The Washington Nationals have built a reputation in recent seasons as a team willing to take a risk to find value in the first-year player draft by selecting a top-flight talent whose stock has suffered because of injury.
Thursday night, for the third time in four years, they gambled, taking hard-throwing right-hander Erick Fedde with the 18th overall pick just two days after the UNLV junior underwent Tommy John surgery.
“We felt the risk of him rehabbing and coming back to pre-injury form was worth the draft pick,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
The Nationals have a strong track record of bringing pitchers back from ligament-replacement surgery. Current rotation fixtures Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have both come through the procedure, and 2012 first-round pick Lucas Giolito has also had the surgery and is now one of the organization’s top prospects.
The 6-foot-4 Fedde is not expected to pitch for at least a year. The 21-year-old was considered a potential top-10 pick until his junior season was cut short in early May by a torn right ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.
Fedde’s “plus-plus” fastball sits between 91 and 93 mph but has reached 95 mph. He also throws a slider, graded as a plus-plus pitch, and a developing change-up, according to Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline.
Fedde has strong ties to the Nationals through Bryce Harper. The two were teammates at Las Vegas High and Harper spoke highly of his former teammate. “The best slider I’ve ever seen,” Harper said before Thursday’s draft. According to Rizzo, Harper said “a lot of good things” about Fedde.
“Truly blessed to be picked by such an amazing organization!” Fedde wrote on Twitter on Thursday night. “Can’t wait to be back on the field to show they made a great decision.”
Fedde, named a second-team all-American this season, posted an 8-2 record and 1.76 ERA and struck out 82 in 762 / 3 innings this season (11 starts). He was named the Mountain West pitcher of the year, an honor that once went to Strasburg.
Rizzo said the Nationals have scouted Fedde “heavily” over the past three season. Kline saw Fedde’s first start of the season at UNLV and, even in the sixth inning, the pitcher was hitting 95 to 98 mph. “I walked out there thinking we have no shot at getting this player because he was a top-five type guy,” Kline said.
Fedde’s surgery was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who removed bone chips from Strasburg’s right elbow this offseason. Rizzo said the Nationals team doctor Wiemi Douoguih had a “deep conversation” with ElAttrache about Fedde’s surgery. “We know the medical team over there very well,” Rizzo said.
Fedde is advised by Scott Boras, who has a strong relationship with Nationals ownership and the front office. He also represents several Nationals players, including Harper and Strasburg. The allotted signing bonus for the 18th pick is $2,145,600. The signing deadline is July 18.
The Nationals have shown they do not shy away from pitchers with elbow injuries, or Boras clients. Six of the Nationals’ past eight first-round picks are represented by Boras. Since the team came to Washington, eight of its 14 first-round selections have been pitchers.
MLB.com rated Fedde as the No. 17 prospect but dropped him to No. 33 after his surgery. Baseball America ranked Fedde as the No. 24 prospect.
“We don’t take hollow chances,” Rizzo said. “We do a lot of research. We do a lot of background checks. We work hand in hand with our medical team. Our medical team is some of the finest in the game. We’ve had very good success in rehabbing these type of players.”
The summer before his junior season, Fedde pitched in the Cape Cod League and posted a 2.34 ERA. He also pitched for the USA Baseball National Collegiate Team that summer, joining Nationals Manager Matt Williams as two of four UNLV players to ever play for the national team while still in school.
With their second-round pick, No. 57 overall, the Nationals picked left-hander Andrew Suarez, a junior from the University of Miami. Suarez missed his freshman season with labrum surgery. He went 6-3 with a 2.95 ERA over 16 starts this season.
NOTE: Virginia closer Nick Howard followed Fedde off the board as he was picked 19th overall by the Cincinnati Reds.
Howard’s college teammate, outfielder Derek Fisher, went to the Houston Astros with the No. 37 pick. Maryland starter Jake Stinnett was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Cubs with the No. 45 pick.