The Washington Nationals followed a pitching-heavy draft last year by once again drafting mostly pitchers in the 2018 Major League Baseball draft this week.
The group of 23 pitchers drafted by the Nats is headlined by right-hander Mason Denaburg (first-round pick, #27 overall selection) and left-hander Tim Cate (second-round pick, #65 overall selection). Denaburg is a prep pitcher who turned heads as a starter for Merritt Island High School in Florida, the alma mater of former Nats pitcher Taylor Jordan, while Cate comes from a less traditional region for top-flight baseball talent as the ace of the University of Connecticut Huskies.
Here’s a pick-by-pick analysis of the first 10 rounds of the Nats’ draft class, plus a few assorted notes.
Round 1 (#27): RHP Mason Denaburg, Merritt Island HS
Generally speaking, there are two schools of thoughts when it comes to high school pitchers in the draft. One school of thought, expressed well by Tom Verducci for Sports Illustrated last year, is that for a variety of reasons, prep arms are just too risky to use top draft picks on; more than a third of first-round pitchers drafted out of high school last decade never threw a pitch in the major leagues, Verducci noted, and more than half never amounted to even one win above replacement. The other school of thought, which was argued strongly by Sports on Earth’s Matthew Kory in 2014, is that prep pitchers can truly be worth the risk, with many cases of high-profile pitchers drafted out of high school who busted coming down to unrealistic expectations and gross mismanagement. (Kory, who focused on the Astros in his piece, couldn’t have known this in 2014, but in mentioning Houston’s 2013 first-round pick Mark Appel, he provided a great example of how even polished college pitchers [Appel was a Stanford Cardinal] can end up being busts.)
That’s the philosophical background. The immediate reality is that the Nats decided to take a risk and use their first-round draft pick on Denaburg, who already throws 97 mph and has three secondary pitches that include a “plus” curveball. (He also throws a slider and a changeup that aren’t as far along, according to Baseball America, but has shown a couple of different looks with the former pitch.)
“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,” Nats scouting director Kris Kline told The Washington Post. For Washington, Denaburg checked that box. Coming off a year in which the Nats took southpaw Seth Romero in the first round after he was kicked off the University of Houston baseball squad (Romero was effectively suspended by the Nats as well after reportedly flouting team rules during spring training, and he was just reinstated this week), Kline stressed Denaburg’s “very, very good makeup” and competitive drive.
Denaburg could have gone much higher in the first round, but he missed time this past season due to biceps tendinitis. He returned to action and showed well, and the Nats felt confident enough in his health to pull the trigger and draft him. Baseball America described him before the draft by saying Denaburg “has as much upside as any prep arm on the board,” adding, “This could wind up being a steal for Washington.”
In the immediate term, the Nats have to find a way to get Denaburg to sign on the dotted line and officially become a member of the organization. He is a University of Florida commit, and while his slot value is a healthy-sounding $2,472,700, he could have been in line for another million dollars or more if he hadn’t fallen to the Nats at #27 overall. The Nats have not failed to sign a first-round draft pick since Aaron Crow in 2008. FanGraphs claimed before the draft that the Nats actually preferred fellow prepster Cole Wilcox to Denaburg, but Wilcox reportedly demanded an unreasonable signing bonus from interested teams that led them to believe he did not intend to turn pro this year. If the Nats believed Denaburg would be similarly unwilling to sign, they would not have drafted him in the first round. If he and Washington come to terms, he’ll likely be assigned to the Gulf Coast League Nationals.
Round 2 (#65): LHP Tim Cate, University of Connecticut
The Nats employed a similar strategy in the second round to the one that netted them a high-upside first-rounder in Denaburg. It’s a familiar tactic for general manager Mike Rizzo (a former pro scout himself) and his scouting department: Target the talent, don’t get hung up on the injuries.
In the past, the Nats have let this philosophy guide them to using high-round draft picks on Lucas Giolito (2012 first-round pick, #16 overall), Erick Fedde (2014 first-round pick, #18 overall), and Jesus Luzardo (2016 third-round pick, #94 overall). All were consensus top pitching prospects in the draft whose stock fell because they had either recently undergone or were known to need “Tommy John” surgery to replace damaged ulnar collateral ligaments in their throwing arms.
The Nats did that same strategy one better this year. While both Denaburg and Cate, their second-round selection, were top talents who slid due to arm injuries, they returned before the end of the season and reportedly looked just as good as they had before getting hurt. As with Denaburg, Kline said the Nats have no concerns about Cate’s health after he was temporarily shut down with discomfort in his forearm. “Clean bill of health from the doc,” Kline said of the six-foot-tall southpaw.
Cate is on the smaller side for a starting pitcher. His stature and build are more than a little reminiscent of another petite left-hander familiar to Washington fans: Gio Gonzalez, who is generously listed at 6′ 0″ and 203 lbs. Indeed, as District on Deck notes, his repertoire recalls some of Gio as well. His fastball sits in the low 90s and can touch 95 mph, as Gio could in his younger days, but his bread-and-butter pitch is a vicious 12-6 curveball that Cate throws from the same arm slot as his fastball, making it almost impossible for batters to pick up, MLB Pipeline marveled in its pre-draft scouting report on Cate.
Unsurprisingly for a top Nats draft pick, Cate is a Tommy John survivor, having undergone the procedure in high school. In a remarkable piece for Baseball America subscribers, prospect analyst and writer Michael Lananna recounted how Cate refused to let elbow surgery stop him from playing his junior season at Cheney Technical High School in Connecticut. The ultra-competitive southpaw simply, Lananna wrote, “decided to play that entire season righthanded. Not even taking his left arm away could stop him.” While Cate is reportedly able to throw in the 90s with his non-dominant right arm, he is unlikely to pitch professionally as anything other than a lefty.
Once Cate officially joins the Nationals organization, he will likely be assigned to the Auburn Doubledays of the New York–Penn League as a starting pitcher for their short season. How fast he rises will depend on his health and his ability to master the beginning ranks of professional baseball.
Round 3 (#101): RHP Reid Schaller, Vanderbilt University
The Nats only got two draft picks on the first day of this year’s draft, since they had no compensatory or competitive balance picks. (The Kansas City Royals, in contrast, had five.) But at the start of Day 2, they went right back to the well, drafting another college pitcher and former Tommy John recipient in Vanderbilt’s Schaller.
Schaller is a much different type of pitcher than Denaburg or Cate. While the Nats’ first- and second-rounders are known for their devastating curveballs, Schaller’s money pitch is the numero uno. He reportedly brings the heat up to 98 mph, but pre-draft scouting reports weren’t high on his off-speed offerings, a slider and “nascent” changeup. The Nats evidently see things differently, with Kline telling MASN that Schaller “shows an above-average breaking ball” and should be a starter in the Nats organization.
As a redshirt freshman, Schaller could choose to play up to three more years at Vanderbilt instead of turning pro with the Nats. But for a player ranked by MLB Pipeline as the 157th-best draft prospect this year who was drafted with the 101st overall pick by an organization that has shown great feel for handling young hurlers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, this just might be as good as it gets. If he chooses to sign, Schaller will likely start his pro career with the Auburn Doubledays.
Round 4 (#131): RHP Jake Irvin, University of Oklahoma
Though he was known in college ball as a high-strikeout arm, Irvin is notable as a draft pick more for his floor than his ceiling, or so MLB.com analyst Jim Callis suggests. MLB Pipeline ranked Irvin as the 152nd-best prospect in the draft class, noting, “His stuff may be as good as it’s going to get, making his floor as a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever stand out more than his ceiling.”
Irvin is a big guy at 6′ 6″, but despite his size and strikeout rate, he’s not really a power pitcher, sitting in the low 90s. He also throws a slider and changeup. The Nats should give him a chance to start, and he could begin his pro career sliding into the Doubledays rotation somewhere behind Cate and Schaller.
Round 5 (#161): OF Gage Canning, Arizona State University
Two years ago, the Nats used their fifth-round pick on a little-known, left-hitting outfielder from California, playing for a less-scouted college in the Southwest, who was short in stature but big on tools. Daniel Johnson is now ranked by MLB Pipeline as the ninth-best prospect in the Washington organization, and the Nats are hoping that by repeating their 2016 formula again, they’ve found another gem in the fleet-footed Canning, whom MLB Pipeline rated as the draft’s 106th-best prospect.
Kline compared Canning to Adam Eaton, using the hair-on-fire description that Nats brass have also applied to the likes of Bryce Harper and Andrew Stevenson. “Gage is going to play in the big leagues,” he declared, showing confidence in the Nats’ fifth-rounder, whom Arizona State fansite House of Sparky recently described as “one of the few bright spots around the program amidst the Sun Devils’ back-to-back losing seasons.” He could begin his run to The Show as the Doubledays’ starting center fielder this summer.
Round 6 (#191): RHP Andrew Karp, Florida State University
When one looks up Karp’s record and sees that he, like Schaller, took a redshirt in his freshman year, it’s easy to assume it was for the same reason — Tommy John surgery — especially considering he’s a Nats draftee. The truth is much more dramatic. As FSUNews.com‘s Lauryn Vickers retells in a compelling feature, Karp and his girlfriend were involved in a 2014 car accident that snapped his femur in two and left him trapped inside the wreckage of his truck for 45 minutes. “I had to teach myself to walk again, to pitch again, how to use my mechanics,” Karp said. He made it back to the mound and earned his first win as a Seminole in his return, and this week, he heard his name called by the Nats on the second day of the draft.
Karp was drafted in the 34th round by the Chicago Cubs last year but chose not to sign, betting on himself as he continued to build his value. That decision paid off as he was taken 28 rounds higher this go-’round. As a redshirt junior already one of the older players in the Nats’ draft class at 22, he will likely turn pro and head to Auburn, although he could choose to finish out at Florida State.
Round 7 (#221): RHP Chandler Day, Vanderbilt University
The second of two Vanderbilt Commodores taken by the Nats on Day 2, Day worked as Vanderbilt’s closer. Nats special assistant to the general manager Jeff Zona, though, sees more upside there in pro ball. “We think he can start,” Zona told MASN. Day did start last year for Vanderbilt, pitching 8⅔ innings of no-hit ball before allowing his first base hit in one memorable outing.
Like Karp, Day has a dramatic personal story that has shaped his burgeoning career on the mound. In 2016, he and some friends (including two Vanderbilt teammates) were fishing on Normandy Lake in Tennessee when fellow pitcher Donny Everett decided to go for a swim. Day told the story in an unflinching Athlete’s Guide piece titled “For Us”, writing how he responded when Everett yelled for help and began to push him to shore, but, led by shouts from the shore to believe his prank-loving teammate was playing a joke on him, he let go and Everett drowned. Since then, Day has tried to live life the way his friend would have, writing, “As long as you get to attack another day, it’s your job to have a positive influence on those that surround you, on and off the field.” (He referenced the story in a Twitter post after being drafted, expressing gratitude he can “continue OUR dream” as a pro baseball pitcher.) The Nats hope he will bring that attitude to their farm system and continue to prosper.
Round 8 (#251): C Tyler Cropley, University of Iowa
One of several college seniors drafted this week by the Nats, Cropley is a backstop with a big bat, driving in 50 runs this season for the Hawkeyes. He worked well with a relatively inexperienced pitching staff, noted Iowa fansite Black Heart Gold Pants, and turned in his best-ever offensive season as a senior. He apparently signed a contract with the Nats within hours of being drafted on Day 2.
Prospect evaluators are high on the athletic Cropley as a later-round draft pick, with Callis stating he wouldn’t be surprised to see Cropley as a major league backup catcher in a few years’ time and Baseball America‘s JJ Cooper describing him as “one of the better senior sign catchers in the draft.” He could open the season as Auburn’s everyday catcher, although at that level of the minor leagues, he will likely be in a timeshare with at least one or two other prospects.
Round 9 (#281): RHP Tanner Driskill, Lamar University
The Nats have found great success with one unheralded right-handed pitcher named Tanner, so why not try for a second? He might be no Tanner Roark, but Driskill does have major league bona fides as the son of former MLB pitcher Travis Driskill, who spent a couple of seasons up Interstate 95 with the Baltimore Orioles last decade and is now a minor league pitching coach for the Nats’ spring training complex partners, the Astros.
The younger Driskill worked in both the rotation and the bullpen for Lamar this year, leading the team in wins. Unsurprisingly, the 22-year-old college senior has already made clear on Instagram he is going pro with the Nats. It remains to be seen in what role Washington will use him; he seems likely to be assigned to Auburn right away, but as a senior draftee, he could be on the shortlist for a quick promotion to the Class-A Hagerstown Suns.
Round 10 (#311): 2B Carson Shaddy, University of Arkansas
As a senior for the Arkansas Razorbacks, Shaddy has done pretty much whatever has been asked of him on the ballfield. He’s played second base, third base, all three outfield spots and even catcher. He can hit, too, posting a 1.050 OPS in his senior season. Local news station KFSM described Shaddy as a “fan-favorite” player. Fansite Arkansas Fight opined that his tenth-round selection is “definitely the best story of the draft” for Arkansas, noting that Shaddy went undrafted last year and was determined to come back stronger in his final year as a Razorback.
What now for Shaddy? He’ll almost certainly report to Auburn to begin his pro career. “Not sure exactly where he’s going to play, but if he hits like we think he’s going to hit, we’ll find a spot for him,” Kline told MASN. The Nats have employed some of its minor prospects similarly this season, moving the likes of Jake Noll, Austin Davidson, Jacob Wilson, and Adrian Sanchez around the diamond in an effort to improve their utility. All of those players are older and have progressed in the organization, but Shaddy could end up following their winding route through the minors.
Other notable draft selections
Round 14 (#431): LHP Aaron Fletcher, University of Houston: You may recall Fletcher isn’t the only Houston left-hander the Nats have drafted, with last year’s top draft pick Seth Romero originally playing for the Cougars before being booted from the team weeks before the 2017 MLB draft. Scouts and analysts agree the 6′ 0″ Fletcher is not nearly the young talent that Romero is, but he has been highly effective for Houston all the same, working in 2017 exclusively in relief before making 15 starts this season to the tune of a 2.19 ERA. He won’t run up the strikeouts like Romero, but his less potent stuff could play up in a relief role as a professional. If he signs, he could potentially end up joining Romero at Hagerstown before too long if he pitches well to start his pro career.
Round 16 (#491): LHP Carson Teel, Oklahoma State University: What’s better than two six-foot-tall college left-handers in a team’s draft class? How about a third? The Nats appear to have gone on a mini-spree of drafting prospective Gio Gonzalez Jrs., and Carson Teel, who describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “short lefty on a mission,” shouldn’t be overlooked. Baseball America‘s pre-draft report characterized Teel’s stuff as “relatively modest” but noted that Teel, who was drafted in the 27th round by the Boston Red Sox last year and chose not to sign, has had success anyway due to his “feel for pitching”. He looks like a potential fast mover as a lefty specialist should he turn pro.
Round 19 (#581): RHP Zach Linginfelter, University of Tennessee: Most of the Nats’ draftees will sign, especially the college athletes. Linginfelter, a draft-eligible sophomore, may be an exception. Ranked by Baseball America before the draft as the 166th best available prospect, Linginfelter was described as a player who “could go much higher in next year’s draft” with more refinement. He can hit 97 mph with his fastball, but he reportedly struggles with command and has only an average secondary offering. Should he choose to accept whatever the Nats offer him as a signing bonus and turn pro this year, Linginfelter looks like a candidate to work in relief, with the upside of a high-octane late reliever.
Round 20 (#611): C Onix Vega, Broward College: Vega owns the best name in the Nats’ draft class. It deserves some attention. Beyond that, he’s a junior college catcher with some athleticism but no overwhelming tools. If he signs, he’ll probably stay in Florida with the Gulf Coast League Nationals. It’s worth keeping an eye on him, both because his name sounds like a place the Starship Enterprise would visit and because the Nats’ catching prospect ranks could use a boost from this year’s draft class.
Round 26 (#791): RHP Colin Morse, Shenandoah University: As household names go, they’re not exactly Bryce and Bryan Harper, or even Spencer and Carter Kieboom, but the Brothers Morse — Phil and Colin — are deservedly excited to be reunited in the same organization. Colin Morse has been the ace of the Shenandoah Hornets this year and leads the Division III school all-time in strikeouts. He’s also a local boy, hailing from Vienna, Va. His older brother is currently assigned to Hagerstown, and Morse could join him there soon if everything goes his way.
Round 35 (#1061): 1B Alex Binelas, Oak Creek High School: The Nats spent the last few rounds of this year’s draft on players who aren’t likely to make it as big contributors to the organization, but whose selection might pay dividends in terms of goodwill. The first of these “PR picks” was Binelas, one of the top prepsters available out of the state of Wisconsin. He is virtually certain to turn down the nominal signing bonus the Nats will offer him and honor his University of Louisville commit, even retweeting a Journal Sentinel article after being drafted about why many top high-schoolers are drafted late (it’s because they aren’t likely to sign at all and teams may prefer to try to build a relationship with a player than to try to strike paydirt in the umpteenth round anyway). Binelas can really hit and figures to go much higher in the draft when he’s eligible out of college.
Round 36 (#1091): RHP Bo Blessie, Robert E. Lee High School: Another high school player with real talent who isn’t likely to sign at the back end of the draft, Blessie is still growing into his 6′ 3″, 155-lb frame. The Texas native is expected to attend the University of Nebraska and pitch for the Huskers, like his father Brian did before him. He’s already said he won’t sign and will go to Nebraska, local news station CBS 7 reported, so there’s not much more to say about him. The Nats may hope that the contact they made with him will lead to something later on.
Round 37 (#1121): RHP Cole Wilcox, Heritage High School: The 19th-ranked draft prospect by MLB Pipeline, Wilcox was passed over on Day 1 in what figured as a surprise until reports emerged that Wilcox made it clear he intended to honor his University of Georgia commit unless he received a gargantuan amount to sign with a team. The Nats were heavily linked to Wilcox before the draft, as they were to Denaburg and a handful of other high school pitchers, with FanGraphs identifying him as their favorite of the bunch. Wilcox will not sign as the 1,121st selection in this year’s draft, announcing even before the Nats drafted him that he is heading to Georgia. With this pick, the Nats merely signaled to Wilcox and his representatives that he is indeed a favorite of their scouting department, and when Wilcox is next draft-eligible in 2020, they may keep that in mind if the Nats are in a position to sign him then.
Round 38 (#1151): RHP Bobby Milacki, Arizona Christian University: Remember Bob Milacki, the former Orioles pitcher who served as the Class-AAA Syracuse Chiefs’ pitching coach from 2015 to 2017? Bobby Milacki is his son. While the elder Milacki didn’t seem to have much of a positive effect on the cellar-dwelling Chiefs’ lackluster pitching staff in his time with the Nationals organization, it’s nevertheless a nice gesture by the Nats to spend a late draft pick on his kid. Bobby Milacki has pitched reasonably well for Arizona Christian, which competes in the National Christian College Athletic Association Division I, and struck out more than a batter per inning this season. He figures to be a lottery ticket with a major league pedigree who could report to either the GCL Nats or the Auburn Doubledays to start his pro career.
Round 40 (#1211): RHP Michael Menhart, Richmond Hill High School: This should be another familiar name, as Menhart is the son of Nats pitching coordinator Paul Menhart. Beyond that, Menhart has been a fairly unremarkable pitcher at a fairly unremarkable high school in Georgia. At 6′ 1″, 170 lbs, he’s quite skinny. He could choose not to turn pro; it’s unclear whether he has committed to a college program.
The other big prospect news is that the Nats are welcoming back their prodigal first-rounder, Seth Romero, who spent time away from the organization after being sent home during spring training. Concerns about makeup and conditioning have long dogged Romero, but he has undeniable talent. After getting a late start on the Auburn Doubledays’ season last summer, Romero has made just seven professional appearances to date, but he’s impressed by striking out a whopping 35 batters over 22 innings while walking only eight.
Getting Romero back into uniform the same week of the draft is almost like having a bonus first-round pick, considering how limited his contribution was in 2017 and the time he missed to start the 2018 season. The Nats will certainly hope to have their power-pitching lefty back on track and ready to begin his ascent to the top.
Romero makes his 2018 debut and his first appearance above Short Season-A tonight as he starts for the Hagerstown Suns against the visiting Lakewood BlueClaws, the Class-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Lakewood BlueClaws vs. Hagerstown Suns
Stadium: Municipal Stadium, Hagerstown, Md.
1st Pitch: 7:05 pm EDT