There is a fine balance between promoting young prospects from within your system, and the free agency route for the expensive veteran stars. The international signings and the MLB Draft must be the foundation of your team. The Washington Nationals have had an issue in the latter, as the draft into the player development system has not turned a star since Anthony Rendon was drafted as the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft. It has been 11 years since the Nats have made that connection. In five days, general manager Mike Rizzo will be on the clock with the highest pick since Rendon was chosen, and the Nats pick fifth this year.
Maybe some stars will emerge from the development system as the team has players like Cade Cavalli, Cristhian Vaquero, Cole Henry, and Armando Cruz. Last year, the Nats took the best player available in the 2021 draft at the 11th overall pick in Brady House, who was the 2020 top high school player projected until some analysts pushed him back. Yesterday, House was removed from Baseball America’s Top-100 rankings with no explanation. He is currently on the minor league IL with a sore back and put up monster numbers in Single-A in April into May.
After the 2021 trade deadline, the Nats’ farm system jumped 10 spots to 20th in the league according to MLB Pipeline — prior to this, they were ranked dead last. Of course after Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray graduated as prospects, the Nats farm rankings plummeted to 29th. It is hard to argue with that ranking. With a top draft pick, House getting back on the field, some key prospects from trade deadline deals, maybe the Nats climb back up the farm rankings.
Right now, the focus for the next week is the draft, and this could be transformative with the right pick like Rendon was for the Nationals during the seasons of 2013 to 2019. That was seven years of control of one of the best hitters in baseball. Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg were part of the greatest stretch in Nats history.
Take a look back at the pre-season draft rankings for the college players. All “No.” rankings were according to mlb.com’s draft prospect rankings as of February 2022 with analysis from Alex Hill just five months ago:
No. 4 – 3B Jacob Berry, LSU
Jacob Berry is the real deal. In 2021, he was named National Freshman of the Year after slashing .352/.439/.676 with 41 extra-base hits, 17 of them via the long ball. Berry is a switch-hitter flaunting a 60-grade hit tool and 65-grade power tool according to MLB Pipeline scouts, his only slight being a swing and miss problem that doesn’t concern most. Expect him to further prove himself in the SEC after transferring from the PAC-12 (Arizona).
As Berry looks to demonstrate that he’s the #1 college bat, he’ll also be showcasing his defense for the first time after being the designated hitter for all but 9 games last spring. Although his primary position is listed as third base, he’s been playing outfield to start the 2022 season. Berry’s lack of experience in the field shouldn’t scare anyone away, it’s a moot point when you consider his talent at the plate.
The Nats have the luxury, or lack thereof, of having thin prospect depth in most positions. So, a guy like Berry – who has no true position – can fit into any spot his development takes him. A reassuring aspect of his offense-first game.
No. 5 – SS Brooks Lee, Cal Poly
One of the most well-rounded college hitters in the draft, Brooks Lee is a switch-hitting shortstop who screams high ceiling. He missed time in 2020 due to injury but bounced back strong in 2021 with a co-Big West Player of the Year honor and an incredible summer in the Cape Cod League.
Lee probably won’t be taken as high as 5th but has unquantifiable traits to compliment his elite tools that could put him in the conversation. He’s a fun player to watch and will make a considerable contribution to whatever organization he’s drafted to.
No. 6 – 2B Jace Jung, Texas Tech
Brother of Rangers’ No. 2 prospect, Josh Jung – Jace is ready to make a name for himself in professional baseball. Scouts have given him a 60-grade for his hit and power tools, which is considered “plus” on the 20-80 scale – Baseball America equates 60-grade to Stephen Strasburg’s command.
Last season, Jung hit 21 bombs with a 1.159 OPS in 208 at bats while walking more times than striking out, earning him the Big 12 Player of the Year award. The lefty slugger continues to prove that he’s an elite bat with the tools of a future all-star.
Jace Jung would be my choice for a few reasons; he adds near-ready infield depth to the system, he has a disciplined approach to compliment his big bat, and he’s just a strong, athletic prospect who exemplifies a baseball player. Get excited about him.
No. 7 – OF Brock Jones, Stanford
A two-sport athlete when he first got to Stanford, Brock Jones is revered as an outstanding athlete who has a rare combination of top-level speed and power. Although Jones has quit football to focus on baseball, his time as a safety has translated into his ability to track flyballs in the outfield and continues to impress on defense.
At the plate, he gets credit for an all-fields approach while showing the ability to draw walks and keep his strikeout percentage on the low side. In 2021, he slashed .311/.453/.646 with 18 homers and 14 stolen bags in an excellent PAC-12 conference.
The Nationals probably won’t take Jones so high in the draft, barring a Bonds-like spring, but he’s a top prospect for a reason and shouldn’t be written off as a possibility.
No. 8 – OF Chase DeLauter, James Madison
Physically speaking, Chase DeLauter is ready to play Major League baseball, standing at 6-foot-4, 235-pounds. He impressed in 2021, slashing .386/.508/.723 in the spring, then following it up with 9 homers during a strong summer in the wood bat only, Cape Cod League.
There are questions regarding just how inflated his numbers are from the not-so-great pitching of the Colonial Athletic Conference, but his raw tools are too impressive to write-off. A big 2022 could be enough to prove that his bat is legit. If I were Mike Rizzo, I would take a good look at DeLauter’s tools and production before passing up on him, depending on who’s available at the 5th pick.
It is amazing how much things have changed with the college draft rankings but also the high school players. We knew Druw Jones, Temarr Johnson, and Elijah Green were near the top, and now Jackson Holliday is looking like a Top-3 pick. From the college side, Kevin Parada jumped up to the top of the heap based on his top power numbers, and Cam Collier also jumped to the top of the pack. I specifically looked at Parada who was one of the best power hitters in college baseball. The results were there, but even playing in the ACC in a down year, was not where he hit most of his home runs, they came against out-of-division games.
Parada and Lee are considered the two best college players by evaluators today, but when you base it on the power numbers and find that three home runs were against Gardner-Webb, and two against Charleston So. and two against Troy, you have to look a lot closer to make sure you are not falling into a results based decision. Process and projectability are what matters. There are .400 hitting college players who will never get a sniff of the Majors because they are not projectable. Usually for a hitter is they lack the contact skills or would not be able to hit good breaking pitches which is the first separator for players in a farm system.
The issue is results based analysis and flying with the flock is usually why there are so many busts. How could so many analysts screw-up on ranking Bubba Starling as the best position player in that 2011 draft with Danny Hultzen as the second best pitcher? Okay, Hultzen battled through injuries and never reached his promise, but Starling, like so many others have turned into busts. The 2013 draft was loaded with busts, and frankly, all drafts have busts. The bust rate on high school players is so much higher, and this is where Rizzo cannot risk a miss — and he has to score a star here too. His job could depend on this pick. More importantly, the Nats future really needs a Curly W on this draft.