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Posted at 01:06 PM ET, 05/12/2011

In deep draft, the Nationals will focus on pitching

In less than one month, the 2011 baseball draft will begin and the Nationals will do something they have not done since 2008: watch and wait.

After choosing first the past two years, and taking slam-dunk, no-brainer first overall picks, the Nationals will pick sixth this season. They also have the 23rd and 34th overall picks, compensation for losing Adam Dunn to the White Sox in free agency. By this point the past two years, the Nationals knew, and had long had a strong inclination, that they would pick Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. This year, the Nationals need various contingencies based on the players taken before they pick.

“It’s a lot different,” Nationals director of amateur scouting Kris Kline said yesterday. “Picking sixth, it’s a little trickier than picking 1-1. I think we have a good idea of who will be there. I think we have a good shot of getting the players we want. You have to have a Plan B and a Plan C. It’s a good year. That part of the draft, there’s so much depth. There’s going to be a lot of guys to choose from.”

General Manager Mike Rizzo, who will soon start traveling to personally scout players the Nationals could take with their first pick, has shown a preference for drafting college pitchers since his days as the scouting director for the Diamondbacks. This, then, is a good year for him to have three of the first 34 picks.

The 2011 draft has been regarded as one of the deepest drafts in years, particularly for college pitchers. In April, draft expert Jim Callis of Baseball America ranked Connecticut right-hander Matt Barnes the 10th best pitcher overall and seventh best college pitcher – and wrote he probably would have been the top college pitcher taken in 2010.

“We always just take best player available,” Kline said. “We’re going to really focus on pitching, though. That’s one thing we’re going to focus on, to be honest. That’s something we’re lacking in our system. You can never have enough of that. And this is a very good year to focus on that. This is a very good draft. There’s a lot of arm strength out there, a lot of big velocity.”

UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole and Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen (St. Albans) are the consensus top two pitchers in the draft, so they figure to be snapped up when the Nationals choose sixth. Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray, Georgia Tech’s Jed Bradley, UCLA’s Trevor Bauer and high schoolers Dylan Bundy and Taylor Guerrieri are some of the top-ranked pitchers who could be available when the Nationals pick.

Kline said no matter how the draft breaks down, “we’re going to get three really good players” picking sixth, 23rd and 34th. One factor – teams stockpiling draft picks because of compensation – could make the draft even deeper than simply the quality of the players. As examples, the Rays have 10 of the first 60 picks, and the Blue Jays have six of the first 78.

The financial commitment for those teams will be significant no matter what, and it could be staggering if they chose difficult-to-sign players. They could pass on elite talent to take strong prospects who are less risky to sign, which could allow some prospects to fall.

The Nationals last year showed a willingness to break the bank on their draft even beyond Harper’s record-breaking deal. They signed second-round draft pick Sammy Solis to a $1 million bonus, and A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray both signed record deals for fourth-round and 12th-round picks, respectively. This year, without having to give a megadeal to the first overall choice, the Nationals will also be able spread their draft budget over more players.

“I honestly don’t know what our budget is at this point,” Kline said. “We’re going to take the best players and work on the deals over the course of the summer.”

The draft will begin June 6.

By  |  01:06 PM ET, 05/12/2011

 
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