Rochester Red Wings Report: The First Half in AAA
We take a look at the first half of the 2022 season for the Washington Nationals' AAA club in Rochester.
Dan Glickman writes about baseball in general at The Baseball Continuum and the Rochester Red Wings in particular at Pickin' Splinters. He'll be providing weekly updates on the AAA Nationals affiliate during the second half of the 2022 season and potentially beyond.
The Washington Nationals' AAA club in Rochester had an eventful first half of the season, to say the least. Depending on when in the season you were looking, they were among the hottest teams in all of the baseball or one of the coldest. In the end, they are I should know, as I've seen a good chunk of it. When Stephen Strasburg had his rehab start, I was there. As Luis Garcia tore up the International League, I was there. And when Cade Cavalli had an injury scare that ultimately took him out of the Futures Game, I was not only there but also talked to Red Wings manager Matthew LeCroy about it.
So, here are a few thoughts from the first half on a few aspects of the team, based on what sort of niche the players are in.
The reason why most MLB fans pay any attention to their organization's farm system is, of course, the prospects. It may hurt the feelings of some people who live in Minor League Baseball cities, but it's the truth. Winning is secondary compared to the development of talent.
So on that measure, how have the Red Wings done?
One thing to note is that Red Wings started the season with few major prospects. This wasn't a particularly big surprise. The Nationals' farm system is pretty bottom-heavy right now as it's rebuilt from a recent low-point that saw it named the worst farm system in baseball by some publications.
Still, the prospect cupboard wasn't entirely bare. Luis Garcia wasn't technically a prospect anymore to most people due to the number of games he'd played already with the Nationals, but in practice, he was. Cade Cavalli, of course, was the big prospect and remained so. After those two, though, the biggest prospect was Donovan Casey. While Casey is an excellent fielder and baserunner, he's a far cry from a top prospect. However, as time has passed, the Wings' prospect composition has increased. Cole Henry and Matt Cronin have both moved up to AAA,.
For the prospects that have been in Rochester, though? In general, the kids have been alright.
Luis Garcia, of course, tore up the league with abandon. Every at-bat he'd have would be unmissable, and at times it felt like he could win a game on his own. Slashing .314/.368/.531, his call-up to the show in June was extremely well-deserved, and his performance with the Nats since he arrived suggests he'll never see a AAA diamond again. If you were to ask me what Nationals player who has come up through Rochester is most likely to become an All-Star, it'd almost certainly be Garcia (no offense to Keibert Ruiz).
On the mound, Cade Cavalli has steadily improved throughout the season. Earlier in the season, he was at times erratic in his games. In one case, for example, he struck out the game's first two hitters only to get slammed for five runs and an early exit. Thankfully, such performances have become scarce as the season has moved on. It's a story that can be seen by looking at his splits, where his ERA has decreased with every passing month. When he's on his game, he's Major League-ready, and should he do well coming off his finger issue, it seems inevitable that he'll be suiting up for the Nationals by the end of the year.
The two newest prospects to arrive in Rochester from Harrisburg (Henry and Cronin) are a little hard to figure out, given that they haven't had as many games. Cronin hasn't done nearly as well statistically in AAA as he was in AA (a 4.97 ERA in 12.2 innings in Rochester vs. a 0.00 ERA in 16.1 innings in Harrisburg), but that largely stems from one bad stretch in early June. What I have seen of him has been impressive, though, and I would not be surprised at all if he ends up in Washington either later this year or early next if he can avoid any more rough patches. Cole Henry, however, is, I will admit, a mystery to me. I haven't been to either of his two AAA starts, and he hasn't pitched very much due to a mix of injury and the Nationals' efforts to avoid having too heavy of workloads. Hopefully, he'll be back at it in the second half.
It's a misnomer to say that AAA has the best prospects in the minors. Sometimes it does, but not always: many prospects in some organizations jump straight from AA to MLB or have much shorter stays in AAA than they had in lower levels. However, it is safe to say that AAA has the best players in the minors because of the need for depth. AAA is full of guys that are either older or not as highly regarded as the big-name prospects but who are ready and waiting if a spot becomes available. The Nationals roster shows several players with Rochester earlier in the year serving as this depth: Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Clippard, Erasmo Ramirez, and Tres Barrera are examples.
The biggest "depth" guy on the Red Wings is probably Andrew Stevenson. No stranger to Nationals fans, he's been slashing .292/.349/.453 on the year while stealing 21 bases. He's not currently on the 40-man roster, but it feels as if the Nationals will find some way to get him up to the big club if a spot becomes available. Another non-40-man player worth knowing is Joey Meneses. A longtime minor league slugger, he leads the team with 19 home runs. Among position players on the 40-man, Josh Palacios is probably the one who has made the most noise here. Acquired from the Toronto organization earlier in the year, his arrival in Rochester caused a mild stir because his uncle, former big-leaguer Rey Palacios, is a firefighter in Rochester. The left-handed outfielder is hitting .300/.380/.456 on the season, and he completed the first half on an 11-game hitting streak and 24-game on-base streak. Also, when he homers, he sometimes does the griddy dance.
Pitching-wise, there are still a few depth guys remaining. Most of the pitching staff and bullpen have MLB experience, and some pitchers like Sterling Sharp and Jefry Rodriguez have proved to be good inning-eaters both as starters and out of the bullpen;. However, they may not be the most impressive. Statistically, they've played key roles with the Wings this year thus far. Logan Verrett, formerly of the Orioles and Mets, has also shown flashes of brilliance, including a three-hit tough-luck loss in his final start before the break.
Finally, I want to highlight a player or two who may not be considered top prospects but can't be considered "depth" signings, either. For example, there is infielder (usually third) Jake Alu. He's not considered a major prospect, and he only just made it to AAA, but he has immediately made a good impression with some clutch hits. The 25-year-old out of Boston College is slashing .278/.356/.470 between AA and AAA this season. Pitching-wise, I'd like to mention reliever Curtis Taylor. The Canadian righty is in his first year in the Nationals organization. It has a 2.19 ERA in 12.1 innings thus far in AAA after doing well in some lower-level action. While neither have major prospect buzz, they could sneak up to the big leagues sooner or later.
The Coming Week
Although AAA still hasn't gotten an All-Star Game back up and running since the pandemic and the MLB takeover of MiLB, the Wings still have a break before they return to action in Buffalo against Toronto's top farm club. Josh Rogers, who was supposed to make a rehab start this past weekend before some travel issues scuttled it, will likely be on the bump for the Wings on Friday.
Dan Glickman can be followed on Twitter at @DanJGlickman.