A quick five round draft yields six players with potential for the Nats

A Nats first round pick on the Hagerstown Suns mound; Photo by Andrew Lang for TalkNats

Over the two days of the amateur player draft and a grand total of five rounds, the Washington Nationals selected six players who general manager Mike Rizzo believes will elevate his farm system that ranks near the bottom of all teams. In all, Rizzo once again went after pitching with three right-handed pitchers, one left-handed pitcher, one middle infielder and one catcher. Of Washington’s six selections, four came from four-year universities (Oklahoma (2), LSU, UCLA) , one from a junior college (San Jacinto) and one from the high school ranks (Monsignor Pace Miami). What they all seem to have in common is upside potential to their talent and good makeup. 

The harshest critic before the draft of the Nats farm system was The Athletic’s Keith Law who ranked the Nats at second from the bottom. He gave the team a pass though because of the World Series win.

“You don’t care, right, Nats fans? You got a ring! That’s what the farm is for, and Mike Rizzo and company worked the heck out of their system to get to that World Series,” Law said about the Nats farm system ranking near the bottom.

Other teams have won a World Series and found themselves in great shape in their farm systems though. The Dodgers went to two straight World Series in 2017-2018 and are the № 3 ranked farm by Law. That allowed them to also get out of CBT jail for a few years and turn in record profits last year while the Nats have had to add expensive free agents which made them the oldest team in the Majors known as the “Los Viejos“. While that veteran leadership proved to be a key to the World Series win, it comes with a price tag as veterans usually cost more.

The top four players in the Nats’ rotation today were all technically signed as free agents because Stephen Strasburg‘s new deal for $245 million was through free agency. That Nats Top-4 in the rotation has a combined $726 million invested by the Nats which is more than any rotation in history. The Nats must add homegrown depth to the rotation. Last year the 5th starter spot was a revolving door between Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, and Austin Voth. The real rub is on the poor track record of the development of pitchers in the Nats system, and that goes to both starters and relievers.

In the last ten years, no drafted Nationals pitcher has become a permanent part of the starting rotation. While Lucas Giolito and Jesus Luzardo looked like great draft picks, they were developed by their new teams after trades, and Giolito became an All-Star for the White Sox and Luzardo the top prospect for the Oakland A’s.

In the past, Rizzo has used first round draft picks as currency in trades which thinned the farm. There is still hope to reap rewards with a small stockpile of those who remain like Jackson RutledgeMason DenaburgSeth RomeroCarter Kieboom, and Erick Fedde. With Cade Cavalli‘s pick in the first round this week, he will join those players as prestigious first round picks by the Nationals. What they all have in common is they were selected in the second half of the first round, and all but Kieboom are starting pitchers.

You can track the Nats top prospect rankings and see that Kieboom, Luis Garcia, Rutledge, Wil Crowe, Andry Lara, and Eddy Yean, Denaburg, Tim Cate, Romero, and Matt Cronin are the system’s Top-10 and Cavalli will go into the № 4 spot and knock Cronin out of the top rankings.

It is a possibility that Cole Henry who was the Nats second round pick could seed in the Nats Top-10. What you will also notice is all of the key international signings in the past several years that have saved the Nats in the form of Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Garcia, Lara and Yean.

So how did the rest of the draft go for the Nats? Overall the ratings look like a solid “B” with good picks throughout the draft, and the key is signing and developing these players as nothing is a lock.

Second round pick – Cole Henry

With Henry as a top pitcher from LSU, he was seen as first half of the second round talent and the Nats chose him at №55. He went 2–1 with a 1.89 ERA (4 ER/19.0 IP) and 23 strikeouts in four starts for LSU and was named to the 2020 Golden Spikes Award (top amateur player) preseason watch list and preseason Third-Team All-American by D1Baseball.com. His slot value is $1.307 million. He has a crossfire delivery similar to Max Scherzer as his delivery comes off from a side angle which adds deception and much tougher on the right-handed batters. He throws a mid-90’s fastball, changeup, and a spiked curveball.

What most evaluators see with Henry is a pitcher who could be a middle of the rotation arm and higher if he develops another “plus” pitch.

“With plus stuff across the board, Henry has all the pieces to be a frontline arm, but scouts have wanted to see more consistency,” Baseball America wrote about Henry.

Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline spoke about Henry and where he sees him as a future piece for the team.

“Cole Henry, really good delivery, command guy, big fastball that touches 97 mph,” Kline said via Zoom yesterday. “He’s got life down in the zone. He shows the makings of a plus curveball. For Cole, he has the ability to spin it, he needs to learn how to commit to each one. I feel like it could be an above average pitch. The changeup is above average now. It’s just a solid overall package. I see him as a quality № 3 with the potential to be a № 2.”

Second round pick (compensation round) – Sammy Infante

With Cavalli and Henry in the books, the Nats had a comp pick from the Angels when they signed Anthony Rendon. With the 71st pick in the draft, the Nats drafted another Monsignor Pace High School player where they went in the first round of 2006 for Chris Marrero. This time they went for shortstop Sammy Infante. The 18-year-old Infante hopefully will sign with the Nats because he has a scholarship waiting for him from the University of Miami. He seemed ready to turn pro.

“As a player, I am always going to evaluate myself higher than everybody else,” Infante said. “I know what I can do. I am healthy. So, I feel like there is no chance to waste. I want to be a baseball player. That’s something I want to be my whole life. My dream was becoming a ‘Cane, sleeping on campus, digging the campus life, but I am ready. I am healthy and I am ready to go, so that’s why I am signing with the Nats.”

Kline says Infante was just too good to pass up and was advanced for his age.

“Lean, athletic, defined body,” Kline said. “Twitchy, he’s got a high motor, high-energy guy. Loves to play, you can tell, he’s always smiling. So much energy on the field, it was fun watching him. He has a good chance to stay at shortstop. He can throw.”

The Nats’ Director of scouting operations Eddie Longosz thinks highly of Infante. He was ranked at № 145 and probably will not be paid slot which could save some money for Henry who most likely will want over slot money. Much of the draft is about making the money work. Maybe Rizzo’s group believes Infante is a future star. Pick № 71 has yielded Ken Caminiti, Floyd Bannister, A.J. Pierzynski, Danny Tartabull, Jerry Dipoto, Bob Melvin and many others. You just never know when a teenager steps up to stardom.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Longosz said. “It’s going to be great to add with our mix of Trea Turner, Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia. He has got strength in his swing. The body is amazing but he has raw power right now, too.”

Third round pick – Holden Powell

Next up was a move in the 3rd round that should pay dividends quickly for the Nats as they went for a top bullpen arm in Holden Powell who was the № 2 rated reliever in the draft. The Nats snagged him at pick № 94. The kid born on 9/9/99 was drafted out of UCLA and was their closer and led the Pac-12 with 17 saves in 2019. Powell was a two-time All-American. Powell made eight appearances out of the bullpen in 2020, recording three saves with a 0.00 ERA (0 ER/9.1 IP) and 20 strikeouts.

“It’s presence stuff with command,” Kline said. “Very aggressive approach. Fastball is anywhere from 93 to 97 mph with life. He’s had outings where he’s pitched two or three games at a time, so the velocity does back (down) from game to game. He’s got an above average slider. I think he’s in the role that he will always be in, and I think he’s going to have success in that role.”

Fourth round pick – Brady Lindsly

In the 4th round, Rizzo chose Cavalli’s catcher and battery mate, Brady Lindsly, from Oklahoma.  He was a 2019 All Big-12 honorable mention selection, hitting .291 with a .364 OBP and some decent power numbers  with 11 doubles, four triples, five home runs, and 34 RBIs.

“I was just shocked, honestly,” Lindsly said with his selection. “I thought I was looking at the free agent thing the whole way, and when I got the call I was just speechless. I heard it about when they called me and told me they were going to take me, like, seven picks before, and the draft just never moved slower. Oh, my goodness, I heard my name and just folded.”

Fifth round pick – Mitchell Parker

In the fifth and final round of the draft, Rizzo got a lefty starter in Mitchell Parker from San Jacinto JC where the Nats got their first round pick, Jackson Rutledge, in last year’s draft.  Parker went 5–0 with a 1.19 ERA (4 ER/30.1 IP) with 64 strikeouts and 18 walks in six starts in 2020.

“It’s a funky, unconventional delivery mechanics,” Kline said. “It’s deceptive. It’s overhand slot. It’s 90 to 97 mph but he’s going to pitch around 92, 93 mph and he’s got an above average curveball. Right now, he commands the curveball better than the fastball. A little fine tuning with the delivery [is needed].”

Draft Summary

As mentioned, the draft overall was a solid “B” with Rizzo’s normal upside potential that he looks for. And for the second year in a row, he went with a high draft pick to get a reliever (closer) like last year with Matt Cronin who he drafted from Arkansas. With the pick of Parker, the Nats draft concluded. Now they must get the players inked to deals and figure a plan for each with the lack of a minor league season due to the COVID crisis.

“What a tremendous group,” said Kline of the draftees. “I’m so excited and fired up to have all these kids in the system. This is a jackpot for me. We did great. The guys did a tremendous job.”

Kline summed it up with positivity and passed down accolades to his scouts and analytics group who all were part of the decision process. Next up is the signing of undrafted players where teams are capped at $20,000 per player. With a shortened draft, there are literally hundreds of kids who had their hopes and dreams pinned to the draft. Only 160 kids were drafted this year because of the five round limit which will leave many kids who would have been 6th to 10th round picks looking at bonuses of hundreds of thousands they won’t see if they sign under this new dollar cap. Most players who went undrafted will hope for next year.

“Saw a post this morning from Ian Kinsler,” Nats’ outfielder Adam Eaton wrote. “He mentioned if you’re a high school/ college player that wasn’t drafted yesterday… Don’t worry! Don’t give up! Keep working! There are many later rounders that keep grinding and that make their dreams come true. Keep pushin! 🤙🏻 #mlbdraft #571st pick overall  #19th round.”

There certainly is good talent available out there. Top draftees will see their money deferred and will only see $100,000 as their initial payout. Times are tough for sure. Maybe next up on the agenda is whether we will have “real” baseball in 2020.

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