“It’s a dream come true, really,” Denaburg said. “As a kid, I always grew up wanting to play professional baseball, and today I finally met that goal.”
Denaburg is 18 years old, a big right-hander with a powerful fastball. In a brief interview with reporters Tuesday, he exuded an uncomplicated confidence while fielding questions about the biceps tendinitis that sidelined him at Merritt Island High School this spring, and about his high school soccer and football careers. He was a quarterback and a kicker, and Boras suggested he fits something of an Erick Fedde mold — an elite athlete who happens to pitch. Fedde, of course, was recruited to play Division I soccer before he chose to play baseball at UNLV.
Denaburg had signed to play baseball at the University of Florida, where some evaluators thought he could contend for a Friday night starter’s spot immediately. Asked what went into the decision to go pro instead, Denaburg didn’t know exactly what to say. He chose honesty.
“It was what I wanted, but we just had to make sure it was all the right numbers and stuff to go so I would be okay,” Denaburg said. “I don’t really know how to answer that.”
Money is an acceptable answer to that question, particularly because an injury or underperformance might lower a player’s value if he chooses college despite his first-round status. In Denaburg’s case, one reason the deal got done so early was that the Nationals had a sense of what it would take to sign him even before they drafted him. They almost always do, in part because so many of their draft picks have been Boras clients.
Last year’s first-rounder, Seth Romero, another talented pitcher who fell below his projected place, got just more than the $2.5 million assigned to his slot, and was a Boras client. So were Fedde and Brian Goodwin, Anthony Rendon and Alex Meyer, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Of the Nationals’ last five first-round picks, only Lucas Giolito has not been a Boras client. The relationship just seems to work. Boras came to Washington with Denaburg on Tuesday.
“Before they drafted [Denaburg], we kind of had a good idea of what his financial values were and what the team’s were. We had a good alignment on that,” Boras said. “It was a very smooth transition to what both sides thought [was] a common value point for Mason.”
Denaburg is a rarity among those first-round picks, as the Nationals do not generally take high school pitchers so high in the draft. Of the pitchers they have taken in the first round since 2009, only one — Giolito — was a high schooler. The risk is greater the younger the age at which a player is evaluated, and high school players face more questions about maturity, as well.
No one has had anything negative to say about Denaburg, who was bright-eyed and honest on his Nationals Park trip. He admitted he didn’t really grow up with any baseball heroes, that he watched baseball and football and soccer and all that — and actually grew up admiring a dirt-biker, Travis Pastrana. Denaburg rides dirt bikes, too, he said.
“Did,” Boras corrected him when he said so. “Did ride.” (Contracts such as his generally have provisions against dangerous activities.)
In addition to his football and soccer exploits, Denaburg was a prolific hitter when he wasn’t pitching. That athleticism, and his delivery, stood out to Max Scherzer, who watched tape of him in the Nationals’ draft room and issued a stamp of approval. Denaburg met Scherzer on Tuesday, by which time the Nationals had signed their other first 10 picks, too. By drafting a few college seniors (read: players without leverage) to below-slot deals, they were able to stock up signing bonus money to reallocate to Denaburg’s. His slot was assigned a value of $2,472,700. They also reached for fourth-round pick Jake Irvin, a right-hander out of Oklahoma about whom their evaluators rave, and whom they consider a steal.
Denaburg could be something of a steal, too, as he fell because of injury. Though he threw just 35 innings as a senior because of the injury, he pitched to a 0.99 ERA with 73 strikeouts in that time. The Nationals will send him to West Palm Beach for an introduction to professional baseball before deciding which affiliate will host the start of his professional career — beginning a journey they hope will lead him back to Nationals Park down the road.
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