The Washington Nationals added two players to the 40-man roster before the deadline last month. Outfielder Donovan Casey and left-handed pitcher Evan Lee had their contracts purchased by the club and protected them from the Rule 5 Draft, which has been affected by the work stoppage and lockout. Each player has some interesting skills and a chance to play with the big league club in 2022.
Evan Lee, LHP
Lee will be 25 when the 2022 season begins and was a 15 round pick in the 2018 draft. In high school, Lee was a 2-way player, both pitching and playing left field/first base. He has only pitched as a pro. He throws a fastball that has increased in velocity to 96 mph, a 77-81 mph curveball, and an 82-85 mph changeup. Occasionally he will add a cutter when facing left-handed hitters. The curve has a high spin and a hammer movement. Here it is striking out Lee’s seventh batter of the game on 9/2.
Lee’s first season as a starter saw him finish as one of the better pitchers in the Nationals organization. In 77 innings he struck out an excellent 31% of batters faced, walked 10%, and posted a WHIP and ERA of 1.31 and. 4.32. It should be noted that Lee’s BABIP was .346 which was one of the highest in all of High A. Lee had one of the lowest home run totals in the league (6) and a respectable GB% of 47%. With some positive BABIP regression, the WHIP and ERA could come down.
Lee has the strikeout to walk numbers that make you take notice but he’s likely a reliever long term. He averaged 65 pitches per start and the fastball plays up out of the pen. The curveball is MLB ready. However, the rotation has several question marks. Stephen Strasburg is the number 1 but his health is always a question mark. Patrick Corbin had an ERA of almost 6.00 in 2021, same with Josiah Gray. Josh Rogers and Paolo Espino are penciled in as the 4th and 5th starters, but Evans could force his way in if all goes right. I would expect to see him as a long reliever in 2022 with occasional spot starts. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Washington gave him a long leash as a starter.
Donovan Casey, OF
Donovan Casey was drafted by the Dodgers in the 20th round of the 2017 MLB Draft. He was part of the package Washington acquired for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner during the 2021 season. Casey has received high praise for his athleticism, outfield arm, and energy. Nationals Assistant GM of Player Personnel Mark Scialabba has said Casey is “very aggressive defensively and covers a lot of ground”.
Across Double-A and Triple-A in 2021, Casey posted a .269/.329/.430 slash line with 16 home runs, 55 RBI, and 22 stolen bases. It’s worth noting that after his promotion to Triple-A Casey only hit .179 with a 39% strikeout rate. Strikeouts have always been part of Casey’s game, hovering around 30% since 2018. This swing and miss does come with power and on-base skills. In 4 minor league seasons, Casey has hit 53 home runs and has a .800 OPS. Despite his rough introduction to Triple-A, the Nationals coaching staff was impressed by his ability to hit to all fields and his bat speed.
Both players participated in the Arizona Fall League. Lee pitched in 9 games as a reliever, struck out 10 batters, and allowed 5 earned runs (4.66 ERA). Casey hit .255/.368/.447 with 2 home runs, 10 RBI, and 3 stolen bases. He only struck out 8 times in his 47 at-bats, which is a positive thing to see.
Casey has some legitimate tools; speed, power, and defense. Washington will likely give Lane Thomas and Yadiel Hernandez the first crack at left field and center field. Victor Robles and Andrew Stevenson are also in play so injury or underperformance is the only way Casey even makes the active roster. Even if Casey is on the open day roster his ceiling is a 4th outfielder or defensive replacement type. Unfortunately without a drastic drop in strikeouts, his hit tool will always cap his potential.
Rule 5 Draft
The major league portion of this year’s Draft has been canceled. The minor league phase is still happening. With the addition of Lee and Casey, the Nationals 40-man roster is now at 39 players. Some of the players left off the 40-man and are now eligible for the Rule 5 Draft are pitchers Tim Cate, Ben Braymer, Richard Gausch, shortstop Jordy Barley and catcher Israel Pineda. Cate and Braymer each had an ERA over 5.00 in 2021 and the other players are in the lower levels of the minor leagues. It would be very surprising if any MLB took a chance on these players. I don’t see teams using a roster spot for players with such little experience or struggled in 2021, but some certainly could be taken in the MiLB phase.