Nationals’ 2022 top 10 prospects: Where Cade Cavalli, Cristhian Vaquero stand

Ranking the Nationals' top 10 prospects heading into 2022 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

For years, the Nationals’ farm system was among the lowest-ranked groups in baseball. Their prospect corps was a casualty of a decade’s worth of contending for the playoffs. A series of win-now trades coupled with a failure to develop roster depth forced them to enter a rebuilding period in 2020.

All they’ve done since is garner a top-five pick in next year’s MLB draft, earn some hardware at the Arizona Fall League, watch three prospects break into the Baseball America Top 100, revamp their minor-league player development staff and make a splash in the international market. The farm system is still a bit top-heavy, but the retooling effort is well on its way.

With the 2022 season approaching, here are the top 10 prospects in the Nationals’ system.

1. C Keibert Ruiz (proj. MLB)

Age: 23 | Bats: S | Throws: R | 6’0” 225 lbs | Born: Valencia, Venezuela

Keibert Ruiz was the Nationals’ most-prized addition of last year’s trade deadline and he’ll be the most highly rated prospect of their entire farm system heading into 2022. Ruiz is ranked the 11th overall prospect by Baseball America, third among catchers. He’s a strong contact hitter from both sides of the plate whose power broke through in Triple-A last season.

The Nationals called Ruiz up to the majors in late August and he handled nearly every-day catching duties the rest of the way. Without reading too much into a 23-game sample, he reached base at a solid clip and drew more walks than strikeouts. Ruiz will have a real chance to put up solid offensive numbers as the Nationals’ primary catcher this season.

Further reading: Keibert Ruiz gets opportunity to prove he belongs with Nats

2. RHP Cade Cavalli (proj. AAA)

Age: 23 | Bats: R | Throws: R | 6’4” 230 lbs | Born: Tulsa, Oklahoma

No one struck out more batters across the minor leagues last year than Cade Cavalli, who set down 175 such batters in 24 starts to complete his first professional season. Cavalli was a fringe top-100 player for Baseball America prior to last season, but he exceeded expectations enough to make a trip to the Futures Game and land at No. 27 on the 2022 rankings.

The Nationals drafted Cavalli, a former two-way player, with the 22nd overall pick in 2020 for his triple-digit fastball and wipeout slider, but he throws a pair of solid offspeed pitches as well to give him a starter’s repertoire. Control has been an issue thus far for Cavalli. He walked 4.4 batters per nine innings last year. If he harnesses his velocity and keeps racking up the strikeouts, the Nationals will have a hard time justifying keeping him out of the majors.

Further reading: Key to the Nats’ future, Cade Cavalli finding his identity in the minors

3. SS Brady House (proj. Low-A)

Age: 18 | Bats: R | Throws: R | 6’4” 215 lbs | Born: Winder Georgia

Newly drafted players don’t often land in the Baseball America top 100 immediately after signing, yet that’s exactly where Brady House finds himself at No. 59. The 11th overall pick of last summer’s draft oozes power potential at the plate and carries himself well defensively —though he’s a bit oversized for his position and could shift to third base eventually.

The Nationals started House in rookie ball late last summer and he raked to the tune of four home runs and a .970 OPS in 16 games. House has as much superstar potential as anyone in their farm system and, though he has a ways to go before he reaches the majors, should get the chance to prove himself at Low-A Fredericksburg to begin the year.

Further reading: Brady House wants to stay at shortstop but his size may force him to third

4. RHP Cole Henry (proj. AA)

Age: 22 | Bats: R | Throws: R | 6’4” 215 lbs | Born: Florence, Alabama

The Nationals signed Cavalli for below slot value in 2020 so that they could afford to hand a big bonus to second-round pick Cole Henry. Another hard-throwing college arm, Henry dazzled in 2021 with a 1.88 ERA and 13.4 K/9 in nine appearances (eight starts) at High-A Wilmington. He then stayed hot in the Arizona Fall League with 30 strikeouts, second-most of any pitcher.

Henry throws both a two-seamer and four-seam fastball, the latter of which reaches the high 90s. He also mixes in a changeup and curveball that have each shown enough to project Henry as a future starter. The LSU product did have to shut it down midway through last season with elbow soreness, so it’ll be important for him to show he can handle a full workload in 2022.

Further reading: Cole Henry among Nats to make strong impression at Arizona Fall League

5. OF Yasel Antuna (proj. AA)

Age: 22 | Bats: S | Throws: R | 6’0” 195 lbs | Born: Peravia, Dominican Republic

The loss of a minor-league season in 2020 presented a challenge to prospects across the sport, but Yasel Antuna was a player who actually saw his stock rise during the first year of the pandemic. Washington added Antuna to its 60-man player pool, giving him the opportunity to work out at their alternate training site. He impressed the team enough there to earn a spot on their 40-man roster last offseason.

Antuna was then assigned to High-A last year and while his overall numbers don’t stand out, he eventually settled in to post an .807 OPS with 69 hits and 27 walks over his final 60 games. Although the Nationals moved him to the outfield after he struggled to stick at an infield position, it was his bat that earned him $3.85 million as an international free agent. The team will be looking to see him take a step forward as a power hitter this season.

Further reading: Nats add Yasel Antuna to 40-man to protect him from Rule 5 Draft

6. OF Cristhian Vaquero (proj. DSL)

Age: 17 | Bats: S | Throws: R | 6’3” 180 lbs | Born: Havana, Cuba

Cristhian Vaquero was the No. 2 prospect of the 2021-22 international class, signing with the Nationals in mid-January for a team-record $4.925 million. He’s a five-tool player whose versatility is evident at the plate as a switch-hitter and in the field with his ability to play all three outfield positions. Vaquero’s best tool is perhaps his speed, earning a 60 grade on the 20-80 scale from MLB Pipeline.

For all his potential, Vaquero debuts at No. 6 in these rankings while he gets his footing in the Dominican Summer League. It’s going to take some time for Vaquero to get to the U.S. and start working his way through the minor leagues, as the Nationals have yet to get their first look at him in a full-season setting. Once he establishes himself, Vaquero has the potential to skyrocket to the top of their farm system pretty quickly.

Further reading: Cristhian Vaquero brings ‘Alabama WR’ skillset to Nats’ farm system

7. RHP Jackson Rutledge (proj. AA)

Age: 22 | Bats: R | Throws: R | 6’8” 245 lbs | Born: Springdale, Missouri

Jackson Rutledge appeared poised for a breakout season in 2021 until a strained rotator cuff and some blister issues forced him on and off the field all year. The 2019 No. 17 overall pick ended up with a 7.68 ERA over 13 starts, a far cry from the 3.13 ERA he put up across 10 starts in his first season two years prior.

Yet the tools are still there, particularly a fastball that flirts with 100 mph on the radar gun and a slider that operates as a true out-pitch. Rutledge tweaked his delivery to put less pressure on his shoulder, so he’ll hope to put together a full season in 2022 and get back to putting up the gaudy numbers that made him a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award at San Jacinto.

Further reading: Jackson Rutledge, healthy again, is focused on making hitters ‘look stupid’

8. RHP Andry Lara (proj. High-A)

Age: 19 | Bats: R | Throws: R | 6’4” 180 lbs | Born: Coro, Venezuela

After spending the 2020 season at the Nationals’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Andry Lara made his professional debut last year with short stints in rookie ball and Low-A Fredericksburg. He posted solid strikeout totals (9.7 K/9) but also had some control issues as evidenced by a BB/9 of 3.9 across 48 1/3 innings.

However, it’s not yet about the results for the teenager. Lara is still building up his arm strength, which should make his lively fastball even more effective. His best breaking ball hasn’t even been classified as either a slider or a curveball because it moves so much. As he continues to develop his repertoire, Lara’s true potential will come into focus.

Further reading: Andry Lara ranks seventh among Nats prospects in pre-2020 rankings

9. LHP Mitchell Parker (proj. High-A)

Age: 22 | Bats: L | Throws: L | 6’4” 225 lbs | Born: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cade Cavalli got all the headlines for his strikeout totals last season, but Mitchell Parker was right up there with 144 on the year. That was third-most among mid-level (A/High-A) pitchers, a good sign for the 2020 fifth-round pick just breaking into the professional ranks. He finished last season at High-A and may wind up back there after he posted a 5.89 ERA in 11 starts.

Parker is no flamethrower, deceiving hitters with a running fastball and curveball that dives out of the zone in a hurry. He also mixes in a splitter and changeup, though both pitches are still works in progress. The Nationals would love to see the left-hander harness his control and get his walk totals down in 2022.

Further reading: Mitchell Parker’s strikeout ability has stood out among Nats prospects

10. SS Armando Cruz (proj. Rookie ball)

Age: 18 | Bats: R | Throws: R | 5’10” 160 lbs | Born: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Similar to Cristhian Vaquero, Armando Cruz joined the Nationals among some significant hype as a top prospect of his international class. Cruz’s calling card is his defense, making flashy plays with world-class range and athleticism. How the Nationals can develop him offensively will determine whether he can be an everyday play at the big-league level.

His first full season came in the Dominican Summer League last year, when he hit .232 with a .597 OPS over 197 plate appearances. Cruz put his speed on display with 11 stolen bases but hit just one home run and didn’t reach base with much consistency. He’s expected to make the transition to the U.S. in 2022 so the Nationals can work with him in Florida.

Further reading: Nats sign Dominican SS Armando Cruz for then-record $3.9M

Next Five:

  • OF Donovan Casey (proj. AAA)
  • RHP Gerardo Carrillo (proj. AAA)
  • OF Daylen Lile (proj. Low-A)
  • RHP Joan Adon (proj. AAA)
  • RHP Aldo Ramirez (proj. High-A)

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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