King of the Draft: The Washington Nationals

Although the Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates come close, no organization in Major League Baseball has improved its minor league system more in the last two years than the Washington Nationals. The team has made huge strides in distancing itself from “The Dark Years” when it was controlled by Major League Baseball on a shoestring budget, and under the questionable guidance of then-GM Jim Bowden.

The Nationals, headed by savy third-year General Manager Mike Rizzo, likely did not begin the 2011 draft expecting to be quite so aggressive when trying to build upon the momentum from 2010’s draft – and set yet another draft spending record. But that’s just what they did by locking up three first round talents (when healthy) and a fringe first rounder. In fact, both third baseman Anthony Rendon and left-hander Matt Purke entered the 2011 college season with the chance to be chosen first overall. Both slipped due to injuries, although Rendon’s was considered far less serious in terms of long-term damage.

Rendon battled through shoulder woes in 2011 after dealing with two serious ankle injuries in previous years. A third baseman by trade, he could end up in the outfield or at second base thanks to the presence of incumbent Ryan Zimmerman, who might actually be more valuable to the club as trade bait. Rendon could end up being just as good offensively and defensively, while Zimmerman – who is in his prime – may be on the down swing of his career by the time Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, etc. are all enter their best years.

Purke, like Rendon, battled shoulder problems in ’11 but those are far more serious for pitchers. His fastball velocity fluctuated all season and it was blamed on a variety of ailments, ranging from the shoulder to his back to blisters on his fingers. No one knows what’s really going on with Purke (outside of his inner circle, anyway) but we can only hope that it can be fixed with mechanical adjustments and/or rehab. If he can find his groove again, the Nats could potentially have a dangerous rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Purke in the Top 3 slots.

Right-hander Alex Meyer turned down the Boston Red Sox out of high school, allegedly ignoring an offer of $2 million (the same amount he signed for after three years at the University of Kentucky). Because of his size (6’9”) and related command inconsistencies, Meyer is a bit of a wild card. He has the potential to be an outstanding No. 2 starter but he could end up as a high-leverage reliever if he cannot keep all his moving parts in rhythm.

Outfielder Brian Goodwin is a toolsy, athletic outfielder who, after a college suspension threatened his playing time, spent one year at the University of North Carolina before moving to Miami-Dade Junior College. A five-tool talent, he can hit, run and play defense. Goodwin could develop into a 20-20 player down the road.

Just how wise it was to spend this kind of money on a draft class could well rest on Purke’s shoulders… er, shoulder. The club took a huge gamble by guaranteeing him the kind of money that it did. It’s been reported that Washington was given full disclosure on the southpaw’s medical reports so there must have been a level of confidence from the team’s doctors before Rizzo signed off on the contract.

The club’s remodeling actually began in 2009 when it secured the talents of Strasburg, with the first overall selection in the draft, and Drew Storen, with a second first-round pick (for failing to sign Aaron Crow the previous year – a fair trade-off). Both Strasburg (who expired his prospect eligibility prior to Tommy John surgery) and Storen have already graduated to the big leagues.

The Nats entered the ’10 amateur draft with the first overall pick yet again (perhaps the club should thank MLB for “The Dark Years?”). We all know the back story on outfielder Bryce Harper, who was the consensus best talent available (by a landslide) with the first pick. It’s also been well-documented that the teenager is already holding his own in double-A with a .335 wOBA – albeit with some interesting subplots.

Along with Harper, though, the Nationals also secured the talents of prep right-hander A.J. Cole, who was ranked as the 16th best pitcher in the draft by Baseball America. Most teams considered it almost impossible to secure his signature on a contract so he slid to the fourth round where the Nats paid him $2 million, which is not that far off from market value. He’s displayed outstanding control in low-A ball in 2011 with a walk rate of just 2.28 BB/9. Cole has also missed a lot of bats (10.39 K/9). He could be a fast mover if he keeps this up in 2012.

With the second round selection, left-hander Sammy Solis was taken out of the University of San Diego. Offering a lower ceiling (No. 3 starter), the southpaw was projected to be a fast mover that could help an organization with little depth in the upper levels of the farm system. Solis hasn’t moved as quickly as expected in 2011 due to injuries. He got a late start to the season due to a groin injury and then he was recently shut down with elbow inflammation. Add in his back problems from college and he’s getting a bit of a reputation for getting hurt.

The club also went over slot on southpaw starter Robbie Ray, a showcase standout who had an inconsistent prep season prior to the draft. He received just shy of $800,000 in the 12th round. Ray got a late start to the 2011 season but he’s been good in low-A ball. He has a strikeout rate of 9.50 K/9 to go along with a 3.21 FIP (2.20 ERA) in 17 starts. If he can find the ground a little more often on his balls-in-play and develop stronger secondary pitches he could reach his ceiling as a No. 3 starter.

When a team finds itself in a hole like the Nationals did after years of MLB control, it has to be aggressive and take risks if it hopes to rise from the ashes. Fans of this organization have been waiting since 1994 for the club to truly field a championship-worthy club. With a little luck and continued strong leadership from the front office the city of Washington won’t have long to wait.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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12 years ago

The money spent on Purke might just as well have been burned in a fire. His mechanics are inefficient, his velocity is going backwards, he might not have the stamina to start, and he’s a TJ-surgery or three waiting to happen. All that for a 40-man spot and four million dollars.

Other than once being considered in elite prospect, there’s presently very little redeeming about picking him. He was passed on by every other team smartly and for good reason.

Getting Rendon sixth overall, though, was tremendous. His injury concerns are there, too, but they’re not as serious as Purke’s. He’ll be a great third baseman for a long time.

john sparrow
12 years ago
Reply to  Kirsh

i agree on Purke, where the hype from a year back seems to be Mr. Hulet’s most convincing argument. I’d be very surprised if Purke made any impact as an SP in the big leagues.

Rendon’s case is also far more complex than it appears here. It’s extremely unclear what the status of injuries is that caused teams to be scared, and there really is no clear indication of how far he might have fallen if the Nats didnt take him. Add in some indication that he might be injury prone, and it could be worse than we think.

12 years ago
Reply to  Kirsh

Purke’s fall to the 3rd round wasn’t only a product of his injury concerns, but also his signability concerns. Purke had only just finished his sophomore year. Most college pitchers are drafted after their junior years, giving them substantially less leverage by returning for their senior year. For Purke, this wasn’t the case. He could have easily walked away this year, and been at no less of a disadvantage in the 2012 draft. Purke had all the leverage. His fall to the 3rd round isn’t completely explained just due to his injury concerns.

12 years ago
Reply to  Will

Yeah, that’s a crucial catch. When you’re that strong a draft eligible sophomore who suffers setbacks, you have much more of an opportunity to leverage a stronger position in next year’s draft. That’s the full story. If he were a Junior, sticking around for a senior season would have been less likely, warranting a 1st round selection. It’s still a very reasonable risk, and there’s still a lot of work that can be done to modify his make up.

Purke has that goofy twisting fall off to the glove side that reminds me of Andrew Miller, but his is more violent and upright… You see arm actions like his more often in the bullpen, but I’m sure they’ll be working quite a bit to correct it. It’ll be interesting to see the developments… He’s a great pitcher, so why not take the chance.

Ben Hallmember
12 years ago
Reply to  Kirsh

It’s ridiculous to say that the money was completely wasted on Purke. He is certainly more likely to never develop into a major leaguer than any other draftee, but just a year ago he showed tremendous ability. If he does turn out to be healthy and comes back to his previous form, he’ll be worth tens of millions more than they spend on him.

12 years ago
Reply to  Kirsh

I’m a bit confused by this take. There is no other way for small and mid market teams to cheaply acquire aces. You can either spend 100-175 million in free agency, trade the farm like the indians did, or you can draft guys who have ace potential and pay them 2.5-10 mill and hope you develop them.

He wasn’t once considered a premiere draft prospect, he was a premiere draft prospect just 8 months ago, slated to be the #1 pitcher taken in the draft. Then he got hurt, and his velocity issues were not and could not be satisfyingly explained down the stretch. So what. We used a third rounder, which would be replaced if we failed to sign him, and placed a 4 million dollar bet, basically Wang money, or 1/31st what the Giants paid to fail with Zito, and 1/65th or so what the Rangers paid AFraud for nothing, on him possibly reaching his potential.

I’d take that bet everyday of the week, and twice on sunday as the saying goes. Purke has the chance to be something special, you can either place your 10 mill, 4 mill, and 2 mill bets on guys like Strass, Purke, and AJ Cole, or you can spend 10x that much on a free agent and have just about the same odds of them actually being worth 1/2 of what you paid them, at a fraction the cost.

He was not passed on by every team because they were smart, he was passed on by all the teams because they were scared of his injury history and considered him unsignable, and for good reason, if he said no to big money two years ago, why would he say yes to less when he was at his weakest bargaining position possible? Teams rightly assumed he’d be damn near impossible to sign, and with the long time table of players making it to the majors, teams can’t afford to waste picks now, for a tomorrow that they may never be able to see after being fired.

I love that the Nats have spent 2 and a half drafts (i dont really consider the ’09 draft great after the first two picks, however, the first two picks were great, so, never quite sure how to look at it) investing heavily in the future, and betting on development, instead of playing scared and just dreafting easy signs and mediocre upside guys like the dodgers just did. As Oscar Wilde once said, “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Indeed. I’m glad the Nats are taking that approach.