Difo, Souza, Giolito step up for Nationals

Washington system produced three playoff teams, impact outfielders

Middle infielder Wilmer Difo hit .315 with 90 RBIs and 49 steals in 136 games at Class A Hagerstown. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

By Danny Wild / MiLB.com | December 10, 2014 10:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Today, continuing with the Washington Nationals, we're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball.

Washington's Minor League affiliates continued to enjoy success on the field in 2014, with Class A Advanced Potomac claiming the Carolina League's Mills Cup championship for the third time since 2008. Potomac lost in the Finals in 2013 and many of this year's players tasted defeat after reaching the Class A South Atlantic League Championship Series a year earlier. Higher up, Triple-A Syracuse stunned everyone by winning the International League North Division crown with the league's best record (81-62), marking the Chiefs' first taste of the postseason since 1988 (that's five years before Bryce Harper was born, for perspective).

Class A Hagerstown finished in first place before falling to Asheville in the Sally League Finals, but Double-A Harrisburg struggled, finishing at the bottom of the Eastern League at 53-89.

Nationals fans who suffered for years are now well aware of the team's success via the Draft. Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermanz, Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen and Ross Detwiler are a few of the homegrown players who've graduated in recent years. We sat down with Mark Scialabba, the Nationals' director of player development, to look at some of the organization's 2014 standouts.

Nationals Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Spencer Kieboom, Hagerstown (87 games): Kieboom isn't the Nationals' top-ranked catching prospect -- those honors go to 2014 draftee Jakson Reetz (No. 1) and Potomac's Pedro Severino (No. 2) -- but he clearly has the best name among Washington backstops and farmhands, in general. A 2012 fifth-rounder out of Clemson, he hit .309 with nine homers, 61 RBIs and a .352 on-base percentage. This year also marked the first full season for the 23-year-old.

"Spencer had a great year, very solid behind the plate, great receiver, handles pitchers well," Scialabba said. "He's a leader on the field. We're very pleased with his performance, he did a great job handling that staff. He has a lot of talent, he was a constant backstop where we trusted him day in and day out. It's been a pleasure to see him blossom on both sides of the ball."

First base -- Matt Skole, Harrisburg (132 games): The Nationals' No. 6 prospect also is ranked as the organization's top first baseman. A 2011 fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, the 25-year-old grabbed attention in 2012 when he batted .286 with 27 homers and 104 RBIs to earn Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year honors. He missed nearly all of 2013 after a collision in his second game fractured his wrist and forced Tommy John surgery. This year, the lefty-swinging converted third baseman hit .241 with 14 homers, 68 RBIs, 29 doubles and a .352 OBP at Double-A.

"Matt certainly is a big, physical corner infielder that has power to all fields, and he's someone that has a good eye at the plate," Scialabba said. "He missed a large chunk of time and it took him some time to come back, and you're starting to see him make some strides. He certainly has a ways to go to reach his full potential."

Scialabba also pointed to Potomac's Shawn Pleffner, who hit .298 with two homers and 44 RBIs.

"Pleffner was very consistent at the plate, but Skole brings more power and a good eye at the plate, too. We like Matt," he said.

Second base -- Tony Renda, Potomac (107 games): Renda produced as expected in his second full season since the Nationals selected him in the second round of the 2012 Draft out of Cal. The 23-year-old has no power -- he's 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds -- but he tries to make up for that, as many middle infielders do, but getting on base and stealing a few more. At Potomac, the right-handed hitter batted .307 with 47 RBIs, 21 doubles, 19 steals and a .381 OBP. Washington's 17th-ranked prospect totaled 127 hits and 75 runs scored in 107 games while making a handful of appearances at shortstop. At second, he committed eight errors and boasted a .980 fielding percentage.

"Tony is a grinder, he works extremely hard at all phases of the game, he has a good understanding of the strike zone, he's an aggressive hitter, especially on pitches middle and middle away," Scialabba said. "He does a good job barreling up the baseball, consistent day in and day out. He's worked extremely hard and definitely has improved. He has range and ability on both sides. We were pleased with Tony. Great teammate and he leads by example."

Shortstop -- Wilmer Difo, Hagerstown (136 games): The 22-year-old enjoyed a breakout season by hitting .315 with 14 homers, 90 RBIs, 49 steals and a .360 OBP. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, the Nats' No. 19 prospect is a versatile infield weapon -- he can play any position and he's a switch-hitter with power and speed, ranking second in the system in stolen bases. He made 70 starts at short and 66 at second base before being added to the Nats' 40-man roster in November.

"We're very excited for Wilmer Difo, certainly a breakout year, he made tremendous strides with the mental side of the game," Scialabba said. "He's understanding who he is as a player. He's got above-average tools -- speed, hit, field; it's a combination that is going to allow him to play at the higher levels, and I think that certainly he has the ability to play shortstop, he has the arm strength. He'll continue to get reps at short and has the ability to be above-average at second as well.

"Line drive hitter on both sides, has some power into the gaps, he's a well above-average runner on the bases and starting to learn how to become a basestealer. He played big in big moments and was an exciting player to watch.

Third base -- Brandon Laird, Syracuse (130 games): Laird, 27, was valuable as organizational depth in 2014 -- he was acquired him from the Royals last March -- but the Nationals were covered in the Majors with Rendon and Zimmerman. The former Yankees prospect posted a solid season, hitting .300 with 18 homers, 32 doubles, 85 RBIs and a .350 OBP at Syracuse. He ranked second in the organization in RBIs and third in homers, stats that helped him earn a one-year deal in November from Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters for 60 million yen (roughly $493,000 USD).

"He was a veteran in that lineup that helped the Syracuse club win the division, and he was a big part of the offensive success of that club," Scialabba said. "He had a season where he just started to re-establish himself and he played every day at third, he did a good job on both sides. He was one of the more valuable players on that team."

Looking at younger prospects, Scialabba likes Hagerstown's Drew Ward, who hit .269 with 10 homers, 73 RBIs and a .341 OBP. "He gets overlooked, but he's a young kid who put up some solid numbers," Scialabba said of the 20-year-old and 2013 third-round pick.

Outfielders

Steven Souza, Syracuse (96 games), Potomac (3 games), Hagerstown (1 game), Washington (21 games): Souza, the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year, continued to show power and speed, pushing his way to the Majors in September. The organization's fifth-ranked prospect and No. 2 outfield prospect hit .345 with 18 homers, 77 RBIs, 28 steals and a .427 OBP before getting 23 at-bats for the Nats. He ranked fourth in the system in both homers and steals.

"Steven had a very impressive year. He dealt with a lot of adversity throughout his career and he's becoming the player he thought he was," Scialabba said. "He's realizing his tools on the field, he's got a very dedicated approach, he looks to drive the ball up the middle, keeps the bat in the strike zone for a long time and that allows him to increase his chance of contact. He has the potential to be an impact bat in the middle of the order in the big leagues one day, definitely. He did a great job learning. For someone that's had to play a lot of positions in his career, he's established himself as a solid outfielder with above-average arm strength."

Oh, Souza also made a ridiculous diving catch to save Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter on Sept. 28. No big deal.

Rafael Bautista, Hagerstown (134 games): The 21-year-old center fielder hit .290 with five homers, 54 RBIs and led the system with 69 steals in his third Minor League season. The native of the Dominican Republic ranked second in the Minors in steals while scoring 97 runs and posting a .341 OBP.

"Bautista had a great year," Scialabba said. "Plus-plus runner, plus defender in center field, that's his game. He did a good job setting the table at the top of the lineup, getting on base and using his speed to cause problems with the defense. He did a great job at the plate, making adjustments as the year went on. He started to learn what kind of hitter he can be. He made strides, certainly has the raw tools to be a center fielder down the road and an impact player."

Michael Taylor, Syracuse (12 games), Harrisburg (98 games), Washington (17 games): The 2009 sixth-round pick has been ranked among the Nationals' top prospects for a few years but really took things to another level in 2014, batting .304 with 23 homers, 64 RBIs and 37 steals in 110 Minor League games. He made his big league debut in August after putting together an impressive campaign, primarily at Double-A. Washington's No. 3 prospect and top-ranked outfield prospect ranked second in the system in homers and third in steals.

"I think power is something that's becoming one of the hardest things to find, especially right-handed power, and with someone who can defend like Michael Taylor, he's a well above-average defender with a speed and power that combo that is rare in this game," Scialabba said. "He's continuing to make adjustments, he still has some room to improve, but you have to give him credit, him and Steven, for all the hard work they've done with our staff, handling the strike zone, being more disciplined and being able to understand himself as a hitter.

"His power is great, he's starting to realize what he needs to do and he's improving as a baserunner. He's got tremendous tools, he's exciting, has tremendous range -- he definitely has an above-average arm, an accurate arm, the ball stays true and on a line. He's someone who can impact the game on both sides, he's special to watch."

Designated Hitter/Utility -- Kevin Keyes, Harrisburg (114 games), Potomac (19 games): Keyes has totaled at least 78 RBIs in each of his last three seasons, and 2014 marked his third with at least 20 homers. A 2010 seventh-round pick, he hit .244 with 24 long balls and 81 RBIs in 133 games this year. The 25-year-old led all Nationals Minor Leaguers in homers and ranked third in RBIs. He strikes out a lot and doesn't walk much, although he improved in both of those categories.

"I think Kevin did a good job. He broke out this year and had more consistency," Scialabba said. "To have such success at Double-A -- offensively, he has tremendous raw power, and it's a matter of, can he get to it? Obviously, we saw he can, so we hope he can take a step next year and continue to improve next year and continue to hit like he did this year."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Lucas Giolito, Hagerstown (20 games): You can flip a coin here between Giolito and A.J. Cole on who had the better year. Giolito, 20, was sparkling at Class A, going 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 98 innings. Cole, 22, went 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 134 innings at higher levels before earning a spot on the Nats' 40-man roster. Giolito, the organization's top prospect, led the system in ERA while issuing only 28 walks. He was named the Nationals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, the Suns' MVP, he went to the Futures Game and was voted the South Atlantic League's Most Outstanding Major League Prospect.

"Both had great years: Lucas was our Pitcher of the Year, but A.J. did it at a higher level," Scialabba said. "Lucas was very impressive, he's a young pitcher with a very mature mind and coming off a year where he's still going through our program and development curve. Just the overall stuff, his ability is going to be something special. He's fun to watch, he has an above-average fastball down in the zone, a hammer for a curve that drops off the table, hard, tight spin, a swing-and-miss pitch. His change will continue to develop, it has very good late fade action. Three good Major League offerings, so it'll be exciting to watch him learn how to pitch. He's a great human being, a great person and someone who's excited. On the overall scale of prospects, he's physically gifted and has amazing arm speed for some that size."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Matthew Spann, Hagerstown (4 games), Potomac (23 games): Spann ranked third in the system in wins and fifth in ERA after going 11-5 with a 3.49 ERA in 27 games, including 18 starts. He struck out 78 over 121 1/3 innings and surrendered only four home runs. The Nats got a nice season out of another lefty, veteran Aaron Laffey, who was 12-6 with a 3.67 ERA but has since joined the Rockies.

"Matthew is a big-bodied left-hander who throws stirkes, keeps the ball down, and he's someone we want to continue to work with and improve," Scialabba said. "He has some potential there, he made some nice strides, was a very consistent performer for us in Potomac. He continued to harness his offspeed pitches and his breaking ball. He throws strikes and knows how to pitch."

Relief pitcher -- Rafael Martin, Syracuse (25 games), Harrisburg (11 games), Potomac (2 games) Martin, 30, is on the cusp of the Majors after a stellar season in which he struck out 66 and allowed only nine earned runs in 58 1/3 innings over 38 appearances. The right-hander had 11 saves in 12 chances, surrendered one home run and held opponents to a .171 average. Scialabba liked the 6-foot-3 righty over Robert Benincasa, a 24-year-old right-hander who led the Nationals with 18 saves in 24 chances.

Martin's final stats -- he boasted a 0.80 ERA -- don't even tell the full story. Most of the runs he allowed came in one inning, when Akron tagged him for six earned runs on May 12. After that? Lights-out.

"He had one bad inning," Scialabba laughed. "He's had a tremendous year. He sinks and cuts the ball very well, he stays out of the middle of the strike zone and was able to put together a very impressive run of consecutive scoreless innings this year."

Scialabba thinks Martin has a chance to see Washington next year after catching everyone's attention in 2014.

"We'll see. He was in Syracuse, we'll see him next year in camp and I think he can help us down the road one day," Scialabba said. "He put himself on he radar."

Honorable Mention

Scialabba was impressed by several other prospects, including right-hander Austin Voth, who went 7-7 with a 2.77 ERA and was dominant before moving up to Double-A in late July. "He really improved," Scialabba said.

Other names that came to mind: Right-hander Reynaldo Lopez, who went 7-3 with a 1.08 ERA between Auburn and Hagerstown. ... catcher Pedro Severino, who batted .247 with 36 RBIs in 94 games. "He's a defensive-minded catcher, he did a great job and then went to the Arizona Fall League." ... shortstop Stephen Perez had 50 RBIs and 27 steals at Potomac. "He broke out," said Scialabba. ... third baseman Drew Vettleson, a 2010 first-round pick, hit .252 with eight homers and 30 RBI in 83 games. "He's a guy to watch for next year, he was in our trade for Nathan Karns, he's a guy down the road to think about." ... catcher Jakson Reetz, an 18-year-old drafted in June, debuted with the Rookie-level GCL Nationals and hit .274 with 15 RBIs in 43 games. "He got on base and handled himself well," Scialabba said.

Danny Wild is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow his MLBlog column, Minoring in Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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