Ever since the Nationals secured the No. 2 selection in the 2023 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, there has been constant speculation as to what the Pirates will do with the first selection and how the Nats will react. Will the Bucs surprise and pass on LSU's Dylan Crews for Paul Skenes or save money on a high school bat? Should the Nats take perhaps the best college pitcher of all time in Skenes or go with a college thumper such as Florida's Wyatt Langford?
What has not been talked about is another critical selection the Nats will make on July 9. No matter what, Washington will add a dynamic player with the No. 2 overall pick, but its second-round selection, No. 40 overall, will also play a crucial role in the team's transition from rebuilder to contender.
No one can accurately predict 40 picks into the Draft a month from now, but the Nationals do have a longtime general manager in Mike Rizzo who has given us years of Draft trends and behavior on which to make an educated guess. We also have more data points with which to narrow the field. For instance, Rizzo has never used a first-round selection to cut a deal and save money. We know he will take the best player available and sign him no matter the cost. That would seemingly eliminate the likes of Walker Jenkins and Max Clark in the first round. We also know Rizzo believes in building a roster around power pitching. And given the historic nature of the top of this class, it's likely the Nats will have to go over slot value to secure the services of Crews, Skenes or Langford, which affects the rest of the team's Draft strategy.
The next step in narrowing down the list of likely names at 40 is assessing the nature of this particular class. What stands out about the list of names consistently ranked in the 30-60 range is that it is heavy on high school bats and light on college bats. College arms abound in the range the Nats will be picking and that neatly ties into Rizzo's history. Since 2010, the Nats have made 11 second-round selections and opted for a college player with nine of those picks. We know Rizzo prefers college players in this area and traditionally goes pitcher-heavy in general. Whomever the Nats pick at No. 2 will command a hefty signing bonus, making a high school player with leverage a less likely option in Round 2.
Given the nature of this class, and Rizzo's track record in Washington, a betting man would place their chips on a college pitcher or college bat with the 40th pick. Moving forward with history as a guide, let's examine 10 players who could fit the bill at No. 40. The rankings are based on the composite Draft rankings of MLB Pipeline, Baseball America and Keith Law of The Athletic.
OF Chase Davis, Arizona (AVG Ranking: 32.3)
While the Nationals are in very good shape with their stable of outfield prospects, Davis is a guy who may simply be too good to pass on if he gets to 40. Despite his ranking suggesting he is unlikely to be available at 40, baseball does not work so easily. It's not out of the question he could drop as teams will make money-saving picks and there are always surprises. It's plausible the toolsy Arizona outfielder could slip to 40. He could also go in the top 20. Davis is a potential five-tool player who increased his power output while significantly dropping his strikeout rate this season for the Wildcats. He would give the Nats an envious outfield crop that would provide insurance and give the team a lot of trade pieces when it is ready to again contend.
RHP Travis Sykora, Round Rock (Texas) H.S. (33.7)
Although history says to bet on a college player with the Nats' second-round selection, Sykora should he fall to 40 seems like the type of player that could force Rizzo to adjust on the fly. We know Rizzo loves imposingly tall power pitchers and Sykora passes that test at 6-foot-8, 232 pounds with the best fastball in the prep class. Sykora is an interesting case as he is already 19 years old and will be Draft-eligible after his sophomore season if he fulfills his commitment to Texas. But if Rizzo happens to love this player, he has more pool money than he is accustomed to having and it wouldn't be stunning if he tried to use it to take a big swing here and go over slot and save money later in the Draft.
3B Jake Gelof, Virginia (39.7)
Gelof, the younger brother of top A's prospect Zack Gelof, makes sense for the Nationals in a multitude of ways. As UVA's all-time home runs leader, Gelof would add a potentially quick-to-the-majors bat with power that the system still needs. Specifically, Gelof could move across the diamond to first base if Brady House and Trey Lipscomb continue to ascend, as the team only has one legit first baseman prospect in TJ White. Gelof can crush the ball and he's one of few intriguing college bats that fit nicely into this range of the Draft. If he hits, you figure out the position later. Reports have also seen Nats' brass at many UVA games this spring.
RHP Tanner Witt, Texas (45.7)
This one might give Nats fans PSD. A very talented pitcher slipping due to Tommy John surgery? Rizzo has taken this path many times with bad results. But a pattern is a pattern. Witt looks the part at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and looked like a no-brainer first-round pick before Tommy John surgery. What's interesting about Witt is he returned to Texas after TJ recovery late in the season and pitched ineffectively out of the bullpen. Witt is hard to figure out and could go back to school and try to become a first-round pick, but someone will probably pay him and bank on the talent. And unless Rizzo is permanently scarred from so many failed pitchers of this ilk, he's shown a willingness to roll the dice. And the good news is he is already pitching again so he would likely get plenty of FCL action this summer to build up his arm.
LHP Cameron Johnson, IMG Academy (49.7)
Here's an intriguing high-school arm from the left side who has a good chance of being available when the Nats are on the clock. Johnson is a local product from Maryland who transferred to IMG Academy in Florida for his senior season – the James Wood path – where he featured a fastball up to 98 with nasty breaking stuff. However, Johnson suffered from elbow tendinitis late in the season, adding more uncertainty. An LSU commit, Johnson will probably have a high price, but also the talent that could convince the Nats to take a shot on that big arm.
RHP Juaron Watts-Brown, Oklahoma State (50.7)
Watts-Brown seems to be a polarizing prospect whose calling card is his nasty slider. A former standout quarterback, Watts-Brown transferred to Oklahoma State from Long Beach State this season with varying success. His fastball is behind his slider, leading some to believe he's likely just a slider-heavy reliever who will be death on righties, while some think there's more in the tank due to his athleticism.
RHP Brandon Sproat, Florida (54.7)
Sproat is another player who is likely to command divergent opinions. Sproat has already been drafted twice and opted not to sign. The stuff is there, but the results have not always been. He's an eye-of-the-beholder type who will need work to hone his upper-90s fastball and inconsistent offspeed offerings. His performance declined after last season so he has little leverage and should be an easy sign with upside.
LHP Hunter Owen, Vanderbilt (58.3)
This is logical candidate for the Nats' second-round pick. He has the size Rizzo likes at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds. Owen was a reliever at Vandy until this season, where he moved into the rotation and showed average to above-average control with a mid-90s fastball and two good breaking balls and a developing changeup. Although Owen has a case as the best lefty college starter in the Draft, he missed significant time due to injury down the stretch, which muddles things a bit. But there's little reason to believe Rizzo would be scared away.
RHP Cade Kuehler, Campbell (58.7)
Kuehler is known for possessing excellent metrics with the spin rate of his mid-90s fastball and plus slider, but intermittent command issues and no clear third pitch could prompt a move to the bullpen down the line. He is a pitcher who could thrive in the lower levels but will need to improve to keep climbing and fend off the reliever tag.
LHP Joe Whitman, Kent State (70)
Here's a fun one. Whitman couldn't cut it in two seasons for Big Ten cellar dweller Purdue, throwing only 5 2/3 innings in two seasons for the Boilermakers before transferring to Kent State. Now he has a good chance to be the first left-handed college pitcher to be selected. Baseball is the best. Whitman throws in the mind-90s with a wipeout slider and an improving changeup.