Accustomed to batting leadoff in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft, the Washington Nationals this time had to wait some 37 minutes for their turn to pick Monday night, during which time the first round took several unexpected turns. When the Nationals’ turn came at No. 6 overall, they wound up with a player no one had linked to them in the pre-draft buildup: Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon.
“We were pleasantly surprised he got to us at six,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “As late as about 24 hours ago, he was supposedly going [number] one or two in the draft. . . . We’ve always taken the best player available, the most impactful player available, and we feel we’ve done that with this draft.”
With their picks at No. 23 and No. 34 — which they earned as compensation for the loss of Adam Dunn to free agency — the Nationals took University of Kentucky right-hander Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 flamethrower with a fastball that sits in the mid- to high-90s; and Miami-Dade City College center fielder Brian Goodwin, respectively. The draft continues Tuesday and Wednesday with rounds two through 50.
“These were three guys we identified very early as a scouting department,” said Roy Clark, the Nationals’ vice president of player personnel. “We didn’t think there was any way we’d get two of them, let alone three of them.”
After two drafts devoid of drama at the top — as the Nationals took slam-dunk choices Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Bryce Harper in 2010 with the first overall picks — this year’s first round was full of intrigue, some of which now confronts the Nationals as they attempt to sign Rendon, who turned 21 on Monday, before the Aug. 15 deadline.
Among the questions: Why did Rendon, rated by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the entire draft, fall all the way to No. 6 after spending much of the previous 12 months as the prospective top pick? And if his two previous ankle surgeries and a more recent shoulder injury — the latter of which limited him largely to designated hitter duty this season — were the main reasons, how satisfied are the Nationals of his health?
“Our medical staff has cleared his health,” Rizzo said, “and we felt that if that was the reason he fell to sixth, we’re satisfied in the [scouting] work we’ve done on him.”
Rendon was not made available to Washington area media on Monday, but during a brief interview on MLB Network, he said: “I’m feeling great. I have no [physical] problems right now. The injuries only made me stronger as a person.”
There will be other questions, as well: Do the Nationals have the stomach for a third consecutive deadline showdown with notorious super-agent Scott Boras, who represents Rendon, as well as Strasburg and Harper?
“We have a good relationship with the agent and a great relationship with the player and the family,” Rizzo said. “We’re optimistic as always that we’re going to get the guy signed.”
For that matter, both Meyer and Goodwin are Boras clients, as well, a fact Rizzo chalked up to coincidence.
The Rendon pick carries at least one other major question: With Ryan Zimmerman presumably entrenched at third base at least through 2013, where will Rendon play? According to Rizzo, the Nationals have Rendon graded as a “Gold Glove-caliber” third baseman, but with the athleticism to play elsewhere. He is somewhat small as a corner infielder at 6 feet and 190 pounds, but has played some second base.
“Right now, we feel third base is his best position,” Rizzo said. Though Rendon will begin his professional career (most likely with one of the Nationals’ Class A affiliates), Rizzo said the team would “delay” an ultimate decision on his position until he gets to the big leagues.
“I feel comfortable playing anywhere,” Rendon said on MLB Network. “I just want to be on the field.”
Rendon had a monster sophomore season in 2010, hitting .394 with 26 home runs. But a gruesome ankle injury last summer, when he suffered multiple fractures on a slide while playing for Team USA, and a strained shoulder two weeks into this season altered his draft prospects and affected his play on the field.
Unable to throw without pain, Rendon was limited mostly to DH, and he hit .323 with five homers this season. He did, however, lead the nation with 80 walks, resulting in a .526 on-base percentage.
“He’s a terrifically polished college player,” Rizzo said, “and we think he will be a quick-to-the-big-leagues guy.”
Following Strasburg (2009) and Harper (2010) as the No. 1 overall pick was UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound flamethrower who went to the Pittsburgh Pirates. One pick later, the Seattle Mariners threw the draft into momentary chaos by making a surprise pick, University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, at No. 2. Hultzen, a Bethesda native and St. Albans alum whose brother, Joe, works as an intern in the Nationals’ baseball operations department, was viewed by some observers as a strong possibility for the Nationals at No. 6.
Though the Nationals did not expect Rendon to fall to them, once he did they knew they were taking him. In the weeks leading up to the draft, they had Cole and Rendon, not necessarily in that order, as the top two names on their board, and Clark had picked Rendon three years earlier as a high schooler when Clark was the Atlanta Braves’ scouting director.
“We did a lot of work on him,” Rizzo said of Rendon. “We feel we know him very well.”