March 23, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Washington Nationals: On a Draft High
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the winningest teams of the past four years and PECOTA-projected division titlists Nationals and Tigers.
At some point in your life, you’ve likely heard the MLB Draft referred to as a crapshoot, or some variation of the word. This is generally due to various baseball announcers or pundits looking at rosters and seeing them littered with successful players drafted in the later rounds, and then comparing those to the litany of first-round picks who end up with no more than a cup of coffee or occasionally not making big-league rosters at all.
As someone who made his living covering the draft the last three years, it may not surprise you that I do not feel the draft is a crapshoot, or some variation of the word. Sure, there’s some precariousness to the process—and there always will be—but I’m a staunch believer that teams who take the best players on the board, and are willing to take risks early and often, are the teams that end up having successful drafts.
In this talent evaluator’s humble estimation, no team has done a better job of that over the past few years than the Washington Nationals, and I’m not alone in my thinking.
“What [the Nationals] have done in the draft since 2009 is really impressive,” an American League front-office member said. “They’ve accumulated as much talent as anyone I can think of, and they have done it without having a ton of picks. It helps that they had back-to-back first overall picks of course, but that doesn’t take away from the impressiveness, in my opinion.”
Those back-to-back first overall selections—Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, respectively—were obvious no. 1 selections in terms of talent. But remember too, that the presumed top player in the draft may be passed on due to concerns over their signing figure and/or the desire to pick a player who will help the big-league club sooner than later.
We should also keep in mind that those players were advised by Scott Boras, arguably the most “feared” negotiator for draft prospects. When you consider players like Matt Anderson, Luke Hochevar, and Matt Bush have been selected first overall—and not one scout, scouting director, or front-office member I’ve spoken with believed these were the best talents in the class—you can give Washington credit for doing what seems like an obvious thing.
Even without having the top pick at their disposal, the Nationals have continued to take a best-player-available approach with their selections, though they've taken some calculated risks at the same time. Anthony Rendon was a heavy favorite to be the first selection of the 2011 draft before a less-than-spectacular junior season and ankle issues saw his stock fall. He’s now one of the best young players in all of baseball.
That same year, they took Alex Meyer, a hurler with two electric pitches and impressive size, but scouts worried about the command and control. He’s now one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, and was traded for a first-division center fielder in Denard Span. One year later, with the 18th-overall pick, they selected Lucas Giolito, who had a nonzero chance of becoming the first-ever right-handed high school pitcher to go first overall. An elbow injury and some signing concerns saw Giolito drop to the middle of the first round, and the Nationals pounced. He’s now the best pitching prospect in baseball.
It’s extended past the first round, too. They’ve handed out big bonuses for high-reward players that had first-round grades, but slipped because of their respective demands:
* Highest bonus given in that round, according the Baseball America.
In each of the above cases, the Nationals handed out one of the five highest bonuses in the round, if not the highest. A few of those players haven’t worked out—particularly Purke—but the process of picking up potential difference makers after round one is something that is to be admired.
“It’s all about understanding the risk and the reward,” the front-office member said. “This isn’t a case of a team taking a chance on players who have big athletic ability but don’t understand how to play the game, or guys without tools but put up big stats who you hope carry over. These are guys who have slipped for reasons that were understandable at the time, but you have to give the Nationals a ton of credit for doing their due diligence.”
The Nationals have one of the best rosters in baseball right now, and as long as they continue to take the same approach to the draft, they’re likely to sustain that long term.