On June 5, the day before this year’s baseball draft, Washington Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner offered an affirmation. He promised the Nationals would be aggressive in drafting players with dollar signs in their eyes that other clubs might pass on, with the intent of signing them to lucrative signing bonuses. “Signability issues,” Lerner said, would not be an issue for the Nationals.
When the deadline to sign draft picks arrived Monday night, Lerner’s version of General Manager Mike Rizzo’s vision came to bear. The Nationals signed their first five picks for roughly $16.5 million combined, smashing the signing bonuses recommended by Major League Baseball’s slot system with all five players. Rizzo and staff identified the best players they could pick. Lerner gave him the money and got out of the way.
Monday night’s deadline to sign draft choices promised to pass for the Nationals with significantly less fanfare than the previous two seasons, when they brokered midnight deals for franchise-changers Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Rizzo believes it could have as much impact as those drafts, and it also sent a message: The Nationals will try to build a winner through the draft, sparing little expense.
“It just solidifies where we’re at in the industry,” Rizzo said. “These guys want to come here. He knows that we develop players and we develop them well. We’ve got a system that’s second to none. We’re the talk of the industry right now. This just solidifies us, to me, as one of the great scouting and player development organizations in baseball. We feel really good about ourselves tonight.”
The Nationals finalized negotiations with their top three picks, all clients of super-agent Scott Boras, “at the buzzer,” Rizzo said. Rice infielder Anthony Rendon (No. 6 overall) signed a major-league deal for $7.2 million over four years, with a team option for a fifth year. Kentucky right-handed pitcher Alex Meyer (No. 23 overall) signed for a $2 million bonus. Miami Dade College outfielder Brian Goodwin (No. 34 overall) signed for $3 million.
TCU left-handed pitcher Matt Purke (No. 96 overall) joined Rendon in signing a major league deal, worth roughly $4 million over four years. Purke and Rendon received major league deals because they are “close to the big leagues” and “extreme talents,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals reached an agreement with fourth-rounder Kylin Turnbull (No. 127 overall) early in the night, signing the 6-foot-5 left-hander from Santa Barbara City College with a $325,000 signing bonus.
“For us to land what we believe are four first-round picks and pay them accordingly is I think a testament to the commitment of winning here in Washington,” Rizzo said. “We did get four players that we had first-round numbers on coming into the draft. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me.”
Turnbull’s bonus exceeded the MLB recommendation by $100,000, a hint of what the Nationals hoped would come later in the night. If the Nationals had adhered to the signing bonuses recommended by MLB, they would have spent about $5.2 million. If you add Harper’s $9.9 million deal from last year to that total, it would still fall short of the difference between the slot money and the money the Nationals handed out Monday night.
Rizzo, who made his bones in baseball as a scouting director, has decided the most efficient way to make the Nationals something to be reckoned with is through stockpiling talent through the draft. Monday night, more than ever, Rizzo felt the full support of ownership in regard to that aim.
“This ownership group has allowed me to be me,” Rizzo said. “To be aggressive and go after these guys, and get the best players available and worry about signing them later. What they showed me in that room tonight, I can’t put into words. It was great stuff. You talk about the trust in a staff — they don’t talk about it, they show it.”
While none of the top choices this year could individually compare to the potential of Strasburg or Harper, they combined to create what the Nationals believed to be their “most impactful” draft since baseball returned.
“This is my 27th year being involved with the draft,” Nationals Vice President of Player Personnel Roy Clark said. “It’s the best draft I’ve ever been a part of as far as the number of impact players we’re bringing into the system. I think this is a huge day in the franchise history of the Washington Nationals. Huge.”
Rizzo spent the weekend in Houston negotiating with Purke’s representative, Peter Vescovo, and when he left he felt comfortable they the parameters in place for a deal. The three clients of Boras, he was not so sure.
“If you’d have told me that we’d walk out of this thing and we signed everybody that we wanted to sign,” Rizzo said, “I would have doubted that it could have been done.”
Rendon was widely considered the best college hitter available. For months, experts predicted Rendon would be the first or second overall choice, and even after a shoulder injury hurt his stock, the Nationals were surprised to see him available at No. 6.
The Nationals had their team doctor inspect Rendon’s shoulder and were comfortable with the results. Rendon had to play as a designated hitter for much of this season at Rice, but he did not need surgery for a muscular (not structural) injury in the back of his shoulder.
Rizzo and Lerner also met Rendon and his family in person in late July. They met in Los Angeles, while the Nationals were playing the Dodgers, at Boras’s offices. “We’re satisfied with every aspect about Anthony,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals acquired the draft choices with which they took Meyer and Goodwin as compensation for not signing free agent Adam Dunn. Meyer stands 6-9 and has thrown his fastball 100 miles per hour. During his junior season this year, Meyer struck out 110 batters in 101 innings, compiling a 2.94 ERA.
The Nationals drafted Goodwin, 20, with the hope he could become a candidate to fill their long-term need in centerfield. He lacks polish, but at Miami Dade he flashed good plate discipline, reaching base at a .500 clip this season and hitting eight homers.
Purke may possess as much potential as any of the Nationals’ draft choices. In 2009, the Texas Rangers drafted Purke, 21, out of Klein High near Houston with the 14th pick. Purke reportedly wanted $6 million, an offer the Rangers may have taken had MLB not taken over the bankrupt Rangers and forbidden them from paying such a high bonus.
When those negotiations faltered, Purke went to TCU instead. Heading into this college season, his high-90s fastball and wicked changeup ranked him among the most desirable players in the country, possibly the first overall choice. Then Purke missed a month with a shoulder injury, which scared teams away and limited him to only 11 starts. He compiled a 1.71 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 20 walks over 522 / 3 innings.
Purke slid all the way to third round in the draft because of those health issues and the concern that he would be excessively expensive to sign. With the 96th pick, the Nationals, conforming to the aggressive strategy laid out by Rizzo and backed by ownership, gambled on Purke.
The Nationals wanted to see how Purke performed in a summer league, such as the Cape Cod League, but Purke decided instead to work out at home in Houston. They watched him pitch in Houston, then brought him to Nationals Park in July to administer a physical, which convinced them Purke’s shoulder is fit and healthy. Purke allowed the Nationals to inject into his shoulder for an arthrogram MRI exam, a rare concession.
“I think he saw a good fit here,” Rizzo said. “He saw an aggressive GM that’s done it before. He wasn’t worried about going in the third round, because he knew if it worked out, we would be aggressive in trying to sign him.”
The Nationals were aggressive, all right. After selecting Strasburg and Harper in consecutive drafts, the Nationals spent more money on this year’s draft than on either of those two. They got the players they wanted, and then they got to money to make them Nationals.
“It was,” Rizzo said, “a huge night for us.”