Romero, however, was an outlier. The Nationals’ previous value picks tumbled because injuries — not behavioral concerns — clouded their résumés. The examples include Erick Fedde, Lucas Giolito and Anthony Rendon. It’s a risky strategy the Nationals have executed with success to secure top-tier talent usually unavailable for clubs picking later in the draft, and Denaburg is the latest attempt to steal a high-upside player.
Listed at 6-feet-3, 190 pounds, Denaburg is one of the hardest-throwing high school pitchers in the class with a fastball that has touched 97 mph. He was projected as a high-end first-round pick until he was shut down for a month this spring with biceps tendinitis. He returned to pitch for his high school team, which is based roughly 20 minutes away from the Nationals’ former spring training home in Viera, Fla., but the uncertainty was apparently enough to scare teams off — and allow the Nationals to pounce.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, Nationals scouting director Kris Kline said team officials saw Denaburg pitch twice after returning from the injury — a three-inning simulated game and a playoff start — and emerged confident he was healthy.
“He looked really good,” Kline said. “He had another start after that where he was up to 94 so he did miss a little time in between there but nothing that was alarming to us. Checked out with the doc and he gave him a clean bill of health. And I feel like we got a healthy guy and a potential front-line starter.”
An athletic two-way player who stopped catching this year to play outfield and focus on pitching, Denaburg boasts a plus curveball, a slider and a change-up to complement the electric fastball. Baseball America listed Denaburg as its 22nd-best prospect in the draft and describes his ceiling as a “middle-of-the-rotation arm.” He finished his senior season with a 1.27 ERA in 35 1/3 innings over eight starts, tallying 73 strikeouts to 10 walks. As a hitter, he batted .410 with five home runs, 21 RBI and 10 steals in 28 games. Last fall, he was a reliever on the USA Baseball 18U national team, which won the gold medal at the World Cup.
Denaburg is the first high school pitcher the Nationals have drafted in the first round since they selected Giolito 16th overall in 2012. Giolito was also projected to go higher before suffering a strained elbow ligament that eventually required Tommy John surgery. He eventually became the Nationals’ top prospect and a top-five prospect across baseball before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox as a part of a three-pitcher package for Adam Eaton — a haul that thinned the organization’s pitching depth in the high minors.
“We evaluate them the same, on ability,” Kline said. “Taking a high school kid, whether it’s a pitcher or a hitter, you want a kid that’s mature beyond his years and you have a comfort level that he can go out into pro ball as a young man and compete and make those adjustments. Nothing really changes.”
The Nationals have $5,603,800 to sign their top 10 picks, which is the third-smallest pool in this year’s draft. Of that money, $2,472,700 is assigned to Denaburg’s slot. The Nationals have never failed to sign a first-round selection since Mike Rizzo became general manager in 2009. Signability is a priority, and Washington believes Denaburg will opt to turn pro over attending the University of Florida.
An injury also complicated matters for Cate, who missed nearly two months this season with forearm tightness. A consensus first-round pick with two years of experience with Team USA before the injury, Cate returned in late May and finished the season with a 2.91 ERA in 11 outings (seven starts). He struck out 67 and walked 19 in 52 2/3 innings.
The forearm discomfort didn’t alleviate durability concerns for a junior who underwent Tommy John surgery when he was 16 and is listed at just 6-feet, 167 pounds, but Kline said Cate has been cleared.
“It was precautionary,” Kline said. “Clean bill of health from the doc. That’s all it was. I saw him in Clearwater (Fla.) … He worked out of the bullpen in the tournament and it was really good. It was 89-94 with actually the best curveball I’ve seen from him since we’ve been scouting him.”
Kline called that curveball “the best left-handed curveball” in the draft, the kind of pitch that should have had Cate drafted earlier and the Nationals believe they snatched another player later than he should have gone. There’s some risk, but, as they have shown nearly every June for close to a decade, the Nationals aren’t afraid of taking chances.
“It’s two guys that we really wanted on the first day,” Kline said. “It was a great first day for us.”
The MLB draft continues Tuesday with rounds three through 10.