Nationals Prospect Primer: Capital talent

Kieboom, Agustin trying to follow Robles on road to Washington

Carter Kieboom has produced a career .820 OPS over his first three seasons in the Minor Leagues. (John Raoux/AP)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | April 1, 2019 10:30 AM

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.

Major League-ready: Victor Robles, OF

MLB.com's No. 4 overall prospect opened the 2019 season with 34 games and 83 at-bats of Major League experience under his belt, 48 ABs shy of graduation from prospect status. With Bryce Harper moving elsewhere in the NL East, Robles became the Nationals' Opening Day center fielder last Thursday, batting eighth in the lineup. In short, it's obvious he's ready for The Show.

But it's important to remember how he became a potential Rookie of the Year contender. Washington inked Robles out of the Dominican Republic in July 2013 for $225,000 but quickly saw him become one of the best prospects in his signing class. He hit .352 with a .952 OPS and 24 stolen bases in 61 games in his first stateside campaign in 2015. Two seasons later, he made his Major League debut. It's likely Robles would have taken Juan Soto's spot on the D.C. grass in 2018 had he not suffered a freak elbow injury in the fourth game of the year with Triple-A Syracuse.

When healthy, he's a plus-plus fielder in center with a plus-plus arm. His speed might be his best tool, with MLB.com giving it a 75 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale. His offensive tools don't quite reach those heights, but the right-handed batter has always been solid at the dish, posting a career average of .300 and an OBP of .392 in the Minor Leagues. The Nationals are hopeful the 21-year-old will grow into more pop as he continues to mature and adjust to Major League pitching, and if he does, he'll be the next standout Major League outfielder in an organization that knows how to develop them.

"I'd say the defense is most improved," Nationals direct of player development Mark Scialabba said. "From the day we signed him, he was someone that could range both ways. The arm strength has improved. The accuracy has improved with making better throws and being able to hold the runner. Strike-zone recognition, plate discipline has improved. He's very calm in the box. He's starting to mature in that side of the game. That's the next step in his development. Earlier in the career, you saw him be very confident, very aggressive and hitting balls even out of the strike zone. He's learning to stay within the strike zone. Don't help the pitcher out, and get in really good counts.

"The hit tool is evolving. The last stage is his power, which I think will really come out to play. He's gap-to-gap, a line-drive hitter now. But, certainly, he can run into a ball. We've seen it, even in the big leagues. He's got that power that will blossom and come quicker than some people expect."

Shining star: Carter Kieboom, SS/2B

With Robles graduating soon, Kieboom will take over the mantle as the Nationals' top prospect -- and with good reason. MLB.com's No. 25 overall prospect has shown a promising hit tool with good pop ever since he was selected with the 28th pick in the 2016 Draft. He's coming off a strong season split between Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in which he hit .280/.357/.444 with 16 homers in 123 games, and he carried that into the Arizona Fall League, where he had a .295/.372/.427 line in 21 games. The Nats took a long look at the 21-year-old this spring, allowing him to play 25 games in the Grapefruit League as a non-roster invitee. He left a lasting impression, batting .279/.353/.558 with three homers.

Now, where to play him? Kieboom has only been a shortstop in the Minor Leagues but started to get looks at second base in the AFL. That continued this spring with 43 innings at the keystone compared to 58 1/3 at his original position. The Nats believe he's got a good arm for short and has worked enough to be an average defender at the demanding spot. But Trea Turner should have it on lock in D.C. for years to come, and Brian Dozier was signed this offseason to be more a stopgap at second. Kieboom understands that if he's going to reach the capital this season, it'll likely be on the right side of the infield.

"I think he loves to be in position for that," Scialabba said. "He wants to get to the big leagues. He wants to help out the organization. He wants to be up there, so he's going to do everything he can to put himself in that position. He wants to be prepared. He welcomed that. He knows he's a shortstop. We know he's a shortstop. We think he can play there in the big leagues long-term, but it's about also where you fit in the organization and where the timeline is and what the opportunity in front of him will be. He's going to seize it, and he's doing that right now."

Video: Carter Kieboom answers questions from Nationals camp

Back and healthy: Telmito Agustin, OF

The Nationals' No. 11 prospect got off to an incredible start last season with Potomac, batting .386/.411/.659 with 13 extra-base hits over 25 games. By May 9, he'd hit four homers -- just six shy of his career high. Then he suffered a dislocated finger, pulled a hamstring during his rehab and didn't return to the P-Nats lineup for good until July 21. He struggled to rediscover his pre-injury form and hit .243/.343/.304 with one homer in his final 37 games.

But the farther the left-handed-hitter gets from the injury, the more confident the Nats have become that he can return to his early-2019 performance. The 22-year-old outfielder is listed at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds but has worked to add muscle after five Minor League seasons. He's also got above-average speed that helps in any outfield spot, and the additional power will help should he have to move to a corner.

"He was starting to showcase some power, mostly to the pull side, but it was legit 55, 60-grade power," Scialabba said. "Before, he had much more of a contact approach. Just barrel it up and hit the ball where it's pitched. He got hurt, unfortunately, and missed a lot of time. This year, it's get out there, stay healthy, continue to develop defensively, be able to play corner positions and not just the one. ... Offensively, he's just got to continue where he left off and stay healthy. But he's a fun player to watch. He runs well, and I think he's someone, down the road, that can have a really good shot of being an everyday outfielder, or at the very least that fourth outfielder that can come in and really impact the game on the offensive side."

Loudest tool: Tim Cate, LHP

Can one really, really good breaking pitch carry a pitcher through a system? Cate might be about to find out.

The former University of Connecticut southpaw's curveball rates a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale, according to MLB.com, and it was on its strength that the Nats popped him in the second round last June. The pitch stands out not only for its hammering nature and 12-6 shape, but also for Cate's impressive command of it. Among breakers thrown by pitchers in the 2018 Draft, the offering had few rivals.

However, Cate's fastball and changeup are merely average offerings, and forearm tightness limited him to 52 2/3 innings as a junior with the Huskies. The Nats had him make up for that with 52 more frames split between Class A Short Season Auburn and Class A Hagerstown, but the 21-year-old was hit around to the tune of a 5.02 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and .271 average-against in that span. 

It'll be on Cate to develop those other pitches if he is to remain a starter long-term in the Washington system. But if nothing else, his curve should keep professional hitters off-balance for years to come.

"I think, one, it's the slot he's in when he releases the pitch," Scialabba said. "The ability to spin the ball. The feel for it. I think he has the ability to throw it in the strike zone and out for a chase. But everyone has their own tilt on pitches. You can manipulate some things. But he has a sharp breaking ball that makes him unique. It's a pitch that he's going to rely on, but we want to make him a well-rounded pitcher, be able to command his fastball as best he can, repeat his mechanics, develop a changeup he's very comfortable with. We know he has the ability to start and be in the middle of the rotation someday."

Full-season debutant: Gage Canning, OF

Another pick from last year's Draft, the fifth-rounder broke out with a .369/.426/.648 line, nine homers, 11 triples and 17 doubles over 55 games during his final spring at Arizona State. He couldn't replicate those numbers in pro ball, though it's likely that Canning hit a bit of a wall as he worked deeper into the summer. The 21-year-old outfielder, who has experience at all three spots on the grass, batted .253/.319/.470 over 45 games between Auburn and Hagerstown. 

Canning's plus speed should be his carrying tool, especially as he starts his first full season much fresher than when he debuted. However, Washington would love to see him produce the way he did in his last hurrah as a Sun Devil and perhaps even add a little pop, likely starting at Potomac.

"I think he might actually be better than what we saw at the end of the year," Scialabba said. "He had a lot of games under his belt with college and the pro side. So we think he can be a plus runner who can feature at the top of the lineup, give you a good AB. He's got some power potential, too. He's a smaller guy, but Adam Eaton is a smaller guy with some power in the big leagues. Physically, he's going to get stronger with our program. He has an advanced feel for the strike zone, leading to his ability to get on base and do damage. We're very excited about him right now."

More to keep an eye on: No. 3 Nationals prospect Luis Garcia already climbed to the Carolina League as an 18-year-old in 2018 and has been remarkably consistent with the bat everywhere he's been. Batting from the left side, the shortstop hit .298/.336/.406 with seven homers in 127 games last season. Like Kieboom, he got a long look in Major League camp this spring and could move around the infield to find a spot in Washington's future plans. ... Right-hander Mason Denaburg, taken out of a Florida high school, was the club's first-round pick last year but didn't appear in the Minors after experiencing biceps tendinitis. Scialabba called the injury a "last-season thing," but it's likely Denaburg will be brought along slowly, beginning with being held back at extended spring camp. When healthy and clicking, his fastball can reach the mid-90s, and his curveball receives plus grades. ... Fellow righty Sterling Sharp, a 22nd-round pick in 2016, climbed to Double-A Harrisburg in 2018 and enters this year as the organization's No. 9 prospect. He's a ground-ball specialist who can sling an above-average fastball and changeup. His ground game could put him on Washington's doorstep at some point this summer.

Most home runs in the system: Kieboom
Most stolen bases: Cole Freeman
Most strikeouts: Ben Braymer
Current prospect to get most Major League playing time: Robles
Non-Top 100 prospect to end 2019 in the Top 100: Denaburg

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More