At a stage in the draft when the most highly regarded talents go off the board, organizations like the Nationals are more challenged to find players who have the talent and character to build long careers from humble beginnings. But few excuses can be made for the lower half of the top-10 in the current draft structure. These are players who are being offered large bonuses to sign, bonuses that may deplete a pool from signing a late round sleeper. Some might say that certain picks are made to save money, but if you are going to burn an early draft pick on an easy sign, burn it on someone who is qualitatively different from the guy you signed for 5K and drafted in round 30.
Rounds 6-10 have been a teeth gnashing disappointment for the Nationals in recent years. They have been pitching heavy, and the pitchers drafted in rounds LATER than 10 have been every bit as interesting. The extreme example of this is Gabe Klobotsis, the future fan favorite prospect who originally signed for 2,500 dollars. Andrew Karp was drafted in the sixth round in 2018 and paid 200K. He is laboring in Wilmington now. Aaron Fletcher was the Nats 14th round pick in the same year and reached the majors by 2020. Fletcher, Evan Lee (also at Wilmington and a 15th round pick, and better regarded at this point), and Carson Teel (struggling at AA but at least earning that helium) were successive picks that year who all came in at 125K each. Ryan Tapani came out of the 2018 draft, too, and at only 10,000. So you get the point. Pitching drafts in the second five have been “disappointing.”
Did this year’s draft change things? Well for one, the Nationals drafted only two pitchers. But that does not necessarily mean anything. For the position player drafting 6-10 has been nothing to write home about, either. 2019 brought Jackson Cluff and Jeremy Ydens for 369,500 all together, and Andrew Pratt in round 10 as a bargain sign. All three of them are already yesterday’s promise from the very year that the Nationals won the World Series. And don’t start telling me that a pundit has rated Jackson Cluff as the xxth best prospect in the system blah, blah, blah – it’s nonsense!
It’s not just a pitching, no position players issue, either. In 2014, the Nationals drafted position players at 7,8, 9, and 10. All four players fizzled from the start. So the Nationals have a particularly poor draft history in this 6-10 tranche to overcome. If the novel approach of this year’s 1-5 heralds a new strategy altogether, bring it on. Manage your expectations, and let’s look them over.
- Michael Kirian – Over 2019-2020, Kirian put up ever dominating numbers as a late inning reliever at Louisville. His oeuvre included step-up performances in NCAA playoff competition, and one’s fortitude is indeed a draft criterion for an aspiring late reliever. So is command, and his K/BB ratios were wonderful. So what happened? Kirian, placed in the starting rotation, did not carry over that level of excellence; thus proving the corollary of the adage that great relievers are failed AAAA starters. Great relievers may also turn into failed starters. Some may grouse over the Nats drafting a seeming high end lefty reliever in the sixth round when relievers may develop from much later picks. Maybe that is a fair point, if the bullpen is his destiny. But just as you cannot have enough high-end pitching, you cannot have enough high end late bullpen prospects. Indeed, one of the best more recent 6-10 picks in recent years was Koda Glover, whom we loved and who coulda been a contender. Getting Kirian in round six is cheaper than a round 3 (Powell – 500K) or a round 4 (Cronin – 464K). The Nationals have had success with another funky delivery lefty, Mitchell Parker – a really interesting lefty starter from the 2020 class. So Kirian is either a leftover tick from philosophies past or a more cost-effective way of feeding the lefty bullpen pipeline, and a more enduring building block than Kyle Lobstein.
- Jacob Young – At first glance, this pick feels like so other players in the system. Cole Freeman, Andrew Stevenson, Gage Canning types. Smart, aggressive players with good speed and little power. Baseball America calls him a top sleeper, and that’s more than a pundit hack operation. Sleeper for what? The known is that he hit well over .300 for his career, and is only a sophomore. He has doubles power, which at his age is not enchanting, but no measure of his ceiling. Nothing much was expected of him when he arrived at the U of Florida, and Young has far outpaced expectations. What’s more to like is that he ran up a 30-game hit streak, an impressive model of consistency at any level. And, he outhit everyone – everyone – at the SEC tournament this year, so you have to like his game on the stage. Whatever his arm strength is depicted as in left field, he threw out seven runners this year. Doesn’t strike out a lot, plays several positions. Is that a curse of a utility player to be? Or is he just a gamer who keeps taking his game to another level? If he does well when underestimated, the chip on his shoulder is ready for implant. The question is whether he comes to the Nationals at that draft slot or goes back to school and aims higher next year.
- Will Frizzell – A fourth power hitter taken and another lefty, the 6’5 Frizzell a first baseman who took his bat and bopping in particular to a whole other level this year. His .686 slugging percentage actually led the SEC. Yet in spite of his mashing and a performance that carried him to the upper reaches of home run leaderboards, Frizell’s tater surge did not come at the expense of more strikeouts. Don’t trash his defense too early; he started as an outfielder and moved to first because of knee injuries. This year, he had stamina for the college season. Even with a year of eligibility remaining, he is expected to sign and go pro. It will be interesting to see whether the Nationals play him this summer or rest him and turn him loose in the instrux.
- Cole Quintanilla – A big Texas pitcher, a familiar ring from previous Nationals drafts that have drawn even more pitching talent from Oklahoma. This guy has and assortment of pitches, a fastball that touched 98 and a nickname – “Ice Cole” – that spoke to his makeup for close games. Quintanilla drew praise for his outing against the eventual champion MSU Bulldogs in the College World Series, seemingly growing up under the glare. Long removed from Tommy John surgery, Quintanilla will be ready to be turned loose for the Nats, even if his innings are limited going forward in 2021.
- Darren Baker – Mike Rizzo loves his bloodlines. Baker, already once drafted by the Nationals, has grown up and out of college. He remains a slight second baseman with a high baseball IQ. How this translated into a 10th pick is just not clear. What is clear is that nothing about Baker seems to fill an organizational need. Did it really take a 10th round pick to soften angry Dusty?
I’ll tackle 11-15 in the next installment. Fortunately some of the players have already announced their signings and are wheels up to West Palm to ready themselves to join rosters by the time I write my follow ups on the forensicane *21 to watch. Let’s see who’s ready, after all.