Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nationals: The Minor League Report: With the Nats back in free-fall, maybe it's time to look at what's going on down on the farm. I haven't had a chance to see any of the Nats' minor league teams in action, but we're blessed as the Nats have three affiliates within 2 1/2 hours drive -- so, a road trip may happen later this summer. In the meantime, I've combed the statistics, and I'm summarizing the highlights for you.

The most notable performance in April has been that of Joel Hanrahan, with the Nats' AAA affiliate, the Columbus Clippers. Hanrahan was the final cut among the various pitchers brought in to try out for the Nats' starting rotation. Hanrahan has great numbers, with 22 strikeouts and only 20 baserunners allowed in over 21 innings pitched. I suspect, if current trends continue, that Hanrahan will be up before Memorial Day, replacing either Matt Chico (who needs at least another year in the minors to master his craft) or Jerome Williams, who is on track to be the losing pitcher in each of his start this April. In fact, if Williams doesn't step up his performance this weekend, Hanrahan may jump up very quickly.

Another possibility for promotion could be Mike Bacsik. Bacsik is a veteran reliever, but he has also started once this April for Columbus. Bacsik's numbers are outstanding, most impressively striking out 13 and issuing only one walk in 15 innings. He could be added to the Nationals' bullpen, or given a shot with a start or two for the big club. Chris Booker and Chris Schroder have strong numbers out of Columbus' bullpen. Schroder hasn't allowed an earned run in ten innings, while Booker has struck out 14 in eight and a third innings. Billy Traber and Winston Abreu also have been extremely effective out of the Columbus bullpen.

Emiliano Fruto, who failed to make the Nats' bullpen, has been nearly unhittable as a starter, with only five hits allowed in 16 innings. Unfortunately, Fruto has issued a stunning 11 walks. He seems like a real-life Nuke Laloosh. If he ever cures his wildness, Fruto will have a very bright, major-league career. One other pitcher at Columbus bears mentioning. An unheralded Dominican, Felix Diaz, has put up very credible numbers, and he may yet find himself pitching for the Nationals, before the season is over.

Of course, any discussion of the Nats' prospects should begin with Kory Casto. Though he struggled mightily in a short stint with the big club this year, Casto has hit his stride, since he was sent down to Columbus. Casto has 2 HRs in 7 games, and is batting over .300. In contrast, Larry Broadway has not handled his demotion well. The first baseman has the same 2 HRs as Casto, but his total is spread over 19 games, and he is hitting an anemic .167.

Going a little deeper into the Nats' system, there are two or three notable performers with the Nats' AA affiliate in Harrisburg. The Nats' top pitching prospect is Colin Balester, and he has definitely pitched well for the Harrisburg Senators. Very encouraging results, especially his strikeout-to-walk ratio. Even though his record is only 1-1, the only negative to say about Balester is that he has given up a few too many hits, with 21 in 22 innings pitched. If he can start to dominate a little more, cutting down on his hits-to-innings pitched ratio, Balester might have a shot at the big squad next year.

The big surprise at Harrisburg has to be Michael Hinckley. At 24, Hinckley is still young enough to be considered a prospect, but his performance at Potomac last year, a losing record and an E.R.A of 5.52, would not have merited much discussion of his potential. At Harrisburg, Hinckley has flourished. If anything, he's outpitched Ballester. He's 3-1, and has only allowed 15 hits in his 22 innings. Last year, Hinckley was hit around, and didn't overpower hitters, with only one strikeout for every two innings pitched. He's improved greatly in both respects. This year, Hinckley's one bugaboo seems to be his control. His walks/strikeout ratio was not good last year. He's probably still walking too many, with nine in 22 innings, but his 20 strikeouts so far have left him with a much improved (BB/K) ratio. He's probably on a slower track to the majors than Balester, but he bears watching.

Harrisburg also has one of the Nats' top position player prospects, the young outfielder Rogearvin Bernardino. As advertised, he has speed, with 10 stolen bases. Though he hasn't hit any home runs. Bernardino has a good batting average, above .290, and a respectable .360 on-base percentage. The Senators are also getting strong play from unheralded Josh Whitesell. He's been a strong hitter, showing both pop, with 4 HRs, and a very impressive .365 batting average (up .100 from his .264 average last year with the Senators).

Way down on the farm, the standouts at Potomac, so far, are the outfielder Marvin Lowrance and the starting pitcher John Lannan. Lowrance has a .302 batting average, and four HRs for the Potomac Nationals, the Nats' franchise that plays its home games closest to Washington. Lannan has a 3-0 won-loss record, and has 17 strikeouts and only 3 walks in 24 innings -- a truly amazing display of control. He may move up the ladder to Harrisburg quickly. I'm thinking I'll need to head out to Prince William County Stadium soon to see young Mr. Lannan pitch, while he's still in our backyard. Alexis Morales has nearly as impressive numbers, out of the Potomac bullpen.

A little farther up the road, up I-270, and then a little west on I-70, to be exact, the Hagerstown Suns have a few players worth mentioning. First, there is the Nats' highly touted outfield prospect, Chris Marrero. The 18-year old Marrero has decent numbers, hitting .275, with one HR. Presumably, his numbers will only get better as he gets accustomed to playing professionally. Looking a little more polished than Marrero, right now, is the outfielder Michael Daniel, with 5 HRs and a .290 batting average.

The Suns also have some of the Nats' most touted pitching prospects. Jhonny Nunez and Yunior Novoa have lived up to their billing in one respect, as they are each averaging about a strikeout per inning. However, both have been susceptible to the long ball, and Nunez has issued too many walks with 9 in 18 innings. Another prospect with some potential is Cory Van Allen, who hasn't issued a walk in over 9 innings, while striking out six. Coby Mavroulis has been fairly effective, out of the Hagerstown bullpen.

Lastly: Colton Willems -- the Nats' pick in the first round of last year's amateur draft is scheduled to pitch in the Gulf Coast League. If any information surfaces about young Mr. Willems, I'll try to report it here.

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