his 103-mph fastball from West Palm Beach, Fla. to Fredericksburg, drawing attention from General Manager Mike Rizzo and other members of the front office at his second stop.

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But by underachieving in scouting and player development for so many years — and by further thinning the talent pool with trades to stay competitive — the Nationals needed to deal Soto, a generational star, to put their system on track for a successful rebuild. That’s the undercurrent of Washington’s ongoing transformation, which to date has included a new director of player development (De Jon Watson), a reshaped staff (more roles, some fresh faces) and expectedly mixed results.

Progress is often incremental, especially when making up for lost time. And any progress — or lack thereof — will be magnified as Washington’s rebuild rolls along.

For whatever wins and losses are worth in the minors, the Nationals’ affiliates finished 23rd in combined winning percentage. The Tampa Bay Rays, regarded as a model for player development and talent acquisition, had the best affiliate winning percentage for the second consecutive year.

Washington’s main hope is that players from Fredericksburg soon will fill a void of promise in Wilmington and Harrisburg. Health will be a significant factor, too, especially for Henry and 19-year-old infielder Brady House, who missed most of the season with lower-back issues after a bout with the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Rizzo was asked about fitting House and Abrams in the same infield by hosts of “The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 the Fan. The implication was that Abrams’s arrival means House will have to move from his natural position, a possibility that has trailed him since he was drafted in the first round in 2021.

“[House] had a terrific first half of the season before he got covid, and then he got a little bit of a back injury, and [he] looks like he’s going to be a power-hitting type of middle of the lineup guy for us in the near future,” Rizzo said. “So we’ll figure that out if that’s the way it has to be when they’re both so good they have to be on the field at the same time. We’ll figure that one out easily.”

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Rochester named outfielder Andrew Stevenson its MVP. Stevenson, 28, played for Washington in parts of the previous five seasons, even scoring as a pinch runner in the National League wild-card game in 2019. But after being designated for assignment in April, he spent the year in Class AAA and finished with 16 homers, 39 steals, a .279 batting average, a .344 on-base percentage and a .457 slugging percentage.

Stevenson and outfielder Donovan Casey were rare constants in Rochester’s lineup. By September, though, the club’s most intriguing player was Jake Alu, a 25-year-old who has climbed the entire system. Its most intriguing pitcher was reliever Zach Brzykcy, who was a late addition after posting a 1.66 ERA for Wilmington, then a 1.89 ERA with a high strikeout rate in 32 appearances for Harrisburg.

Having excelled for the Senators, too, Alu smacked 11 homers and posted a .323 batting average, .372 on-base percentage and .553 slugging percentage in 53 games for the Red Wings. In September, he slashed a remarkable .409/.442/.761 in 95 plate appearances, good for an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.203. And beyond improving offensively after a jump to Class AAA, Alu was one of Sports Info Solutions’ minor league leaders in defensive runs saved, a metric measuring a player’s fielding contributions at a given position.

Alu was a third baseman in 2022 but has played a bit at second. On Tuesday, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez mused about Alu possibly backing up at third, second and left field in the future. Earlier this summer, Watson praised Harrisburg hitting coach Micah Franklin for his work with Alu.

To keep Alu in the mix, the Nationals would have to add him to the 40-man roster this fall so he can’t be selected by another club in the Rule 5 Draft. He and Vargas are the top internal options to be a utility infielder off the bench next year. They also could be candidates to play third, a spot hinging on Carter Kieboom’s recovery from Tommy John surgery and the team’s approach to free agency.

“He’s definitely going to be with us next year,” Martinez said of Alu, a 24th-round pick in 2019. “I don’t know if he’ll be in spring training. But I’d like to get eyes on him and see what he does with us a little bit, so we’ll see what happens. He’s had a tremendous year, and he should be proud of himself. I have noticed.”

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Turning Alu and Brzykcy into major league contributors would be victories that show a slight uptick in organizational depth. But beyond that, the Nationals have to hit on their big-name prospects, both those who came from San Diego and those the club picked in the past few drafts. Again, a critical winter of decisions and brainstorming looms.

Hurricane Ian forces weekend schedule changes

Remnants of Hurricane Ian forced Major League Baseball to adjust the Nationals’ four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies. A day-night doubleheader will now take place at Nationals Park on Friday, with the first game beginning at 1:05 p.m. and the second at 7:05. From there, the teams are scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. matchup Saturday and a 1:35 p.m. finale Sunday.

Those contests could be further affected by storms, and the Nationals noted in a statement that they will “continue to work closely with MLB as the weather situation unfolds.” Completing four official games is paramount because the Phillies are still in the National League wild-card race.