Earlier this offseason, the Nationals were caught in the middle of a contract dispute with veteran center fielder Victor Robles. There was an impassioned debate within the fan community regarding whether there was any logical reason to keep Robles.
Although I was in favor of retaining him at an affordable rate (which Washington ended up doing), the larger point – no pun intended – is that it won’t matter after the upcoming season.
Over the weekend, Jessica Camerato of MLB.com interviewed minor league outfield prospects James Wood and Robert Hassell III. Hassell is likely to cement himself in the big leagues beginning in 2024, if not sooner, and Wood has been discussed as a future face of the franchise.
Up to now, Both Hassell and Wood have spent their entire professional careers in center field. That in itself is a luxury, but they’re far from the only minor leaguers of note who can stake that claim.
Bringing the Wood
Camerato’s story was centered upon Wood, who her outlet has ranked as the game’s No. 17 overall prospect. At just 20 years old, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound phenom has emerged as one of the most tantalizing youngsters in the sport.
The experts all love him, and so does Hassell, who stated in his interview with Camerato, “If you like seeing balls hit 120 miles an hour off the bat all the time, then that’s your guy.”
Remind anyone else of Josh Bell in the batter’s box?
Through his first 102 minor league games, Wood is batting .326 with 48 extra-base hits. Clearly, his ability at the plate is no joke. The more surprising component of his game, given his size, is that he’s also stolen 30 bases. He stated to Camerato that he attributes that athleticism to his time as a basketball player prior to going pro in baseball.
As I opined in my recent Spring Training preview, it would’ve been exciting to see Wood in big league camp. However, it’s also refreshing for there to be media attention on the minor league side.
This Outfield Goes Deep
Hassell himself comes with critical acclaim, as an undisputed top 75 prospect in the league. His “tools” are less flashy, but he’s a well-developed hitter who loves to hit to the opposite field.
Elijah Green can make the same claim. Standing at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, he’s one of few players at 20 years old or younger who doesn’t look tiny when nearby Wood. Aside from an elevated strikeout rate, Green actually profiles very similarly to Wood – as a true five-tool prospect (hit, power, run, arm and field).
The list doesn’t stop there, either. Fellow center fielders Cristhian Vaquero and Jeremy De La Rosa are likely to be rated as top 10 prospects in Washington’s system when MLB Pipeline updates their rankings next Monday.
Other outfielders like Daylen Lile, Roismar Quintana, T.J. White, Brenner Cox, Jared McKenzie, Yasel Antuna, Justin Connell, Jacob Young, and Ricardo Mendez are all candidates to be rated inside the MLB Pipeline top 30 for the club.
So, let’s do some basic math. That’s 14 players who, to simplify this discussion, have the realistic upside to become major leaguers – and three of whom should become impact starters with All Star potential.
By now, it should be clear that Robles is far closer to the end than the beginning of his time in Washington. He’s not the only player affected by the outfield logjam, though.
Even at the minor league level, managing this many noteworthy players at one position group is no easy task. Here’s a rough sketch of how this shapes out in Double-A Harrisburg – in which I’ll exclude Antuna, who was promoted to Triple-A Rochester this offseason.
As you can clearly see, the minor league depth chart is overloaded, to the point that it might hurt individual player development – unless the Nationals rotate players between multiple positions day by day. Particularly in Harrisburg and Fredericksburg, there will likely be two players who they see as potential center fielders long term. They won’t love having to demote a player or two into a DH-only role in Wilmington or Fredericksburg, either.
As a step in remedying the latter dilemma, T.J. White has been learning a couple new positions this offseason. In an interview conducted by “Nationals Source” on Twitter, White discussed that he’s been working at both first base and third base, in addition to his routine spot in left field.
The Nationals may need someone at the Low-A level to complete a similar transition.
Speaking of Third Base…
In Friday’s media availability, Mike Rizzo made a surprising announcement about his No. 5 overall selection in the 2021 draft. Brady House, who missed most of last season with a back injury, will be shifting from shortstop to third base this season. This is something most people expected would take place for the 6-foot-4, 215-pound slugger. However, it’s a much more proactive move than the Nationals have historically made.
It also may end up muddying the water if White truly can also play third base, but we’ll worry about that later.
That’s all for now from minor league camp, but expect more to come soon!