The future success of every Major League team lies largely in its Minor League pipeline. With that in mind, MLB.com is looking at each team's farm system, from the Top 20 prospects to under-the-radar types.
Playoff baseball returned to Washington in 2012 after nearly eight decades. The Nationals won 98 games, the most in the Major Leagues, and captured the National League East title, thanks in large part to a core of homegrown players.
Right-hander Stephen Strasburg and center fielder Bryce Harper, both former No. 1 overall picks, played critical roles, but they were far from the only ones. Three of the Nats' four All-Stars were originally signed by the club, as were 11 of the 25 players on their postseason roster.
"It was a goal that we set forth as an organization, to have opportunities from within," said Nationals director of player development Doug Harris. "When you have some cornerstones that you are able to draft -- with Harper and Strasburg -- and to build around along with several quality players is an exciting opportunity for our guys."
After several players graduated to the Major Leagues in 2012, the Nats now have to go to work developing new players to take their places. Harris said he expects Double-A Harrisburg to have several players in the big league club's next wave of talent.
After seeing their first-round picks from the 2009-10 First-Year Player Drafts move up to the Major Leagues, all eyes in Washington will turn to third baseman Anthony Rendon, the sixth overall pick in 2011. Rendon missed much of last year with a broken ankle. But he recovered in time to go to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .338 and played in the Rising Stars Game.
Rendon played 21 games in Harrisburg after coming back from the injury and struggled at the plate as he got back up to speed. He said the opportunity to go to Arizona and be successful was important for his confidence.
"Coming back, I struggled big time," Rendon said. "I can't even lie about it. Trying to come back and trying to face all those good pitchers, I felt like I didn't know how to play baseball."
Rendon will likely be joined in Harrisburg by infielder Matt Skole, outfielders Brian Goodwin and Michael Taylor and right-hander Nate Karns. With so many highly-regarded prospects on one team, the Nationals have high hopes for the group.
"Double-A has a chance to be very good, diverse," Harris said. "That's really where the core of our system will be."
Top 20 prospects
While Rendon leads the list, he is joined at the top by two other first-round selections: Goodwin and right-hander Lucas Giolito. Goodwin was taken 28 picks after Rendon and also played in the Rising Stars Game this fall. Giolito was in the mix to be the first overall pick in the 2012 Draft early in the season, but fell to No. 16 after his season ended with a sprained right elbow. Giolito pitched once professionally before he was shut down and underwent Tommy John surgery Aug. 31.
Following Giolito is a familiar face to Nats fans. Right-hander A.J. Cole, a key piece Washington sent to the Athletics to obtain Gio Gonzalez, is back in the system after yet another trade with Oakland. Taylor rounds out the top five.
Seven pitchers and eight position players make up the other 15 players on the top 20. Perhaps most intriguing is left-hander Matt Purke, who threw only 15 innings last year because of shoulder trouble. If healthy, the 2011 third-round selection has the potential to be a No. 2 starter.
Under the radar
Listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, it is easy to overlook second baseman Tony Renda. But the second-round pick in the 2012 Draft has a history of outperforming expectations. Renda was the 2011 Pac-10 Player of the Year and helped lead Cal to the College World Series. He has a compact swing that allows him to make a lot of contact and spray line drives to all fields.
After a rough first two years in the Minor Leagues, right-hander Aaron Barrett got back on track in 2012. He struck out 73 batters in 51 2/3 innings between low Class A Hagerstown and high Class A Potomac. Working out of the bullpen, Barrett's low-90s fastball-slider combination kept hitters off balance and made him a midseason South Atlantic League All-Star. He also pitched in the Arizona Fall League's Rising Stars Game. Barrett could stay on the fast track if he can continue his success.
Hitter of the Year: Rendon
After impressing at Spring Training last year, Rendon appeared to be on his way to a big year. But a broken ankle in his second game of the season dashed those hopes. Rendon is a patient hitter who drives the ball to all fields. He has some power in his bat and the defensive skills to be a Gold Glove third baseman.
If Rendon can stay healthy this year, he remains primed for a breakout.
"He's not a sexy guy because he's well thought of," Harris said. "But we anticipate a strong year out of Anthony."
Pitcher of the Year: Cole
After a difficult year away, Cole returns to his original organization. Cole began 2012 in high Class A Stockton and experienced firsthand just how unforgiving the California League can be to pitchers. He was sent down to Burlington in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League and excelled. Now that he's back with the Nationals, Cole's next stop at high Class A will come in Potomac, where he should find more success.
"Getting A.J. Cole back was exciting for us," Harris said. "He's at the age now where he's physically maturing. We're ready to see him take another step forward."
Teddy Cahill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.