Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo doesn’t wear a suit often, but he wears one on draft day. The draft, he says, is his Super Bowl. This is where he makes his money.
His track record supports the point. Every player Rizzo has taken in the first round of the draft, dating from his time as scouting director for the Arizona Diamondbacks, has made the major leagues. He drafted Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, Max Scherzer and Jarrod Parker with Arizona before joining the Nationals as an assistant general manager.
In his first year as general manager, Rizzo drafted Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, then proceeded to choose future major leaguers with his first round picks through 2014. In fact, though his first pick in the 2015 draft came in the second round, that player — Andrew Stevenson — already has made the majors, too. Only 2016 first-rounder Carter Kieboom and 2017 first-rounder Seth Romero have yet to do so. The Nationals choose 27th overall this year.
Obviously, Rizzo is no longer the primary talent evaluator. He prides himself on a network of scouts and special assistants, led by trusted scouting director Kris Kline, that directs his draft-day decisions.
That group has emphasized pitching as the foundation of long-term success and has drafted accordingly, particularly in recent years. Generally speaking, the Nationals lean toward big-bodied pitchers with frames that will fill out, an approach that has yielded several major league starters and relievers over the years. Last season, they made a particular effort to replenish their pitching depth, which had been depleted by trades in recent years. Pitching seems likely to be the priority again this season, particularly given the emergence of so many young, talented position players from their international signees.
The Nationals also have a much-discussed tendency to hunt for first-round bargains. In Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde, they chose top-10 talents who fell because of their need for Tommy John surgery. In 2017, they chose Romero, a top-10 talent who had been kicked off his University of Houston team for a variety of offenses. Rizzo sent the left-hander home from spring training after repeated curfew violations, a problem that has frustrated all parties.
But because the Nationals have not picked in the top 10 in years, bargain-hunting makes sense. Why not take a risk on a top talent who has fallen for one reason or another, particularly given their success in rehabbing young pitchers after Tommy John surgery?
The mock drafts written by the trusted publications suggest the Nationals will take this approach again. Baseball America’s latest mock draft has the Nationals choosing high school right-hander Mason Denaburg, a hard-thrower from Merritt Island High (near good old Viera) who dealt with biceps tendinitis this season. When healthy, Denaburg throws 96 with a plus curveball, according to BA. MLB.com’s expert, Jonathan Mayo, made the same projection this week.
But for all Rizzo’s success with first-round picks, he and his staff also have demonstrated the ability to find diamonds in the rough in later rounds — and the willingness to bring them to the big leagues quickly. Rizzo admitted he rushed right-hander Koda Glover, an eighth-round pick in the 2015 draft, to the big leagues the next season. Though Glover’s stuff was big league ready — a testament to scouting — his body has not held up. The Nationals chose Sammy Solis in the second round of the 2010 draft. They took Nick Pivetta, a big leaguer with the Phillies now, in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, and A.J. Cole in the fourth round in 2010.
Michael A. Taylor was a sixth-round pick. They chose Matt Grace in the eighth round. Diamondbacks ace Robbie Ray was their 12th-round pick in 2010. In other words, Rizzo and his staff do not throw away picks and have a history of mining talent unexpectedly.
The Nationals have the third-smallest pool from which to pay their top 10 picks’ signing bonuses — $5,603,800. Their first-round pick is assigned a value of $2,472,700, with each subsequent pick worth less. If they do not sign a player, the value of the slot at which he is drafted gets subtracted from the pool. If they exceed their total allotment by 0 to 5 percent, the Nationals would have to pay a 75 percent tax on the overage, and the penalties increase with the size of the overage. One of Rizzo’s primary draft tenets is signability — the Nationals will not, he says regularly, draft a player they do not believe they can sign. Since Rizzo took over as GM, the Nationals have failed to sign two of their picks chosen in the top five rounds: 2015 second-round pick lefty Andrew Suarez, who stayed at the University of Miami instead and has since been called up by the Giants, and 2009 fifth-rounder Miguel Pena.
The draft will last three days, with the first two rounds taking place Monday night, Rounds 3 through 10 on Tuesday, and Rounds 11-40 on Wednesday.
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