Examining biggest burning questions for Nationals' top rookie-ball prospects


Biggest burning questions for Nats' top rookie-ball prospects originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

It's been a long time since the Nationals' farm system has been as big of a focal point as it is right now, but that's the position the organization finds itself after trading star players away for prospect capital the last two trade deadlines.

While the major-league product has been dreadful in 2022, the Nationals have accumulated more high-end talent in the minors than they've had in at least the last six years. Baseball America ranked five Nationals prospects in its midseason Top 100 update, the first time Washington had that many players in its rankings since 2016.

For all the potential these prospects have, there are still question marks about their profiles that will determine whether they can turn into productive MLB players. Nationals' Director of Player Development De Jon Watson chatted with NBC Sports Washington on Friday about the biggest burning questions surrounding some of their top prospects.

In the second of a three-part series, here are updates on the Nationals' big names in the Florida Complex League and Dominican Summer League.

Cristhian Vaquero: How has he looked in his first stint with the Dominican League?

The Nationals made a splash in the international amateur free agent market last offseason by signing the Cuban standout Vaquero to a team-record $4.925 million bonus. Only 17 years old, Vaquero has spent his first full season in the Nationals' organization playing in the Dominican Summer League.

In 47 games entering play Friday, Vaquero has hit .253 with 13 stolen bases and a .712 OPS. His power has yet to manifest itself in the form of home runs, but he's shown power to the gaps that bodes well for once he fills out into his 6-foot-3 frame.

"I got to see him live, went down early," Watson said. "Good-looking player, switch hitter, athletic, a ball hawk in center field, covers tremendous ground with both directions, arm played solid-average to above, flashy line-drive gap guy from both sides of the plate with emerging power. It's just been a fun watching him play down there and watching how he competes. He plays with a high motor."

One of the youngest players in the Nationals' system, Vaquero has a couple of years to go before an accurate timeline can be constructed for when he might reach the majors. His ability to turn into a major-league regular will represent one of the first true tests of the Nationals' revamped player-development system as a player brought in straight from the amateur ranks.

Armando Cruz: How much has hit bat developed since entering the system?

Just as Vaquero was the Nationals' top signing of the 2021-22 international class, Cruz preceded him with a $3.9 million bonus the year prior. He carried a reputation for being one of the most defensively gifted players in his class, filling highlight reels at shortstop with smooth hands and an accurate throwing arm.

The biggest question marks for Cruz were on offense, especially after he struggled mightily at the plate in the Dominican League last year. But he arrived in the U.S. for his first FCL season this summer and took a step forward in that department, hitting .303 with two home runs, five stolen bases and a .735 OPS in 43 games.

"Offensively, the thing he was lacking was strength," Watson said. "He's been working his tail off down there in the FCL. His swing is improving daily. He's added some strength to his upper body. He's generating better bat speed. He's actually driving some baseballs into the gaps. So he's right where he should be for [an 18-year-old] player."

Next season, Cruz will likely move up to Single-A Fredericksburg and flirt with 100 games played for the first time in his career. How he adapts to that extended schedule will be the next benchmark in his development.

Jarlin Susana: We all know he throws 102 mph, what else stands out about his profile?

Susana joined 2022 first-round pick Elijah Green in making their Nationals FCL debuts on Tuesday and they each impressed by flashing some of their loudest tools. For Susana, that was his fastball velocity. The team announced that his fastball averaged 100 mph and maxed out 102, which was a big reason why the Nationals acquired him in the Juan Soto/Josh Bell trade.

"He's a big, strong, physical young man with a really clean delivery and it's an effortless arm stroke," Watson said. "He's exuded really good feel to both sides of the plate with his fastball. He's able to land his breaking ball for strikes. I think he's working on his changeup, which continues to evolve."

Throwing 102 alone won't make Susana a major leaguer. He'll have to do so with command while mixing in some offspeed pitches if he hopes to develop into a starter. MLB Pipeline gives Susana's slider a 55 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale with his curveball and changeup both at 45. Those grades suggest he has a lot of work to do on building out his repertoire.

But when a player is just 18 years old, he doesn't need to be a completed product. Susana is a pitcher the Nationals hope they can turn from a raw, hard-throwing teenager into a potential member of their big-league rotation down the line.

"For us, it's the size, the strength and delivery that give us the excitement about the player because he does it with such ease and he seems to be really mature on the mound and he understands what he's been seeing with the opponents that he's been facing thus far," Watson said."

Further reading:

Biggest burning questions for Nats' upper-level prospects Gore, Abrams, Cavalli, Henry

Biggest burning questions for Nats' lower-level prospects Hassell, Wood, House, Rutledge, Denaburg


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