The 2021 Arizona Fall League season has ended, with the Mesa Solar Sox winning the 2021 AFL championship. The Solar Sox defeated the Surprise Saguaros, a team featuring eight promising Nationals prospects: pitchers Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry, Evan Lee, and Todd Peterson, catchers Israel Pineda and Drew Millas, infielder Jackson Cluff, and outfielder Donovan Casey. Now that the AFL is over, it is worth checking in with their performances and how they might figure into the organization’s depth chart for the 2022 season.
Jackson Rutledge – 1-3, 6.98 ERA, 1.97 WHIP, .329 BAA in 19.1 IP
Rutledge, the Nats’ first round pick in 2019, has had a rough go of it since joining the Nationals. Bogged down by injuries and hurt by the missed 2020 season, the right-hander has not yet found his footing in pro ball. Rutledge pitched the second-most innings out of any Surprise pitcher, and the results were a mixed bag. On one hand, his ERA neared 7 and opponents hit very well against him. Rutledge also walked 10 of the 95 batters he faced. But as has been the case throughout his tenure as a National, his stuff worked very well, showing flashes of his sky-high future potential. In the AFL finals, Rutledge had a very effective outing, going 3.1 innings with seven strikeouts. His slider and changeup were especially impressive.
If he is to realize his top-of-the-line starting pitcher potential down the road, Rutledge has to have a bounce-back season in 2022. He was effective in A ball with Fredericksburg in 2021, but really struggled in 11 innings with High-A Wilmington. I would give Rutledge an invitation to big league spring training, so he gets exposure to a high level of opposition–if he succeeds, he should be sent to High-A out of camp. It’s most reasonable to assume Rutledge stays in either A or High-A in 2022, but if he finally has a breakout year, it is not out of the question Rutledge makes an appearance in AA ball. Rutledge is currently the Nats’ #3 rated prospect by MLB.com, only falling behind Cade Cavalli and Brady House.
Cole Henry – 1-0, 3.32 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, .176 BAA in 19 IP
Ever since he was drafted in 2020, Henry’s stock has skyrocketed. Maybe he was overshadowed by fellow right-hander and 2020 draftee Cavalli, but Henry has quietly established himself as a top prospect in this Nationals system. He kept doing what he has been doing in the AFL, with another very effective set of outings. He led the Saguaros in strikeouts with a mind-boggling 14.21 K/9 rate, vastly improving on his 5.83 K/9 with Wilmington last season. Henry is rapidly moving up the depth chart–the LSU product should spend most of the year with AA Harrisburg, and at 22, Henry should see big-league experience by 2022 or 2023. Henry is the Nats’ #7 rated prospect.
Evan Lee – 0-0, 4.66 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, .270 BAA in 9.2 IP
Lee was in the news a lot this past week after being one of two Nationals to be added to the 40-man roster. While the move was primarily to protect the lefty reliever from being chosen by another team, Lee still is one of the organization’s premier relief pitching prospects. He was totally serviceable in the AFL, although he was hit harder in the fall than he was with the Blue Rocks this summer. Lee will make an appearance in MLB Spring Training this year as a member of the 40-man, but is highly unlikely to make the big league bullpen at any point in 2022. The former Arkansas Razorback is the Nats’ #21 prospect.
Todd Peterson – 1-0, 2.61 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, .200 BAA in 10.1 IP
Peterson pitched very well for the Saguaros, the only Nationals pitcher to outperform his 2021 season in the fall (unfortunately, this LSU legend did not get to hit at all during the AFL). By no means does Peterson project to be a high-strikeout pitcher, carrying a K/9 rate of just below 7. However, only the Yankees’ lefty Clay Aguilar had a lower BB/9 rate for Surprise, and Peterson led the team in BABIP. Peterson projects into a high-leverage relief role down the line. He should join Lee and Matt Cronin in AA Harrisburg next year. Peterson is not ranked as one of the Nats’ top 30 prospects.
Israel Pineda – .296 AVG, 0 HR, 6 RBI, .725 OPS
One of the few homegrown young catchers in the Nationals’ system, Pineda has fallen under the radar after the acquisition of Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams. He put himself back on the radar after a pretty bad 2021, productive in his 27 at-bats this fall. He did not hit for much power, which was surprising considering that Pineda was a low-average, high-power bat for Wilmington in 2021. Let’s be honest here–it is highly unlikely that Pineda leapfrogs Ruiz, Adams, Tres Barrera, AND Drew Millas on the catching depth chart, so there are questions as to whether Pineda is best fit with the Nats or as a trade chip down the line. He’ll probably split time between Harrisburg and Wilmington in 2022. Pineda is the Nats’ #27 prospect.
Drew Millas – .196 AVG, 1 HR, 5 RBI, .634 OPS
Yikes. Those offensive stats are not desirable by any means, but the Nats knew they were acquiring a glove-first catcher in the Yan Gomes/Josh Harrison trade with Oakland. He got plenty of starts behind the plate, but did not perform at the plate like the Nats would have hoped. It is worth noting that 2021 was Millas’s first year of pro ball, coming off a missed 2020 season. The Athletics’ 7th round pick in 2019 didn’t necessarily come from a “baseball school” in Missouri State, and, oh yeah, he was traded midway through his rookie season. Millas and Pineda are on the same track developmentally, both being 23-year old High-A catchers who are on the cusp of AA-ball. The Nats’ #20 prospect should, like Pineda, split time between High-A and AA this season.
Jackson Cluff – .342 AVG, 1 HR, 14 RBI, .887 OPS
Cluff impressed more than anyone this fall. He had a tough 2021 season nursing an injury, and fell below the Mendoza line in Harrisburg. The 2019 6th round pick out of Brigham Young proved that he had gotten over the injury in the fall, proving to be a very productive middle infielder at the plate. He also stole 8 bags, good for third on the Saguaros, and while there isn’t a great statistic for defensive production, he was lights-out at short. However, Cluff is entering his age-25 season, as he took a year off of college for a mission trip, two years older than the median AA player. He could be a really interesting option off the bench in the future, but he will need to really prove himself with a strong 2022 at the AA level. Cluff is ranked the #19 prospect in the Nats’ system.
Donovan Casey – .255 AVG, 2 HR, 10 RBI, .815 OPS
Casey has been quickly moving through the Nats’ system ever since he was acquired from the Dodgers in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal. He had a solid AFL stint, and it is all but certain Casey starts the year in AAA Rochester. In the two weeks Casey spent with the AA Senators this season, he was on fire, slugging .612 with a batting average nearing .300. However, once he was called up to AAA, he struggled, falling well below the Mendoza line. His power decreased with Rochester, too; Casey hit more home runs in his 49 at-bats with the Senators than he did in 134 at-bats with the Red Wings. What sunk Casey was his strikeout rate–he struck out in over 40% (!!!) of his AAA at-bats last year. However, with Surprise, he only struck out in 14% of his at-bats, one of the best rates on the entire team. If Casey limits his strikeouts, he is instantly in the conversation to make the big-league club in 2022. Casey was added to the 40-man roster this past week, meaning he is just a step away from the big leagues. In his age-26 season, he better prove it with his second organization. Casey is the Nats’ #18 prospect.
All eight of these prospects are entering critical years for their own development. At this point I think that all eight will eventually make the Major Leagues, although it seems like either Pineda or Millas would be a prime trade chip in the future. I am very excited to follow these eight through Spring Training and into the 2022 MiLB season!