The Washington Nationals found themselves in an unfamiliar place for this year’s amateur draft; that is to say, they had to wait for 15 other teams to draft ahead of them. The organization has not had a longer first round wait since 2003, when they drafted Chad Cordero with the 20th overall pick as the Montreal Expos. Since that year, the Expo-Nats have made their first selection with the following overall picks: 13, 4, 15, 6, 9, 1, 1, and 6. That’s some pretty high overall picks in recent years, so it’s no surprise the franchise has been able to churn out some high quality players from within the system.
The last three years of drafts have been kind to the Nationals. Before grabbing third baseman Anthony Rendon with the sixth overall pick last year, they were fortunate enough to pick first in drafts that featured Bryce Harper (2010) and Stephen Strasburg (2009) respectively. Any team in baseball would have chosen those two as well with the first overall picks, so you have to exercise caution before getting overly effusive with your praise, but it’s not hard not to be envious of the organization’s recent results nonetheless if you’re on the outside looking in. You already know what kind of impacts Strasburg and Harper have had on the major league level in such a short time period, but Rendon is no slouch either. Going into the 2012 season, Baseball America ranked him as the 19th best prospect in the game.
So consider it all the more impressive that the Nats have managed to continue their run of ridiculously high upside draft picks this year despite having to wait until the 16th overall pick. By stealing 6-foot-6, 230-pound high school pitcher Lucas Giolito, Washington has a chance to produce yet another All-Star caliber player from within its own system in the near future. Yes, Giolito developed an elbow injury back in March, and the resulting plummet his stock took is the only reason he fell to the Nationals. Yes, it’s entirely possible he may need Tommy John surgery before he ever pitches his first game as a professional. Yes, the pick is not without risk, but maybe that’s part of the reason why I admire it so much.
It’s not Giolito’s talent that’s in question, after all; his size and ability renders his ceiling virtually limitless, and he’s still just 17 years old. The fact that the Nationals were able to sneak this kind of arm in their system so late in the first round is incredible. The scouting report on Giolito is one worth drooling over: a fastball that reaches the upper 90’s complemented with a nasty curve that has the potential to be his best offering in the future. With proper seasoning and instruction, it isn’t hard to envision him pitching alongside Strasburg at the top of the Washington rotation for years to come.
Again, there are risks in this selection. The Nationals will not get Giolito on the cheap, even if he did drop to the 16th overall pick. There’s also the concern of his elbow. If those injury issues linger, what kind of effect might that have on his electrifying stuff? Okay, that’s about the only issues I can think of, and I think those potential concerns are easily outweighed by the upside involved. If you expect to get a player of this caliber with the 16th overall pick, you’re going to have to assume some risk, and I think it’s impressive the Nationals had the balls to pull the trigger here.
The same organization that’s already produced Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, Strasburg, and Harper in recent years just added another big name to its rapidly expanding list. If you’re a fan of one of the other NL East teams, I guess I can understand why you might hope this doesn’t work out. From a somewhat more neutral standpoint, however, I find it nearly impossible not to root for a team that took on such a seemingly smart gamble. No matter how Giolito’s career pans out, a lot of credit should be given to Washington’s general manager Mike Rizzo and scouting director Kris Kline on this gutsy pick. The Nationals may be a very formidable opponent for a very long time once this young core establishes itself in the majors.