On Monday night, the Washington Nationals will select a player with the 17th pick in the Major League Baseball draft. Whoever it is, officials will talk about him glowingly because that’s the job on the evening of the draft. Ardent fans will file the name away as one to track in coming summers, from Auburn to Hagerstown to Potomac to Harrisburg and, they hope, beyond.
The Nats, more than almost any major league franchise, are built on scouting because they were built by a scout. Mike Rizzo has been the general manager for a decade now, but he wears on his sleeve his years as an area scout — logging the miles to see, say, Jordan Zimmermann pitch in a snowstorm in rural Wisconsin — as a badge of honor. He loves his scouts, respects his scouts and empowers his scouts because he knows the job and believes in its importance.
But as the Nats try to claw their way back into the National League East race after a nearly apocalyptic first third of the season, I keep wondering — given the payroll and the talent level of the major league roster — how they got there. The conclusion: It’s hard to deny that they had a series of drafts that haven’t panned out. That puts pressure on this week, the three days of the draft. And it puts pressure on those scouts.
“A draft that produces three major leaguers is good,” Kris Kline, the Nats’ scouting director since 2010, told me this week. “If you can count ’em on two hands — if you get six — that’s exceptional.”
He’s right. The problem: The Nats haven’t had a draft like that since 2011.
That’s the year Washington took Anthony Rendon with the sixth choice — a great pick. But honestly, in the past eight drafts, who else is there? Shortstop Carter Kieboom, the Nationals’ first pick in 2016, may yet be a star, but at this point, he’s TBD. Others from recent drafts are on the way. Still, the Nats’ drafts from 2011 to 2015 (counting only players who signed) produced only 18 major leaguers — with, obviously, the possibility that more will make their way through the system. But compare that to the rest of baseball: Just one team, Cleveland, produced fewer in those five drafts, while Milwaukee also had 18.
Let’s try to quantify this in other ways. Try wins above replacement, which would be an indication of what kind of impact those big leaguers have. I’m not one who believes WAR is infallible as an evaluation tool, but it is a useful way to level things out here.
I chose the 2011 to 2015 drafts because it gets the Nats clear of the Stephen Strasburg-Bryce Harper back-to-back bonanzas of 2009-10 and examines their most recent work, allowing for the fact that the classes of 2016-18 haven’t really had time to reach the majors yet. (Only two Nats drafted in the past three years — Kieboom and Jake Noll — have made their big league debuts. Both will be back, but they’re in the minors now, as they should be.)
Measured by total WAR (according to the essential baseball-reference.com) of the players a club drafted and signed from 2011 to 2015, the Boston Red Sox lead the way: 74.1, buoyed by MVP Mookie Betts, whose 37.7 career WAR is the highest of any player selected in those five drafts. (All statistics are through Thursday’s games.) Oakland was next at 72.4, Houston after that at 69.6.
The Nats’ total of 28.0 ranks 19th — not crippling but not among the top like they were in, say, 2007-10. In those years, they landed Zimmermann, Strasburg, Harper, Drew Storen, Robbie Ray, Danny Espinosa, Derek Norris, Steven Souza Jr. and others. Those eight players themselves produced 115.6 WAR — a remarkable run over just four drafts.
But look more closely at the Nats’ number from those 2011-15 drafts. Rendon’s career WAR through Thursday was 22.9 — outstanding. It trails only Betts, Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor and Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs among players drafted during those years.
And yet it’s not an exaggeration to say Rendon is the only impact player the Nats have selected since 2011. He is one of only four Nats draftees whose career WAR is 1.0 or above. The others: Lucas Giolito (1.6), the former top pitching prospect dealt to the Chicago White Sox as part of the Adam Eaton deal who appears back on the rise; Nick Pivetta (1.3), the pitcher traded to Philadelphia for Jonathan Papelbon; and Billy Burns (1.8), a speedy outfielder taken in the 32nd round who was swapped for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins, then of Oakland, and hasn’t played in the majors since 2017.
The Nationals’ minor league system is not where the front office wants it to be, and trades such as those are part of the reason. Kline and his staff’s mission is to draft big leaguers. Whether they play for the Nats or help Rizzo land major league pieces in trades doesn’t really matter. Don’t lament, for instance, the fact that Ray is no longer with Washington. Before the 2014 season, he was used to get Doug Fister, and before you say, “But Robbie Ray is better than Doug Fister,” remember that Fister went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA for the 2014 Nats, who won a division title when Ray was mostly in Class AAA for Detroit, posting an 8.16 ERA in his nine big league outings. Those deals come with a cost, but they’re deals you make to win in the moment.
Back to those recent drafts: From 2011 to 2015, no club has produced fewer players with a career WAR of 1.0 or greater than the Nats, although the Brewers, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins also have four apiece. (St. Louis leads the way with 12 such players, followed by Oakland with 11 and Seattle and San Diego with 10 each.) Put another way: Rendon is the only player the Nats selected in those drafts with a career WAR of 3.0 or better. Tampa Bay, with current Cy Young winner Blake Snell, is the only other franchise with that few. (The A’s produced eight, the Cardinals seven.)
The draft is an important part of building a franchise, but it’s not the only way. The Nationals’ improvement in the international market, led by executive Johnny DiPuglia, produced not only Juan Soto and Victor Robles — the outfield of the present and future — but pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, part of the Eaton deal, and shortstop Luis Garcia, who is only 19 but is already at Class AA Harrisburg.
Still, the Nats pride themselves on scouting and the draft. I will never forget a conversation I had with Rizzo, shortly after the Nats hired him as scouting director, way back in 2006. Stupidly, I called the draft a “crapshoot.” Rizzo pounced.
“It’s not a crapshoot,” he shot back. “It’s a science. It’s an art.”
The Nats were once among the best in the business at combining science and art to produce impactful major league players. To restock their minor league system and keep their big league operation afloat, they have to get back there again.