Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
A championship hangover? A blip in an otherwise successful decade of baseball? Or maybe a combination of both during a year that can certainly be described as unconventional. One year after winning its first World Series title, Washington limped to a 26-34 finish in the National League East, its first sub-.500 showing since an 80-81 mark in 2011.
While several key components of the Nationals' run to the championship have youth on their side --Juan Soto and Victor Robles to name two -- age and injuries crept into the picture in 2020. Able to overcome a 19-31 start in 2019, the freneticism of this season's 60-game schedule wasn't kind to the Nats, who mimicked their 50-game record of a year earlier before finishing with a .433 winning percentage, the lowest by a defending World Series champion since the Marlins' .333 mark in 1998.
The 2019 club proved that in normal times, the baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint, but there was nothing normal about 2020.
The lack of a single prospect among MLB Pipeline's Top 100 is a telling, albeit flawed, indicator. The Nationals feature an incredible amount of young, yet-to-develop talent that has the potential to bust into those rankings at some point in the near future.
System strengths: Pitching, pitching and more pitching. Jackson Rutledge leads the charge for Washington, which has high hopes for the 21-year-old. The top Nats prospect cuts an imposing figure on the mound at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, and he boasts an arsenal worthy of his physical stature. Rutledge sports a 70-grade fastball that sits regularly at 96 mph and tops out at 99, an upper-80s slider, a curveball that registers a few ticks lower and a developing changeup. The San Jacinto College product worked the entire summer at Washington's alternate training site.
Cut from a similar mold is fellow right-hander and 2020 first-rounder Cade Cavalli. The University of Oklahoma product doesn't have quite the full-throttle fastball Rutledge does, but he ramps his heater up to 98 and sits consistently in the mid-90s. Standing 6-foot-4, Cavalli counters that with a spike curveball and slider and has shown flashes of a changeup. The Tulsa, Oklahoma, native spent his professional "debut" alongside Rutledge at the alternate training site and has the potential to move quickly.
While the Nationals have their eyes firmly on this duo ranking 1-2 among its top prospects, they are far from the only quality arms working their way through the system. Overall, 19 of the organization's 30 ranked prospects call the mound their home, including the entire top 10.
Areas for growth: With pitching at the forefront of Washington's path forward, position players will have to assert themselves to create a more balanced system. To be fair, players like Soto and Robles -- 22 and 23 years old respectively -- are typically working their way through the Minors instead of being key components to a World Series-winning ballclub. On the farm, however, things are not as cut-and-dried.
"Obviously, our depth and strength reside in our pitching," said Nationals assistant general manager of player development Mark Scialabba. "Having said that, we are excited by a number of position players, notably Yasel Antuna."
Having just turned 21 years old, Antuna spent the summer at the alternate site after appearing in only three games in 2019 due to various injuries. Washington's 12th-ranked prospect debuted in 2017 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and batted .220/.293/.331 in 87 games with Class A Hagerstown a year later.
"Yasel really had a great camp this summer," Scialabba said. "He's a switch-hitter with all the tools you want, especially at his age. He hits the ball hard on a line, repeats his swing from both sides of the plate and uses a compact stroke that stays through the ball. He's still so young, but we saw some development [in camp], especially power. He's going to head down to the Caribbean and play winter ball to make up for some lost time."
Among the other more highly ranked position players are No. 11 Drew Mendoza and No. 13 Jeremy De La Rosa. Mendoza, a third baseman selected in the third round in 2019, could move quickly after a standout career at Florida State. De La Rosa, described by Scialabba as a "toolsy hitter with plus bat speed and a balanced stroke," debuted last year in the GCL as a 17-year-old.
"Jeremy's a young, instinctual hitter with a lot of room for growth," he said. "He has a line-drive swing, uses the whole field and is a plus runner."
No. 14 Israel Pineda enjoyed a solid season with Hagerstown in 2019, while fellow backstop and No. 27 Raudy Read appears primed to step into a role at the big league level soon. The 27-year-old slugged a career-high 20 homers and hit .275/.317/.546 with Triple-A Fresno in 2019.
What changed in 2020: Going from World Series champions to tied for the worst record in the NL East may stand out, but from a prospect perspective, the Nats changed very little from a year earlier. The graduations of former top prospect Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia were mere technicalities. The two are expected to play integral roles for Washington in the coming years, and for all intents and purposes, are still prospects.
Fellow southpaw Ben Braymer also received his first taste of big league life this past summer. The club's No. 22 prospect earned a win while posting a 1.23 ERA in three appearances, including one start, for Washington. An 18th-round pick in 2016, Braymer reached Triple-A in 2019 and carries a 3.64 ERA as a Minor Leaguer since his debut that same season.
Not surprisingly, Washington continued to emphasize pitching in June's Draft, selecting hurlers with four of its six picks. The club feels it got a first-round steal with Cavalli at No. 22 and Cole Henry in the second round (55th overall). The Nats added Holden Powell in the third round and took Mitchell Parker with their final pick. Like Cavalli, Henry (No. 4) and Powell (No. 30) immediately made it onto the organization's list of top prospects, as did second-round compensation pick and shortstop Sammy Infante at No. 25.
Alternate site standouts: Without the benefit of a Minor League season, alternate training sites became de facto showcases. Washington's camp in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was no exception.
"We brought a number of prospects into our camp to maximize their development time," Scialabba said. "It was beneficial to everyone -- players, coaches, evaluators -- and a number of our top guys really took advantage. We got a nice look at our next wave of talent."
Among those Scialabba was quick to praise was Cavalli, who did more than just impress on the mound.
"Cade came in very prepared, especially for someone with no professional experience," he said. "He showed a strong level of maturity and understood exactly what he needed to do from a work standpoint. Obviously, we provided the structure and guidelines, but he showed an aptitude to pick up things very quickly."
On the hill, Cavalli reinforced to the Nats why they deemed him worthy of a first-round pick.
"His stuff was off the charts," Scialabba said. "If he had competed in a full collegiate season, he probably would have been drafted higher than he was. In that sense, we were lucky. He sat 95-99 [mph] and touched 100 on multiple occasions. His secondary stuff is impressive, and he's already got a great handle on fundamentals. We were thrilled with what we saw and believe he can be a front-line starting pitcher."
Scialabba singled out several other top Washington prospects who opened eyes in Fredericksburg, including No. 8 Tim Cate, No. 10 Matt Cronin and Rutledge. One other name to keep an eye on is 2019 sixth-rounder Jackson Cluff. The 20th-ranked prospect grades out above average defensively at shortstop and showed gap-to-gap power by producing 18 extra-base hits in 62 games during his debut with Hagerstown in 2019.
"A left-handed bat, a plus runner with plus arm who is a very good and instinctual player," Scialabba said. "He uses the whole field and has a solid approach at the plate. His ability to play all over is beneficial."
Impact rookies: Washington lived a charmed life over the past several years thanks to a number of productive rookie campaigns. Trea Turner finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2016, and Soto and Robles burst onto the scene in ensuing seasons. That well proved harder to draw water from in 2020.
The club received unexpected production from Garcia, who debuted with a two-hit, two-RBI performance barely two months after his 20th birthday. The New York City native went on to compile a .276/.302/.366 slash line in 134 at-bats and played solid defense at second base. It remains to be seen what type of role Garcia will fit into for the Nationals moving forward, but his age and ability to play both middle infield positions leave him in good standing heading into 2021.
On the flip side was Kieboom, a former Top-100 prospect who couldn't gain traction while batting .202/.344/.212 across 33 games. Third-ranked Wil Crowe and No. 9 Seth Romero also made their Major League debuts in 2020.
Two seasons removed from an 11-win campaign in the Minors, Crowe made three starts for Washington, albeit with poor results. The 26-year-old lost both of his decisions and was tagged for 11 earned runs on 14 hits in 8 1/3 innings. However, Crowe proved enough with Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Fresno in 2019, combining for nine wins, a 4.70 ERA and 130 strikeouts across 149 1/3 frames.
Joining Crowe was Romero, who worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2018 to the Majors after missing all of last season. The southpaw out of the University of Houston has swing-and-miss potential -- he fanned 69 in 47 1/3 innings during his first two professional seasons spread over seven starts before injuring his elbow.
"At the end of the day, the most important thing for us is seeing the players on the field," Scialabba said. "Guys like Garcia, Kieboom and Antuna are part of our future. A number of players were thrust into action at the Major League level because of injuries and the strangeness of the entire season. It was good to see them get some quality playing time they might not otherwise have received."
Next big thing: Rutledge, and not because he stands nearly 7 feet tall.
Arguably the best junior college player in the country at the time, the Missouri native caught the eye of scouts everywhere in 2019 after posting an 0.87 ERA while crafting a 134-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 82 2/3 innings. The Nationals took him with the 17th overall pick and watched him dominate in his first taste of pro ball. Rutledge went 3-0 with a 3.13 ERA, 39 strikeouts and a 0.99 WHIP in 10 starts between the GCL, Class A Short Season Auburn and Hagerstown.
"In actuality, this was a great developmental year for Jackson," Scialabba said. "He learned how to control his delivery, and we saw the results with far more strikes this summer. During the shutdown, he worked extremely hard and stayed on a regular schedule and returned to us in great shape. He looked the part of a pitcher rather than a thrower compared to when we last saw him."
Rutledge will begin 2021 as a 22-year-old and has the potential to move into the Washington rotation in the near future. Should he do so within the next few seasons, he'll slot in alongside some of the best power arms the game has to offer in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
Michael Avallone is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.