Mike Rizzo is clearly crazy about the Nationals’ draft picks


Rice University’s Anthony Rendon was the Nationals’ top pick, at No. 6 overall. (Cody Duty/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 16, 2011

Time will tell if Mike Rizzo, Roy Clark and Kris Kline, the top three personnel men in the Nationals’ front office, are completely out of their minds, collectively delusional, a trio that has sold itself a bill of goods. But you have to give them huge credit for honesty and putting Ted Lerner’s money where their own extreme, ecstatic scouting evaluations led them.

Over the next few years, as you watch slashing hitter Anthony Rendon, southpaw Matt Purke, center field speedster Brian Goodwin and 6-foot-8 right-hander Alex Meyer come through the minors, remember what the Nats thought of them on the day they were signed for $16.2 million — blowing away MLB’s recommended “slot” salaries of $5 million for all combined.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Remember also that all of them were “falling down the board” during the draft. Falling to the Nationals, for good or ill, at No. 6, 23, 34 and 96 overall.

“Our best evaluators, Clark and Kline, thought that if those four players stayed in college and were back in the ’12 draft, that any of the four of them could have ended up being drafted 1-1 — first overall [asStrasburg and Harper were],” said Rizzo on Tuesday after all four signed in the final minutes before a midnight deadline. “We agreed that all four of them would have a good chance to be the top five overall picks [in ’12].”

Yes, that’s just as nutty and giddy as you think. What’s wilder is that Rizzo would say it. Remember, he also said he had “one hour sleep.”

“We had them all graded out above “60” on a scale of 20 to 80 on OFP [Overall Future Potential]. There are only two handfuls of those scores each year. That’s like Ryan Zimmerman’s number,” said Rizzo.

Okay, all together, let’s scream: Talk is cheap.

But also appreciate how rare it is for a GM in any sport to risk being so euphoric. Draft history (since 1965) shows that one player — one — who was drafted 96th overall ever became a star. More than 40 have failed. As for players picked 23rd and 34th, they’ve panned out big about one in 10. Even No. 6s such as Rendon have produced 3-to-1 busts-to-stars, with only three superstars.

So, Mike, do you know how goofy you’ll look if they all fail? Do you know it looks like you are breaking your arm patting yourself, your owner and your front office on the back?

“Yes, I know,” said Rizzo.

But the story’s too good. He just has to tell it. Like his father before him, Rizzo’s spent his whole life in scouting. This is what he knows, and he trusts Clark and Kline as much as he trusts himself. Of course, some believe scouts are one step up from dopes. Go see the movie “Moneyball” when it comes out. But the Nats are scouting driven. So, days like this define their fate.

“That team in Atlanta — Jason Hayward, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman — that’s Roy Clark’s team. He drafted all of them. And plenty of those earlier Braves [first-place] teams were a lot of him, too,” said Rizzo. “The [first-place] team in Arizona now, Kline and I were there putting that together. That’s our team.”

Rizzo doesn’t mean every good idea belongs to them, just that they were part of the team-building processes. But look at the results.

Maybe Rizzo needs to let off steam after having Jayson Werth’s contract thrown in his face all year and seeing his manager quit in mid-season. He may want to make sure his owner knows what he just bought. Why, he might even want to let the commissioner’s office know why the Nats just stuffed dynamite in their slot system.

All four cases were similar in one respect: Freakish circumstances conspired, in the Nats’ view, to radically disguise top-five pick value. Another element: The top three picks are all Scott Boras clients. Are the Nats and Boras too closely aligned? Is he using Lerner and Rizzo to drive the market? Are they using his high-talent client pool to stock a winning team? Or both?

Rendon’s issue was a shoulder injury (“not structural”) that cut his spectacular stats as a freshman and sophomore. Most draft experts still had him as the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick. “I’ve seen Rendon 15 times,” said Rizzo, “but not this year because we never thought he’d fall to No. 6.”

The Nats talked him up as a steal, then paid him like it — $7.2 million.

Meyer (No. 23 overall) has always been on the radar. The Red Sox offered him more out of high school than the $2 million the Nats just gave him. But at 6-8, he took years to get his delivery in sync. Then he bloomed — the Nats think.

“He took the scouting world by storm [as the season went on],” said Rizzo, who’s paid Meyer more than the No. 10 overall pick. “He’s a monster — throws 96 to 99 [mph]. Wipe-out slider. We saw all five of his final starts and he tore through the cream of the SEC, all top college teams.”

Few teams thought Goodwin (No. 34) would sign this year. Why should he? After leaving North Carolina with academic problems, he tore up the often under-scouted world of junior college (at Miami Dade). Next year, he’d play for South Carolina — the back-to-back NCAA champ. Surely Boras would tell him not to sign until that exposure had helped get his stock back up.

But the Nats gave Goodwin 3 million reasons to decide right now. They paid him more than either the No. 8 and No. 9 overall picks just received.

Finally, we come to Purke (No. 96), either the big steal or the big goof. In ’10, he was the college freshman player of the year. “What is there about 16-0 with a 1.17 ERA that’s hard to analyze?” asked Rizzo. “He has four plus pitches with moxie and command. He throws 92 to 94, but he is a polished pitcher.”

This year, Purke had bursitis. “Not ‘arm problems.’ Just bursitis,” said Rizzo. He started only 11 games for Texas Christian, went 5-1 with a 1.70 ERA. Few thought Purke would pass up the chance to make a run at the overall No. 1 pick in ’12, where he might make about $8 million.

The Nats gambled on burning a third-round pick — the round where they got Jordan Zimmermann and Danny Espinosa — hoping they could sway the “unsignable” Purke. Their deal: Turn pro now for $4.4 million, about half of a dream scenario in ’12. With minutes left to midnight, Purke, with a bigger contract in hand than the No. 3 overall ’11 pick, said, “Yes.”

“It’s still hard to believe that we got them all,” said Rizzo.

“This is my 27th year with the draft,” said Clark. “It’s the best draft I’ve ever been a part of as far as the number of impact players. I think this is a huge day in the franchise history of the Washington Nationals. Huge.”

Not good. Huge.

They believe it. They’ll have to live with it.

As for us, with Strasburg, Harper and now the Fab (or Flimsy Four, we get to watch one of baseball’s best and most unpredictable tales as it unfolds.

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