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King of the Draft: The Washington Nationals

Although the Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates come close, no organization in Major League Baseball has improved its minor league system more in the last two years than the Washington Nationals. The team has made huge strides in distancing itself from “The Dark Years” when it was controlled by Major League Baseball on a shoestring budget, and under the questionable guidance of then-GM Jim Bowden.

The Nationals, headed by savy third-year General Manager Mike Rizzo, likely did not begin the 2011 draft expecting to be quite so aggressive when trying to build upon the momentum from 2010’s draft – and set yet another draft spending record. But that’s just what they did by locking up three first round talents (when healthy) and a fringe first rounder. In fact, both third baseman Anthony Rendon and left-hander Matt Purke entered the 2011 college season with the chance to be chosen first overall. Both slipped due to injuries, although Rendon’s was considered far less serious in terms of long-term damage.

Rendon battled through shoulder woes in 2011 after dealing with two serious ankle injuries in previous years. A third baseman by trade, he could end up in the outfield or at second base thanks to the presence of incumbent Ryan Zimmerman, who might actually be more valuable to the club as trade bait. Rendon could end up being just as good offensively and defensively, while Zimmerman – who is in his prime – may be on the down swing of his career by the time Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, etc. are all enter their best years.

Purke, like Rendon, battled shoulder problems in ’11 but those are far more serious for pitchers. His fastball velocity fluctuated all season and it was blamed on a variety of ailments, ranging from the shoulder to his back to blisters on his fingers. No one knows what’s really going on with Purke (outside of his inner circle, anyway) but we can only hope that it can be fixed with mechanical adjustments and/or rehab. If he can find his groove again, the Nats could potentially have a dangerous rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Purke in the Top 3 slots.

Right-hander Alex Meyer turned down the Boston Red Sox out of high school, allegedly ignoring an offer of $2 million (the same amount he signed for after three years at the University of Kentucky). Because of his size (6’9”) and related command inconsistencies, Meyer is a bit of a wild card. He has the potential to be an outstanding No. 2 starter but he could end up as a high-leverage reliever if he cannot keep all his moving parts in rhythm.

Outfielder Brian Goodwin is a toolsy, athletic outfielder who, after a college suspension threatened his playing time, spent one year at the University of North Carolina before moving to Miami-Dade Junior College. A five-tool talent, he can hit, run and play defense. Goodwin could develop into a 20-20 player down the road.

Just how wise it was to spend this kind of money on a draft class could well rest on Purke’s shoulders… er, shoulder. The club took a huge gamble by guaranteeing him the kind of money that it did. It’s been reported that Washington was given full disclosure on the southpaw’s medical reports so there must have been a level of confidence from the team’s doctors before Rizzo signed off on the contract.

The club’s remodeling actually began in 2009 when it secured the talents of Strasburg, with the first overall selection in the draft, and Drew Storen, with a second first-round pick (for failing to sign Aaron Crow the previous year – a fair trade-off). Both Strasburg (who expired his prospect eligibility prior to Tommy John surgery) and Storen have already graduated to the big leagues.

The Nats entered the ’10 amateur draft with the first overall pick yet again (perhaps the club should thank MLB for “The Dark Years?”). We all know the back story on outfielder Bryce Harper, who was the consensus best talent available (by a landslide) with the first pick. It’s also been well-documented that the teenager is already holding his own in double-A with a .335 wOBA – albeit with some interesting subplots.

Along with Harper, though, the Nationals also secured the talents of prep right-hander A.J. Cole, who was ranked as the 16th best pitcher in the draft by Baseball America. Most teams considered it almost impossible to secure his signature on a contract so he slid to the fourth round where the Nats paid him $2 million, which is not that far off from market value. He’s displayed outstanding control in low-A ball in 2011 with a walk rate of just 2.28 BB/9. Cole has also missed a lot of bats (10.39 K/9). He could be a fast mover if he keeps this up in 2012.

With the second round selection, left-hander Sammy Solis was taken out of the University of San Diego. Offering a lower ceiling (No. 3 starter), the southpaw was projected to be a fast mover that could help an organization with little depth in the upper levels of the farm system. Solis hasn’t moved as quickly as expected in 2011 due to injuries. He got a late start to the season due to a groin injury and then he was recently shut down with elbow inflammation. Add in his back problems from college and he’s getting a bit of a reputation for getting hurt.

The club also went over slot on southpaw starter Robbie Ray, a showcase standout who had an inconsistent prep season prior to the draft. He received just shy of $800,000 in the 12th round. Ray got a late start to the 2011 season but he’s been good in low-A ball. He has a strikeout rate of 9.50 K/9 to go along with a 3.21 FIP (2.20 ERA) in 17 starts. If he can find the ground a little more often on his balls-in-play and develop stronger secondary pitches he could reach his ceiling as a No. 3 starter.

When a team finds itself in a hole like the Nationals did after years of MLB control, it has to be aggressive and take risks if it hopes to rise from the ashes. Fans of this organization have been waiting since 1994 for the club to truly field a championship-worthy club. With a little luck and continued strong leadership from the front office the city of Washington won’t have long to wait.