Karns' comeback part of Nats' theme
Injury-plagued right-hander enjoys breakout in first full season
By Robert Emrich / Special to MLB.com
While most fans are focused on Washington following the ascension of Bryce Harper, the Nationals' farm system remains productive.
Anthony Rendon, selected sixth overall in the 2011 Draft, struggled through an injury-plagued season, batting .233 with six homers and 12 RBIs in 43 games. However, he flashed his potential in the Arizona Fall League, earning a spot in the Rising Stars Game with a robust .338 average.
As an organization, it was another strong year as Nats affiliates compiled a .509 winning percentage. That success ended with the regular season, with Class A Hagerstown and short-season Auburn getting bounced in the opening round of the South Atlantic and New York-Penn League playoffs.
Catcher -- Sandy Leon, Auburn (5 games), Harrisburg (40 games), Syracuse (19 games), Washington (12 games): The Minor League veteran enjoyed the finest season of his six-year career, batting .322 while posting a personal-best .856 OPS. Leon also was a stalwart behind the plate, throwing out 41 percent of baserunners across three levels.
"He made significant strides offensively," Nationals director of player development Doug Harris said."He made an adjustment in his stride and he put up his strongest offensive season to date. The biggest difference this year for Sandy was the strides he made offensively.
"His strength is his defensive ability. I think the year before he threw out 53 percent and before that 51 percent, [so] there's a history of this. Very efficient and accurate thrower and we expected him to perform at that level."
First base -- Shawn Pleffner, Auburn (55 games): A 2011 26th-round pick, Pleffner finished second in the New York-Penn League with a .329 average in his professional debut. He came on strong down the stretch, batting .361 in August, and led the Doubledays with 17 doubles.
"He had a sports hernia injury that precluded him from participating in 2011 and he really got on the map in his first opportunity," Harris said."He's an instinctive hitter, good barrel control, he did a nice job for us. It was the first time he was able to go out and compete and show us what he was capable of doing."
Second base -- Cutter Dykstra, Hagerstown (110 games): Highlighted by Harris as a player who made strides in 2012, Dykstra enjoyed the best year of his five-year career. He hit .290 with 28 doubles, 32 stolen bases, 64 RBIs and 62 runs scored, playing more games at second base than ever before and posting a .953 fielding percentage in 81 games.
"We got him in a trade three years ago and he had a challenging year in 2011," Harris said."He took a step back and made a significant change in his approach and was a catalyst on a playoff team. He was really consistent throughout the year, made some strides defensively and really had a big year for us. We're going to challenge him a bit in Spring Training. He's played at the Carolina League level and we're going to challenge him to be aggressive."
Shortstop -- Jason Martinson, Hagerstown (69 games), Potomac (66 games): Martinson showed a slugger's bat in 2012, finishing fourth in the organization with 22 homers and leading the way with 106 RBIs, both career highs. While his average suffered following a promotion to the Carolina League, the 24-year-old Texan drew 68 walks and stole 30 bases in 135 games.
"Very pleased," Harris said of the Martinson's season."It was similar to Cutter, where we're in a position where we asked him to repeat a level at the beginning of the year and asked him to take a step forward. And he did that. His aggressiveness was good, he's always had strength and I think it showed in his power numbers. He has a feel for the strike zone; he'll swing and miss at balls, but he's got a feel for it, as shown by his walk totals."
Third base -- Matt Skole, Hagerstown (101 games), Potomac (18 games): The Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year was a breakout star, earning South Atlantic League MVP honors. Skole led the organization with 27 homers and ranked second with 104 RBIs. The 2011 fifth-round pick batted .293 with 99 walks, 84 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits and was a perfect 11-for-11 on the basepaths in his first full season out of Georgia Tech. Harris was quick to point out that the Nats also were pleased with how he improved with the glove and the bat.
"That's all he's done since we had him," Harris said."He's been a productive player since he came into the organization. He's always been a run-producer. His approach became more simple and efficient and he made strides defensively. He has a big body and he did a nice job with his body and made himself into a third baseman.
"His footwork improved dramatically, his first step quickness improved. He's always had good hands, it's been about his approach to the ball -- and those things improved."
Corey Brown, Syracuse (126 games), Washington (19 games): If there was a moment that summed up the difference between Corey Brown in 2011 as opposed to 2012, it was his blast on May 25 that gave him homers in a team-record five straight games.
Overall, the 27-year-old re-established himself after being taken by the A's in the first round of the 2007 Draft. He finished with 25 homers and drove in 71 runs while batting .285 at Triple-A. It was the kind of performance that made the Nationals take notice.
"He's another guy that we got in a trade and showed flashes of what he's capable of in '11. But this year, he put it together," Harris said."Working with our hitting coach, Troy Gingrich, in Triple-A, his power numbers improved. Overall, it was a breakout year for him. He's capable of playing multiple positions and ran the bases well.
"He'll go to camp and he'll compete and see where we're at. He's well-liked in the organization and he's established himself here, and there's a confidence and trust."
Steven Souza Jr., Hagerstown (70 games), Potomac (27 games): Souza was another case of taking a step back to move forward. Like Dykstra, he repeated a level in opening the year with Hagerstown. There, the Washington native put it all together en route to the best season of his five-year career. Souza slugged 23 homers, drove in 85 runs, racked up 202 total bases and scored 64 runs, all while batting a career-high .297 in 97 games.
"Steve has been a young man that has had the tools his entire career, and I think what we saw this year was the tools translating into skills," Harris said."He's always been a guy that can run, a guy that can throw and has raw power, but it was the evolution of him putting it together. It was him getting into a position offensively of repeating his swing, and he did it.
"If you were to stack our [organization] from top to bottom athletically, he would be near the top. He's a big kid with tremendous athleticism and it was a breakout year from him."
Brian Goodwin, Hagerstown (58 games), Harrisburg (42 games): The 34th overall pick in the 2012 Draft made a splash in his pro debut, batting .280 with 14 homers, 52 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. The Nationals' No. 2 prospect reached Double-A, where he saw his average dip to .223, but he still hit five homers in 42 games for the Senators.
"He's fun to watch each and every day," Harris said."He's made huge strides since the instructional league. He's got a compact, simple approach, a short efficient approach. He can hit, he has the ability to do some damage when a pitcher makes a mistake. We challenged him, putting him in Double-A.
"He's learning how to be a base-stealer. It's learning the nuances of leads, reads, jumps, all the things that come with repetition. He hasn't played a lot of pro baseball and that's the thing that a lot of base-stealers, as they mature, helps them."
Utility -- Eury Perez, GCL Nationals (five games), Harrisburg (82 games), Syracuse (40 games), Washington (13 games): A player who failed to hit even one home run in 532 at-bats probably doesn't stand out, but it's the rest of Perez's game that should. The 22-year-old stole 51 bases, batted .314 and collected a career-high 192 total bases across three levels. He so impressed the Nationals that they added him to the Major League roster in September. He also made a mark defensively, racking up 12 outfield assists and committing only three errors.
"The strides that Eury made this year are probably bigger than anyone in our organization," Harris said."He went from Double-A to the big leagues and made huge strides in every phase of the game. He's an 80 runner who has a better understanding of what he needs to do. He's learning what he needs to do to be a valuable base-stealer, every detail of his game improved and it put him in position to be a September callup."
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Nathan Karns, Hagerstown (11 games), Potomac (13 games): If you were trying to predict at the beginning of the season who the Nationals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year would be, Karns probably wouldn't have been near the top of the list. A 2009 12th-rounder, he missed all of the 2009 and 2010 seasons due to a shoulder injury and made only 13 starts last year. The 25-year-old wound up leading the organization with a 2.17 ERA and 148 strikeouts and tied for second with 11 wins.
"It's kind of nice to see what he was capable of doing once he was out there, and he worked his tail off to get himself into position to compete," Harris said."He's got a well-above-average fastball and a swing-and-miss breaking ball and he just got better each time out."
Karns held opponents to a .174 average and, perhaps most impressively, allowed only two homers over 116 innings between Potomac and Harrisburg.
"I think the biggest thing is the leverage he is able to create with his fastball," Harris said of the 6-foot-5 Texas Tech product."It creates a difficult angle for batters to be able to lift it on."
Honorable mention -- Alex Meyer, Hagerstown (18 games), Potomac (seven games): Meyer was the Nationals' top prospect until he was traded to the Twins at the end of November. Statistically, he was just behind Karns in numerous categories, finishing with 10 wins, 139 strikeouts and a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts. The 2011 first-round pick held foes to a .211 average over 129 innings.
"He's going to be a fun one to watch for the Twins," Harris said."We think the world of Alex and his upside."
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Zach Duke, Syracuse (26 games), Washington (eight games): This season also was something of a rebirth for Duke. An All-Star for the Pirates in 2009, the 29-year-old joined the Nationals near the start of the season and wound up leading the organization and the International League with 15 wins. He tied for third with two complete games and finished 11th with a 3.51 ERA, earning a trip back to the big leagues. The front office was so impressed that it signed the southpaw to a Major League deal.
"When we got Zach at the end of Spring Training, there was a commitment from him and the organization to get him back to where he was when he was an effective Major Leaguer," Harris said."The reason we did this was our pitching coordinator, Spin Williams, had him in Pittsburgh and felt there was some things we could do to allow him to get back to where he was. I think that came to fruition and he put together a strong year and put himself into position to get the contract he just got.
"He was a guy that was out there for anyone to have and he parlayed his season into a Major League contract. He's a guy that can fill a few different roles for us. He's got a good breaking ball and he can match up against lefties as well as make a spot start."
Relief pitcher -- Christian Garcia, Harrisburg (18 games), Syracuse (27 games), Washington (13 games): Garcia's 2012 season was like something out of a video game. The 27-year-old right-hander posted a 0.86 ERA in 45 Minor League appearances and led the organization with 21 saves. He got better as the stakes got higher, allowing only two earned runs over 32 1/3 innings after his promotion to Triple-A. A third-round pick by the Yankees in 2004, Garcia struck out 66 batters in 52 innings while allowing 32 hits, only five of which went for extra bases.
"He's another guy that his health had derailed his career," Harris said."He was a big prospect coming up with the Yankees and he battled some health issues. When we signed him, we developed a plan to get him to be a Major League candidate. He's got a swing-and-miss breaking ball and an above-average changeup. It's about keeping him healthy and letting him go out and compete every day.
"He was used in critical spots in September and I don't think he's a surprise by any means. He'll go into Spring Training with a chance to compete for a spot."