The Washington Nationals’ position in the draft has changed this season, but their luck has not. For the past two years, they owned the first pick in the draft, two seasons that happened to bring Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Two once-in-a-generation talents fell into their possession in consecutive seasons. “It’s hard to have a more impactful draft than with those specific No. 1 picks,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
Monday night, the draft will start at 7 p.m. and the Nationals, for the first time since 2008, will wait. They will pick sixth this season, with two more picks at 23 and 34, compensation for losing Adam Dunn in free agency. And, wouldn’t you know it, this is a perfect season to pick sixth with two additional early choices.
The consensus around baseball suggests this year’s draft is deep, particularly with hard-throwing pitchers. Rizzo called it the best draft he’s seen in at least six years. Their compensatory picks, late in the first round and the first pick of the “sandwich” round, could produce a quality of player typically taken in the middle of the first round.
The general consensus also brings more good news for the Nationals. There are six players regarded as the elite tier, with little gap in talent between them. The Nationals, then, are in position to choose one of the best players in the country with their first choice.
“There’s six clear-cut top guys in this draft,” said Jim Callis, a draft expert at Baseball America. “In a lot of ways, I think it’s a really easy decision for the Nationals. Whoever is left is their pick. I don’t think there’s a ton separating those six. They theoretically could get the best player in the draft.”
As Rizzo built a reputation as a savvy scouting director with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he showed a strong preference for college pitching. This draft is rife with quality college pitchers, but the breakdown of the draft may force the Nationals to look elsewhere. Nationals amateur scouting director Kris Kline said the Nationals will “always just take the best player available” — and the best player available at No. 6 might be a high school outfielder.
The Nationals, according to sources, were hopeful one the three top college pitchers — Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer of UCLA or Virginia’s Danny Hultzen — would slide to them at No. 6. But it seems highly likely all three will be snapped up in the first five picks, along with Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and Oklahoma high school pitcher Dylan Bundy.
Among those six players regarded as the draft’s cream, that likely leaves an 18-year-old named Bubba, raised by a man named Jimbo.
Bubba Starling, a 6-foot-5 center fielder and a scout’s dream from Kansas, might be the best athlete in the draft, a star in basketball and football, too. He has a scholarship offer to play quarterback at Nebraska, which will give him — and, more importantly, adviser Scott Boras – immense leverage. Rizzo successfully negotiated contracts for Strasburg and Harper with Boras, so Boras’s presence is unlikely to sway Rizzo.
If Starling indeed falls to the Nationals, they will most likely aim for pitching with their next two high picks, preferably college pitchers who could reach the majors quickly.
“We’re going to really focus on pitching,” Kline said last month. “That’s one thing we’re going to focus on, to be honest. You can never have enough of that. And this is a very good year to focus on that. There’s going to be a lot of guys to choose from. This is a very good draft. There’s a lot of arm strength out there, a lot of big velocity.”
The Nationals, surely, will find themselves in position to land some of it. They don’t have their choice of any player in the country this year, but they again find themselves on draft day in just the right spot.