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Nats capitalizing on talented prospects
After trading Burns, organization remains deep in outfield
12/20/2013 10:00 AM ET
Michael Taylor's 51 stolen bases were the second most in the system.
Michael Taylor's 51 stolen bases were the second most in the system. (Joy R. Absalon/MiLB.com)

This offseason, MiLB.com is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

Any conversation about Washington's Minor League system has to begin with the Gulf Coast League Nationals, who were a ridiculous 49-9, finishing 24 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Marlins in the GCL East, before sweeping their way through the playoffs to a league title.

Jefry Rodriguez and Hector Silvestre were truly outstanding hurlers for the GCL squad, and nobody could have asked more of position players Drew Ward and Jose Marmolejos-Diaz. In each case, though, a full-season player in the same position took Organization All-Star honors with a strong showing of his own. In fact, a plethora of full-season players put on performances that ensured them a spot in this space. Teams at the Class A, Class A Advanced and Double-A levels not only made the playoffs but also made it to the Finals in their respective leagues.

"We're really proud of what the kids were able to accomplish, both individually and [as teams]," said Doug Harris, whom the Nationals recently promoted from director of player development to assistant general manager. "When you can combine those two things, you have to say it was a good year."

The Nationals are so deep in outfield talent that neither Jeff Kobernus nor Brian Goodwin nor Eury Perez are among honorees, although each had a fine season. Here's who we did honor:

Nationals Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Adrian Nieto, Potomac (110 games): Nieto was taken by the White Sox in the Rule 5 Draft last week, and it's clear why Chicago took the chance. He had a .991 fielding percentage over 86 games and 733 1/3 Carolina League innings behind the plate. He also batted.285 with a .373 on-base percentage and piled up 41 extra-base hits.

"Adrian really put together a fine season both offensively and defensively. Offensively, he modified his approach a little bit and became a more consistent professional hitter," Harris said. "On defense, he improved a great deal, especially in terms of his game calling and receiving."



First baseman -- Shawn Pleffner, GCL Nationals (5 games), Hagerstown (101 games): Pleffner took this honor last year as well. He returns on the strength of a .296 average and 26 doubles. He also stole 11 bases in 13 tries. Though fans may expect more than four homers from a 6-foot-5 first baseman, the Nationals aren't concerned.

"We're doing some things with him moving forward in regard to his approach, and he knows the strike zone. He utilizes the whole field. We expect it to come with approach -- it's not something we define in terms of power -- we think of it in terms of driving the baseball," Harris said. "How that will eventually translate, whether in terms of doubles or true home run power, remains to be seen."

Second baseman -- Tony Renda, Hagerstown (135 games): Renda's 43 doubles led the South Atlantic League, and his 30 thefts were fourth most in the Nationals system. He hit .294 with a .380 on-base percentage and 99 runs scored. On the other side of the ball, he made just 15 errors in 119 Class A games at second base for a .973 fielding percentage.

"Tony had a terrific year," said Harris. "He's an advanced hitter and has a feel for the strike zone. He's a line-drive machine. But he made his biggest strides defensively, with pivots and his footwork."

Third baseman -- Cutter Dykstra, Potomac (107 games): Dykstra had 26 doubles and 16 stolen bases while playing 62 games at third, 33 at second and eight at short.

"He carried 2012 over into 2013," Harris said. "We asked him to move around a little defensively, and he got a lot of reps at third base. He finished particularly strong."

Dykstra walked more times than he struck out this year, reaching base in more than 41 percent of his at-bats.

"We're not putting him in a take-to-hit frame of mind," said Harris. "He's still hit-to-take, but he did a nice job recognizing the strike zone and showed a lot of maturity as a hitter."

Shortstop -- Zach Walters, Syracuse (134 games), Washington (8 games): Walters bashed 29 homers and 32 doubles and had a .517 slugging percentage. He also played 27 Triple-A games at third base and two more during an eight-game stint in the big leagues.

"Zach had a really interesting year. He really struggled in the first half. He made a nice adjustment with Troy Gingrich, the Syracuse hitting coach, and he really started blasting in the second half," Harris said.

"He showed real home run power and really blossomed into maturity as a hitter in the second half. Defensively, he's a little streaky, but we feel he has the skills and the talent to stay in the position."

Outfielders

Billy Burns, Potomac (91 games), Harrisburg (30 games): Burns was traded to Oakland for reliever Jerry Blevins on Dec. 11, after the Nationals named Burns their Minor League Player of the Year. He hit .315 with a .425 on-base percentage (72 walks compared to 54 strikeouts), and his 74 stolen bases were most in the system and third most in the Minors.

"Billy is a wonderful individual. He's a gifted player but a tremendous individual," Harris said. "Any time you lose somebody, that's like losing our kids. But we understand what our goals are as an organization, and you have to give to get."

Steven Souza, GCL Nationals (four games), Harrisburg (77 games): After a number of issues saw him consider walking away from the game, Souza has had a couple of resurgent seasons. He missed time in April with a shoulder strain and an abdominal muscle strain in July and August, but when he was on the field, he made a huge difference. He hit .300 with 15 homers for the Senators, stealing 20 bases in 26 attempts.

"There were years that were a challenge for him early on as a young player," Harris said. "Steven's settled on a position and really blossomed. I give a ton of credit to him. He's really matured as a player and as a person."

He was a taxi-squad player in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .367 with 10 stolen bases and eight RBIs in 11 games.

Michael Taylor, Potomac (133 games): Taylor repeated the Class A Advanced level this year, and he did it very well. He was named a postseason All-Star and four-time Player of the Week. He had 57 extra-base hits -- 10 of which were homers -- and 51 stolen bases.

"Michael continues to get better every year. He's performed at a high level in Puerto Rico [Winter League] after a good year. He hits tons of doubles. We're seeing him driving the baseball with more regularity, and he's started to understand who he is as a hitter," Harris said. "Defensively, he's gifted -- he has great range, strong instincts and he can really throw. Where he made the most improvement this year is as a baserunner. He really committed to it and he saw the fruits of his labor with 50-plus stolen bases."

Utility -- Rafael Bautista, GCL Nationals (52 games): Bautista isn't so much a utility-type as an additional outfield pick. In his first stateside season, Bautista had a .400 on-base percentage, batting .322. He stole 26 bases -- one per every two games played -- and scored 44 runs.

"He's a great young man that is also a gifted player," Harris said. "He's very intelligent and has good baseball instincts."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Taylor Jordan, Potomac (six games, six starts), Harrisburg (nine games, eight starts), Washington (nine games, nine starts): Jordan was the Nats' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and even without counting his successful ascent to the Major Leagues, he had a campaign no other full-season pitcher in the system matched.

"He had a special season -- he moved across three levels and had success in the Majors to finish the year before we shut him down," Harris said. "A year and a half, almost two years off Tommy John surgery, his stuff grew. He has a changeup that's swing-and-miss, and his breaking ball is developing."

Jordan had a 1.00 ERA over 90 1/3 innings between Class A Advanced and Double-A ball, and he twirled two shutouts for Harrisburg. He struck out 72 and walked 15, and Minor League hitters batted .208 against him.

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Robbie Ray, Potomac (16 games, 16 starts), Harrisburg (11 games, 11 starts): Nats fans may not love seeing another name of a guy who was recently traded (in the deal for Doug Fister), but Ray's 160 strikeouts -- which he amassed over 142 innings -- not only led Washington's system but were tied for seventh most in all the Minors.

"Robbie deserves a lot of credit. He invested in a strength and conditioning program before the 2013 season, and that in conjunction with a small mechanical adjustment he worked on with Spin Williams, our pitching coordinator, made a big difference," Harris said. "His fastball grew. His velocity grew and so did his command. His secondary stuff improved, too."

Ray also ended up 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts across two levels.

Reliever -- Aaron Barrett, Harrisburg (51 games): Barrett posted a 2.15 ERA over 50 1/3 innings of relief for the Senators, going 1-1 with 26 saves (second most in the system) in 30 chances.

"He's another guy that was extremely consistent and another guy whose fastball grew. His slider is his go-to pitch, and it's swing-and-miss," Harris said. "He made a commitment in the latter part of the year to work on his changeup, and that improved a lot as a result."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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