What the Nationals should do in tonight’s draft: Part 1

Steve O Speak

The MLB amateur draft kicks off tonight and the Washington Nationals are primed to have a big night. This year’s draft is one of the deepest in recent memory and the Nationals will have 3 picks tonight (6th, 23rd, and 34th). If Washington can hit on these 3 players and follow it up with strong drafting the next 2 days, they could finally have the farm system that propels them into being a contender.

The past two seasons the Nationals have had no-brainer selections with the top spot in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, now this year they will have to make a tougher call. While most analysts will say that there are 6 prospects above the rest in this class, the Nationals brass might not feel the same way about every prospect, so their decision might not be as easy. As it stands now their are 3 elite college pitchers in this top 6, UCLA RHP Gerritt Cole, UCLA RHP Trevor Bauer, and UVA LHP Danny Hultzen. In addition there is one college bat, Rice 3B Anthony Rendon, and two top notch high school talents CF Bubba Starling and RHP Dylan Bundy. If the 3 college pitchers are all gone, there is another group of college starters right behind them in talent that the Nationals could be tempted to go with instead of a H.S. guy or a 3B.

Now according to the latest reports the Nationals won’t go in that direction and I think that is for the best. Any of these six prospects would be good fits (though Rendon’s defense would be wasted at another position), and the Nationals should take the best player on their board. As it looks now Cole, Rendon and Bauer will go 1, 2, and 3. The Orioles at 4 become the wildcard pick. They aren’t likely to take Starling, but both Hultzen and Bundy make sense for them. Hultzen is a local kid, who grew up in MD, played H.S. ball in D.C. and then went to UVA. He’s an advanced college arm capable of moving quickly through the minors and would be ready to join their young up and coming rotation within a year or two. Bundy though might have the highest upside of any pitcher, but of course has the extra risk of being a high school arm. He does seem advanced for a H.S. pitcher so he could be ready quicker than most (2-3 years). The Orioles also have a connection to him as they drafted his older brother a couple of years ago, and they might feel that he won’t be as tough to sign because of that. The Royals are another wildcard team as they will have to decide between whomever the O’s don’t select and local H.S. talent Bubba Starling. They are rumored to want a pitcher, but can they pass up the local talent who some feel has the best tools in this draft.

This leaves the Nationals with three primary options and they should be happy with any of them. The safest and best feel good story route, would be if Hultzen falls to them. He wouldn’t need much minor league seasoning and would be ready to join the rotation with Strasburg and Zimmermann possibly by mid-year 2012. He would also offer a top notch lefty for the Nats to help breakup all the RH’s in the rotation. Bundy might have the highest upside and a Strasburg and Bundy 1-2 punch would be the equivalent of when the D-backs had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Starling could be the most intriguing prospect as in terms of tools and upside, no one has a better ceiling. He has a tools package that could be compared to Josh Hamilton or even Ken Griffey Jr. He is one of the fastest runners in this draft class, which should make him a stolen base threat and a vacuum in CF. He has big time power potential and could be a 30+ HR guy in CF. He also has an electric arm that should allow him to hold runners as well. The two questions surrounding Starling is his ETA and his sign-ability.

Starling is considered quite likely to sign, but he does have a two-sport scholarship at Nebraska where he is a top recruit as a QB as well. While he is still going to sign, it will cost a team quite a bit. His signing bonus could be more than Harper’s (though a two sport contract can be used to spread it out over 5 years). Now the other issue is his ETA. Starling hasn’t fully concentrated on baseball like some other prospects given his football skills so he isn’t quite as refined as other elite H.S. guys. He also played overall against weaker competition so he doesn’t have a lot of AB’s versus quality pitchers. Both of those factors make him at least 3 years away and probably more like 4.

In the end the Nationals won’t have to make much of a decision (unless a team ahead of them takes a wildcard player), and they should take whichever one of the top 6 fall to them. While Hultzen would have the most immediate benefit, I have a feeling it will end up being Starling and that the Nationals will be quite happy with his impact.

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