A year ago, Brian Goodwin went to the Arizona Fall League for an obvious reason. The toolsy outfielder had played in just 100 games during his first full year, missing a month with a quad injury. His time with the Salt River Rafters was giving him the chance to make up for some lost playing time.
Goodwin picked up 80 at-bats against a high level of competition last fall, and while he hit just .238, he did have 11 extra-base hits, including three home runs.
His return engagement to the AFL this fall is different. Goodwin stayed healthy in 2013, racking up 533 at-bats in the Double-A Eastern League and continuing to show glimpses of an exciting power-speed combination. His time, with the Mesa Solar Sox, he's just trying to add on to the lessons learned during the year.
"Just a lot of refining," Goodwin said about his Fall League goal. "I've been playing a lot of baseball this season, figuring some stuff out a little bit. Now, I'm just trying to hone in on refining my craft a little bit more. I'm playing against some good competition, getting some more ABs, hoping that will take my game that much further, to the next level."
Goodwin, ranked ranked No.1 on MLB.com's top Nationals prospects list and No. 65 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list, was part of an aggressive drafting effort by the Nationals in 2011. Washington set an organizational record that Draft, spending over $15 million, including $3 million to Goodwin. While he did reach Double-A in his first season, missing that chunk of time was disappointing, and the center fielder is glad he moved past it in year two.
"Being an athlete playing this game, you just want to play," Goodwin said. "You want to be on the field so you can help your team out as much as possible. One of the key ingredients to doing that is being healthy. Me being able to do that this year, I think, was a huge relief."
Conventional wisdom says that if a player can succeed at the Double-A level, he can play in the big leagues. Count Goodwin among those who believes that adage to be true.
"Once you get to Double-A, you find a lot of guys who are big league guys," Goodwin said. "When you do make that jump to the next level, those are the guys you're going to be playing against. Playing against that competition here [in the AFL], you kind of get to see what the level of competition is like once you move up the ladder. I think playing there, getting a full year this year, plus the Fall League, I think that really helps."
It could help Goodwin make the ultimate jump, up to Washington. He's well aware of the Nationals' late playoff push and how it fell just short. Getting an opportunity to help his parent team return to the top of the National League East clearly fuels him.
"Oh, man, I can't wait," Goodwin said. "Wherever I am, I just want to be able to help out a team. The reason why we play is so we can win championships. If I can go anywhere and help a team win a championship, that's what I want to do."
Nationals hitters in the AFL
Things were looking up for No. 10 Nationals prospect Matt Skole when the third baseman played in the Arizona Fall League a year ago. He had led the organization in home runs in his first full season, then hit .305 in the AFL. A collision in his second game of 2013, though, forced him out for the season, as he needed Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow as well as a procedure on his left wrist. He's trying to make up for lost time this fall and while he started just 5-for-23 (.217) over his first seven games, two of those five hits were home runs.
It's been a rough road for catcher Adrian Nieto since he was drafted back in 2008. He served a 50-game suspension in 2011 for positive PED tests and the '13 season was the first time he'd played in more than 80 games (110) and received more than 330 at-bats (452). He had a solid campaign in the Carolina League this past season and a solid AFL performance -- he went 5-for-16 over his first five games -- could propel him to the upper levels of the system.
Steven Souza has been with the Nationals organization since 2007. While he played just 81 games in 2013, most of them were in Double-A, his first taste of that level. And he put up good numbers, hitting .300/.396/.557 with 15 homers and 20 steals. He's continued to swing the bat well in the AFL, going 7-for-17 with 5 RBIs over his first five games.
Nationals pitchers in the AFL
Lefty Matt Purke , the organization's No. 8 prospect, has thrown just over 100 innings as a pro since being drafted in 2011. While he has been slow to come back from shoulder problems, he did pitch very well over his last six starts in the Carolina League. The stuff and velocity is continuing to come back and has served him well in the AFL. Purke has given up just one unearned run in 12 innings over three starts.
Like Purke, Sammy Solis is a lefty who has been held back by injuries. He missed the 2012 season following Tommy John surgery, though he pitched well upon his return to the Carolina League in '13. Solis, an Arizona native and the Nats' No. 11 prospect, has pitched twice before in the AFL, in '10 and '11. He's given up just two earned runs over 12 2/3 innings this fall, striking out 14.
In his first full season as a pro, right-handed reliever Robert Benincasa pitched across two levels and led the organization with 27 saves while striking out 11.3 per nine innings. He's yet to pitch above A ball, however, and pitching out of the 'pen in Arizona -- five appearances and five innings to date -- will prepare him for what lies ahead.
Pitchers taken in the 45th round of the Draft aren't supposed to do much, so the fact that 2011 draftee Richie Mirowski made it to Double-A in '13 and pitched well there means he's already exceeded expectations. After going 10-3 with a 1.83 ERA, an 11.5 K/9 ratio and a .185 batting average against, the fact he was sent to the AFL means the Nats think there might be more to come. The right-hander had given up one run on two hits over four innings over his first four outings in Arizona.