Nats’ Draft Miscues Led to Inevitability of 2021 Sell-Off


Mike Rizzo is one of the best general managers in the game, but he has overseen some Draft miscues.


The Major League Baseball Draft is the lifeblood of every franchise. Whether spearheading a major rebuild or supplementing the edges of a perennial contender’s roster, the Draft is the most efficient method with which to add talent.


The Washington Nationals know this well. They were one of the first teams to value the Draft and they flipped the franchise 180 degrees with the additions of players such as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Jordan Zimmermann, among others. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is a longtime scout who lives for the Draft and understands its inherent value.


Unfortunately, the Draft has become the primary reason for the Nats’ sudden reversal of fortune from 2019 World Series champions to 2021 Trade Deadline sellers supreme. Looking at the Draft as a feeder system for the MLB roster, the Nats have been eating table scraps for a large portion of the last decade.


An analysis of every Major League team’s Draft yield since 2012 paints a bleak picture. A failed strategy, highlighted by some big bets that went belly up, forced the Nats to regularly fill out their roster with veteran free agents and address weaknesses in July by hollowing out a thin farm system.


The reality is Washington was living on borrowed time for years. July’s sell-off was an inevitability years in the making. It’s a credit to Rizzo that he stretched the window as far as he did and capitalized right before it shut with the ultimate prize.


With that, let’s dive into some data. Reader discretion may be advised. Before we break it down, here is an explanation of the analysis, with necessary caveats:


As a fan, it’s been frustrating seeing the Nats seemingly unable to develop Draft picks into big leaguers. So, I wanted to see if that was a rare predicament, as the Draft is extremely volatile and the vast majority of picks never turn into much. So, I evaluated every team’s Draft from 2012 onward. The reason I started the analysis in 2012 is that’s the year in which the Nats’ strategy changed. They were no longer a bottom feeder. They weren’t going to have Strasburg/Harper/Rendon fall into their lap anymore. They needed to work harder for it and supplement a roster that was set up to win for a long time.


For this exercise, I went through every team’s Draft since 2012 and calculated the bWAR those picks provided to the team that drafted them. For example, the Nats do not receive credit for what Lucas Giolito has done in Chicago, only what he did in his brief time in D.C. Admittedly, it’s more nuanced than that as it does not consider shrewd trades. But this is a simple way to evaluate which teams have best employed the Draft as a way to add cheap, controllable talent to the big league roster.


And the verdict is …?


As of the date of this analysis, Sept. 9, 2021, the Nationals have received a whopping 1.1 bWAR from their Draft picks since 2012. That number is far and away the worst in Major League Baseball over that time period. The Royals are second worst over that stretch, but nearly five times as good as the Nats at 5.2 bWAR. Only five teams are in single digits and more than a third of MLB (13 teams) is above 30.


Quite frankly, it’s an embarrassing number. Erick Fedde, a widely considered disappointing first-round pick whose very MLB future is in jeopardy, has easily been their most productive pick at 1.1 bWAR. In fact, the only current players with a positive contribution over this entire stretch comprises Fedde (1.1), Austin Voth (0.6), Andrew Stevenson (0.6), Ben Braymer (0.4), Tres Barrera (0.3) and Jakson Reetz (0.1). Of that list, Fedde, Voth and Stevenson are all DFA candidates next season, Braymer was DFAd this season, and Reetz is probably sixth or seventh on the organizational depth chart at catcher. Barrera is the only guy on the list who seems a sure bet to contribute going forward, and he’s a clear third on the catcher depth chart behind Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams. Yikes.


But … but … give them a break, they’ve been picking low because they have won at the MLB level


While it’s true the Nats were one of MLB’s elite teams over the last decade, that doesn’t excuse this paltry performance. Know who else has won consistently and picked low in the Draft year after year? That would be the Dodgers, who rank No. 2 on this list with an astounding 67.2 bWAR despite MLB’s best record over this time period.


OK, so we all agree the Dodgers are aliens and no one should be held to that standard. Surely, the rest of this list is chock full of teams that tanked for high picks, right? Only partially true. The Astros took advantage of their tank to add premium talent and lead this list at 78.2 bWAR. The Cubs are fifth at 48.7.


But the results might otherwise surprise you. Ranking third is the Cardinals at 57. They have won consistently and never pick high. Now I’m going to vomit before I say this, but the Cardinals are the gold standard (excluding the Dodgers, who are impossibly good at this) for using the Draft to fill holes and keep a contending team on the field with financial flexibility.


Below is a sampling of players the Cardinals have selected who were there for the taking if the Nats wanted them:

  • Jack Flaherty

  • Harrison Bader

  • Paul DeJong

  • Dylan Carlson

  • Dakota Hudson

  • Tommy Edman

The A’s are another team to consider. Their year-by-year records have fluctuated, but they’ve mostly been contenders during this time period, and they don’t have nearly the financial resources of the Nats. They rank fourth on this list. Here are some A’s picks the Nats could have had.

  • Chad Pinder

  • Lou Trivino

  • Matt Chapman

  • Sean Murphy

So, how exactly did we get here?


It’s probably easiest to evaluate each Draft class and try to see what went wrong. So, let’s do that.


2012


This is the first year in which Rizzo employed a new strategy he would continue consistently, with little to nothing to show for it yet.


With Texas A&M righty Michael Wacha heavily rumored to be the choice here, the Nats instead pounced on injured high school power pitcher Lucas Giolito, who was receiving buzz as the potential No. 1 pick before he experienced arm troubles. So, the Nats took a gamble, allotted nearly all of their Draft spending pool to sign him, then predictably had him undergo Tommy John surgery.


The Nats were right about Giolito’s talent. He developed into an elite prospect. We won’t debate the Adam Eaton trade here. That’s another complicated subject. They were right on this pick. However, there is a negative side effect to the strategy here that will play out repeatedly in the ensuing years. When you allot so much money to one player, you have to almost punt the rest of the Draft on under-slot signings for guys with 40-grade tools across the board with little chance of making it to the big leagues. The Nats did see fifth-round pick Spencer Kieboom enjoy a couple cups of coffee for the Nats. Second-rounder Tony Renda briefly made it after the Nats traded him to the Reds.


2013

Close your eyes. For the first time since moving to D.C., the Nats did not have a first-round selection. They forfeited that pick in exchange for signing elite reliever … Rafael Soriano in the offseason. Ahhh damn it. On top of that, the Nats had MLB’s best record in 2012, so they didn’t pick until the 68th overall selection. Fortunately, they got a steal waiting for them there with Dallas Baptist righty Jake Johansen. Just kidding, he never made it above A ball with the Nats and retired from baseball in 2018. Third-rounder Drew Ward showed potential at times but never quite made it, though he’s still kicking around the Tigers organization. Nick Pivetta was a good fourth-round pick who was used poorly as compensation for the infamous Jonathan Papelbon trade. Austin Voth in the fifth round is one of the best value picks of this era.


2014


OK, so there’s a lot going on here. With their first-round pick, Rizzo returned to the “top-five pick gets injured and falls to you” strategy with Erick Fedde out of UNLV at No. 18. Fedde was widely considered a lock to go somewhere between 5-10 before an elbow injury that would require Tommy John surgery. OK, there’s logic there. Giolito was back on the mound and showing promise at this point, so why not go that route again?

Then it gets weird. They failed to sign second-round pick Andrew Suarez, a lefty from the University of Miami. That’s a no-no. Then they went over slot on third-rounder Jakson Reetz and sixth-rounder Austen Williams. Both those guys did make it to the big leagues eventually. But they also failed to sign ninth-rounder Austin Byler.


All in all, they didn’t get much out of this even if Fedde is technically their most productive pick of this period. But Matt Chapman and Jack Flaherty were right there for the taking.



This didn't work out long term like anyone here imagined it would.


2015

We’re back to having no first-rounder because they signed some free agent pitcher who was pretty good for the Tigers and would have a solid career in Washington.


This Draft features several players the team would use well as trade chips for contenders, but overall a pretty uninspiring group here. They used their first selection, No. 58 overall, on outfielder Andrew Stevenson out of LSU.

They also selected the following players who would be used to acquire other pieces at various Trade Deadlines:

  • Blake Perkins (2nd round, Kelvin Herrera)

  • Taylor Hearn (5th round, Mark Melancon)

  • Taylor Guilbeau (10th round, Roenis Elias)

  • Max Schrock (13th round, Mark Rzepczynski)

One of the best picks the team has made in recent years however was eighth-rounder Koda Glover, a power reliever out of Oklahoma State. Glover made the big leagues with lightning speed and seemed like their future closer. Unfortunately for both parties, shoulder issues would end his career before it every fully got going. What could have been.


2016


Well, several players from this class have made the big leagues, so give the Nats credit for that. But thus far none have made much of an impact. However, we’re getting recent enough that the book is not closed on some of these guys.


The Nats had two first-round picks in this Draft, back to back at 28-29. With those picks, they chose Georgia prep shortstop Carter Kieboom and University of Florida righty Dane Dunning. They took two-way standout Sheldon Neuse in the second round and injured high-school southpaw Jesus Luzardo in the third round.


Let’s pause, because there’s a lot going on. Kieboom moved quickly through the minors and was a premium prospect in 2019. Obviously, we know it’s been a tough go since then, but he is showing positive signs in 2021. So, it’s an incomplete picture. Then Dunning, Neuse and Luzardo were all quickly traded out of the organization. Dunning was dealt the ensuing offseason in the blockbuster Adam Eaton trade. And Neuse and Luzardo were shipped with Blake Treinen in July 2017 for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.


Fifth-rounder Daniel Johnson was traded with Jefry Rodriguez or Yan Gomes in 2019. And they added current organizational depth guys later in Tres Barrera (sixth round), Jake Noll (seventh round), Ben Braymer (18th round) and Sterling Sharp (22nd round).


All in all, this is probably the best draft they’ve had as far as identifying talent. Seven of their top eight picks made it to the majors, with fifth-rounder Nick Banks at Triple-A right now. To get anything out of 18th- and 22nd rounders is a coup.


There’s a reason this class looks good, and I’ll get to that.


2017


With the 25th overall pick, Rizzo made one of the most controversial picks in team history. Similarly to Giolito and Fedde, there was a ballyhooed pitcher slipping down the Draft board due to red flags. But this time they weren’t health related. University of Houston lefty Seth Romero possessed a lethal fastball-slider combination some thought would propel him through the minors to help the Nats’ struggling bullpen in short order. But Romero had been kicked off the team at Houston due to multiple infractions, including a drug suspension. When a program cuts bait on a talented pitcher like that, it’s notable.


But Rizzo was undeterred and took a chance. To this point, it has been a dramatic failure. More suspensions, a bevy of injuries. Alas, his story is not done. Romero pitched briefly in the big leagues out of necessity in 2020, but he wasn’t ready. He has returned healthy in 2021 and could be on the cusp of returning to the majors with a strong showing at Triple-A Rochester.


The Nats took Wil Crowe in the second round, who was part of the trade for Josh Bell. And after that, a whole lot of nothing. Although sixth-rounder Kyle Johnston was traded to the Blue Jays for Daniel Hudson in 2019. So that’s hard to overlook.


2018


Here we go again. An injured pitcher is slipping down the board. And Rizzo can’t help himself. Powerful prep righty Mason Denaburg, a two-sport star with a football scholarship to the University of Florida, is taken with the 27th selection. The Nats give him an over-slot deal at $3 million to keep him off the football field and he’s never been healthy since. He’s slated to return to action next season, but the likelihood of this pick amounting to anything seems remote at this point.


Here are some players who were selected after Denaburg: Shane McClanahan, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Xavier Edwards. Ugh!


Second-rounder Tim Cate has gone backward at Double-A Harrisburg. Third-rounder Reid Schaller is reliever only. Fourth-rounder Jake Irvin is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Aaron Fletcher, their 14th-rounder, was traded for Hunter Strickland. So, there’s that.





2019-21


We’re now at the point where’s it’s soon to judge anything. However, 2019 looks questionable early. First-rounder Jackson Rutledge has had an almost completely lost 2021 season due to arm injuries and persistent blisters. With no second-rounder, third-round selection Drew Mendoza hasn’t hit a lick. Fourth-rounder Matt Cronin is promising and has future closer potential.


The 2020 Draft has potential to be the class that changes the franchise’s Draft maladies. Cade Cavalli may have been the steal of the Draft. Cole Henry is pitching like a first-round pick and fifth-rounder Mitchell Parker is exceeding expectation.


Brady House, the 11th overall pick in 2021, is destroying his first taste of professional pitching.


So where does that leave us?


Contenders need to use the Draft to fill holes internally and avoid chasing stopgaps in free agency. This is a must financially. It keeps your payroll down and prevents you from hollowing out your prospect capital.


While the Nats have used multiple Draft picks to acquire big league talent, their actual record on those trades is a little bit of a mixed bag though a net positive. However, only two players drafted since 2012 have come close to providing the Nats what they need here: Erick Fedde and Austin Voth.


That’s simply not close to acceptable. They must do much better going forward now that the franchise is back to rebuilding mode. They cannot afford to miss on picks at such a prolific level. They cannot continue to take huge risks and come up empty. The next decade of Nats baseball will be decided on what Mike Rizzo does in the war room on Draft day for the next few years.


On that note, he has a pretty good head start thanks to early results provide by the likes of Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry and Brady House. But the system is still thin, and reinforcements are desperately needed.


The two best classes on paper here, 2016 and 2020, stand out because they represent Drafts in which the organization didn’t chase the golden goose and sacrifice the rest of talent pool to get the golden goose to their farm. But those geese haven’t laid any eggs. They need a lot more eggs so they can feed their owners and be used as trade for milk and bread.


How does the entire list shake out?


Here’s the entire ranking of every team’s bWAR Draft yield since 2012:

  1. Astros (78.2)

  2. Dodgers (67.2)

  3. Cardinals (57)

  4. A’s (52)

  5. Cubs (48.7)

  6. White Sox (43.6)

  7. Orioles (40.1)

  8. Twins (38)

  9. Mets (36.9)

  10. Blue Jays (36.9)

  11. Phillies (35.1)

  12. Rockies (33.3)

  13. Indians (31.3)

  14. Yankees (29.1)

  15. Rangers (25.8)

  16. Brewers (25.2)

  17. Braves (24)

  18. Reds (22.7)

  19. Giants (17.1)

  20. Mariners (16)

  21. Pirates (15.5)

  22. Rays (13.7)

  23. Angels (13.1)

  24. Red Sox (12.8)

  25. Marlins (12.1)

  26. Padres (9.6)

  27. D-Backs (9.6)

  28. Tigers (5.8)

  29. Royals (5.2)

  30. Nationals (1.1)

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