After an all-too-long string of MLB drafts that can be considered fireable management offenses, the Washington Nationals had the uncommon pleasure of successes from drafts forgotten and signs of more competent recent decision-making on draft day.
In the 2018 draft, Jake Irvin, was selected and flew under the radar until recently. A UCL tear in his pitching elbow led to Tommy John surgery in 2020 and was an obstacle that slowed his development. And Carter Kieboom – remember him from the 2016 draft? Well, he may never make it to the perceived potential on draft day, but we’ll get a good look at him at 3B over the next 18 games or so after he quickly and unassumingly returned last month to the big league roster, along with some early power that had disappeared from his game in his earlier major league stint.
Let’s take a look at Irvin, who is truly one of the best, best stories of 2023. Irvin powered through to being the improbable breakout of the 2023 rotation. Unlike Jackson Tetreault, Cole Henry, Seth Romero and Cade Cavalli rising before him, he kept his health and stability and continues to engender optimism. A year ago, no one saw this coming. There were people on this board and beyond who scoffed at adding Irvin to the 40-man last offseason. Now, he is the Nationals’ #1 starter and a bona fide developmental success. Gatt lacht!
That 2018 draft is, not surprisingly, regarded as a flop, featuring notorious disappointments. First rounder Mason Denaburg had promise but fell to numerous injuries and his team control clock is ticking near the end. There was a failure to sign JUCO product Andrew Nardi, who eventually made the majors with Miami, and Cole Wilcox, who still has a bright future in Texas, portended better drafts ahead.
The 2019 draft has (thus far) produced only Jake Alu and Amos Willingham from a crop that headed into the developmental fiasco that was COVID. But Willingham is one of 8 pitchers drafted that year who are still in the system, including recognizable talents like Jackson Rutledge, Lucas Knowles, Orlando Ribalta, and perhaps Matt Cronin, depending on fate and his recovery from back surgery. Even Jake Bennett was picked that year (but did not sign).
And the truncated COVD 2020 alone yielded Cavalli, Henry, Holden Powell, Mitchell Parker, and free agent Zack Brzycky. All very much alive (if not all necessarily well). And all could be household names in the Natmosphere in 2024, or nothing at all. Mentsch tracht, and Gatt lacht.
Indeed the 2021 Draft has seeded a few eyebrow raisers even beyond the obvious star of Brady House (more on him later). In Dustin Saenz and Andrew Alvarez, the Nationals have two left-handed starters at AA who are showing rotation helium that could affect the 2024 season. Four other pitchers from that class showed real promise in the pros and could still reassert themselves in 2024 and beyond after fully recovering from injuries.
That’s quite a pitching infusion into the lower minors from 2019-2021, only now surfacing. If the Nationals yield 1-2 Jake Irvin-level starting talents at the major league level a year, that’s a plus. Make it 2-3, it’s the drafting we deserve. Make it 3-4 and we are the Braves. The Braves, like us, have lost their share of rising talents to injuries. That’s why you reload and create depth of real, vs. filler talent.
And of course, the 2021 draft is notable for House and his star trajectory, and now for Jacob Young as well, snagged in round seven. But Daylen Lile and Darren Baker are also 2021 signees, as are less accomplished, but still-progressing position players like TJ White and Will (not quite a position) Frizzell. That’s the best position class we have had here in awhile – unless one considers 2022 and 2023.
A year ago, folks wondered whether back-injured 2021 pick Brady House was a bust, after he disappeared at the plate early in the Fredericksburg season, and then, quietly, altogether. TalkNats articles and social media posts on House kept it positive on House after others gave up on him and most prospect evaluators removed him from their rankings.
This year, it was Elijah Green’s turn to take an unceremonious and strikeout filled departure, albeit with big tools on display including what looked like one 700 foot home run (you all remember the clip). But that 2022 draft is still hard to gauge because, owing to a logjam of talent at the lowest levels, younger players like Nick Leyva and Everett Cooper could not get out of FCL despite stellar 2023 performances. But they will be part of a stocked 2024 Fredericksburg roster, and still quite young.
Already, some 2022 products have asserted themselves, nonetheless. Trey Lipscomb opened eyes at spring training and has carried it forward over two levels so far, looking now like a surefire promotion from AA and keeping his bat going while moving all over the infield. Surely this very young, slender, and low-tread player will gain from a strength program in the offseason. Will he maintain the pop to be thought of as a full time position player?
Murphy Stehly gets no ink, but was a big college star in the senior breakout mode of Lipscomb and this year’s Pinckney. He’s at AA and likewise a multi-positional player. Perhaps with the chance at every day in AA in 2024, Stehly’s collegiate power will return with the wooden bat.
Maxwell Romero was an afterthought by some, until several weeks ago, and like many in this article nowhere to be found on pundit prospect lists. But he is most certainly a relevant two-way asset behind the plate, with a gun, big power and clutch talent, and will be heard from at a higher level. Of course – he’s a Cane! Catcher is always a position to stock, given the toll it takes; look what happened to this franchise without a backup plan for Wilson. And the 2023 of Israel Pineda reminds us that catching prospects are very much, now you see them, now you don’t. Romero only looks blocked now, but Mentsch tracht, und Gatt Lacht.
The pitching haul of the 2022 draft likewise kept up its end of the performance bargain. Jake Bennett has been ailing but has upper minors written on him and hopefully a graduation to DC on a faster schedule. Luke Young enjoyed a strong year and recent run at Fredericksburg, where Marquis Grissom is the closer and likewise pitching well and showing helium. Both were lower round draft picks, as were pitcher like Kyle Luckham and Brad Lord. Lord had twelve strikeouts this weekend in only six innings! Not bad for a low round draft find&nbsp;?.
Don’t forget free agents Bubba Hall, excellent in relief in the late innings at Fredericksburg, as well as Nick Pogue and Jaren Zinn, who already have the needle north of Wilmington in 2024, and even Tyler Schoff, who is closing in Harrisburg right now, a year after being snapped up unwanted out of Bryant College. Let’s not forget Matt Suggs, a legitimate find who is starting behind the plate at Wilmington who looks ready for AA. That’s a (so far) huge undrafted haul that draws little discussion to date, but will if these hurlers are able to rise beyond their successes at the lower minors.
There’s a lot of recent draft talent ripening at different paces, dodging the injury bullet, and competing to reinforce the obvious needs at the major league level. The winter brings more education and refinement and then, we’ll see who parlays an off-season of work into big rises in 2024. Gatt lacht.
And then, there’s 2023 – coming up in this series. But the biggest move in the Nationals front office passed without much comment this week. Kris Kline to the pro scouting spot, from his longtime Amateur scouting role. Were these recent drafts the influence of others, like Mark Baca? A lifestyle change and promotion for Kline? Who takes his place? Perhaps Ghost will fill us in.