Juan Soto is still just 22 years old. Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom are 23. Luis García won’t turn 21 until May. They were all top prospects in recent seasons. They were all fast-tracked by General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has now used Justin Upton, Bryce Harper, Soto and the rest to show he is willing to promote kids, really, if they can help his team win. But because Soto, Robles, Kieboom and García were each in the majors this past summer — and have aged out of “prospect status” — the Nationals have a gap between them and their next generation of young position players.
Who is in that group? Who is stacked beneath pitchers such as Rutledge, Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry and Andry Lara, among other arms? When these questions were posed to him, Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager in charge of player development, presented two middle infielders, a catcher, a left-handed-hitting first baseman and a trio of teenage outfielders.
“There’s a few guys, really,” Scialabba said of who is climbing up the system. “Now, we have that gap, as you mentioned, between Kieboom and García and these A-ball type players. But they’re coming.”
There were no big surprises on Scialabba’s list. All of the players he mentioned are ranked in MLB Pipeline’s most recent top 30 for the Nationals. Most of them also show up in rankings released by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus in 2020. But he was quick to mention Yasel Antuna, a 21-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic, and seemed very excited about how Antuna performed the past few months at the club’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., and then in the fall instructional league in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“He repeats his swing from both sides extremely well. There’s legitimate impact-bat potential there — and he’s healthy now,” Scialabba said of Antuna, who missed most of 2019 with an elbow injury. “So we’re starting to see his tools play. We’re very excited about what he did this year.”
Antuna is a switch-hitting shortstop who could shift to third base or second base down the line, if needed. Jackson Cluff, the next player listed by Scialabba, is a similarly versatile shortstop who bats from the left side. Cluff, 23, was drafted by the Nationals out of Brigham Young University in 2019.
Both Antuna and Cluff fit one of the Nationals’ organizational trends: They like to collect and develop shortstops who can later move around the infield. Trea Turner, for example, played some second and some center field before settling in as the franchise shortstop. Kieboom, another lifelong shortstop, is now getting his shot to stick at third. And García, who was MLB’s youngest player for part of the summer, was the everyday second baseman after Starlin Castro broke his wrist. García, like Turner and Kieboom, is a true shortstop. Antuna and Cluff are, too, and yet that doesn’t mean they will always play there.
After Antuna and Cluff, Scialabba turned to Drew Mendoza, Israel Pineda and those three young outfielders: Daniel Marte (18 years old), Jeremy De La Rosa (also 18) and Roismar Quintana (17). Mendoza, a second-round pick in 2019, was a three-year third baseman at Florida State. The Nationals have made him a full-time first baseman, though Scialabba likes that Mendoza could moonlight at third in a pinch. He is a left-handed hitter with potential power, a plus for any team, and finished last summer with the low-Class A Hagerstown Suns.
Pineda is a 20-year-old catcher from Venezuela. Washington has keyed on him for a few years now, ever since he got regular starts with the Class A Auburn Doubledays in 2018 and caught the front office’s attention. But after starting pitchers, catcher is the position Washington takes the most time with. If that trend holds, Pineda is a few prospect cycles from being considered for the major league roster. It can still be significant that he is laying a strong foundation.
“He has a knack for the barrel on the ball and uses the whole field and is starting to mature defensively,” Scialabba said of Pineda. “And he’s really just learning the position still, and all phases, but we’re high on him.”
The same goes for Marte, De La Rosa and Quintana, except the Nationals typically move outfielders faster. That depends, of course, on how these three progress in the next few years. Scialabba noted Marte’s speed and arm. With De La Rosa, a prospect Scialabba first pointed to in the spring of 2019, the club sees athleticism and a developing left-handed bat. And with Quintana, the youngest player Scialabba named, the Nationals heard the right noises off his bat this fall.
Remember, Scialabba prefaced this all by calling Antuna, Cluff, Mendoza and Pineda “A-ball type players.” That means they’re not quite on the major league doorstep. That means De La Rosa, Marte and Quintana are a step or two behind that. But it’s never too early to project.
“He’s really young,” Scialabba said of Quintana. “But he’s a physical, powerful corner outfielder. His hands stay inside the baseball extremely well, he has a feel for the strike zone, and he had as loud of a bat that we had at our Instructional League camp. We’re really excited about his potential.”