Nationals’ Aggressive Draft Strategy Results in Premium Talent, Again


Just as they did in last year’s draft, the Nationals picked up a pitcher once projected as a top 10 talent who fell because of injury concerns. Last season, the Nats drafted Matt Purke out of TCU with their third round pick. Purke was taken 14th overall by the Rangers in 2009. The Rangers reportedly offered the Texan $6M, but soon Texas’ financial problems reared their ugly head, leading to bankruptcy and MLB oversight.

The league wouldn’t allow the team to offer a deal so far above the recommended slot, so Purke’s new offer was $4M. That wasn’t enough to convince Purke to give up his commitment to TCU, where he would have the chance to enter the 2011 draft as a 21-year-old sophomore. Unfortunately, Purke developed a nasty case of shoulder tendonitis, earning a visit to Dr. James Andrews, who really should be nicknamed ‘Bad News,’ and getting shut down for the year. Despite the injury, the Nats pulled the trigger on Purke and inked him by offering a Major League contract worth $4.4M, the eighth largest bonus in the draft.

In 2012, the team saw a similar opportunity to get a blue-chip talent without a single-digit pick, as Lucas Giolito was in the conversation for the first pick overall until a strained UCL sidelined him for the majority of his senior season at Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City, CA. Before the injury, Giolito had uncorked triple-digit fastballs from the right side, as well as a strong breaking ball and developing changeup. Giolito’s family was rumored to be expecting a bonus of $5M, and it was reported that they were not planning on dropping their bonus demands as a result of the injury. It was said that Giolito’s family is relatively well-off, and he was perfectly happy to fulfill his commitment to nearby UCLA.

Giolito was clearly going to be one of the tougher signs in the draft, and under the new CBA penalties for exceeding bonus pools escalate quickly. Where under the old rules the Nationals could have simply agreed to whatever number a draftee’s camp proposed without fear of retribution if they deemed the prospect worthy, the new system dictates that a team exceeding its bonus pool by 5% loses its first draft pick in the next draft. For this reason, the deeper in the round Giolito fell, the less a team could reasonably pay him, as his incredible talent certainly isn’t worthy of giving up the team’s shot at the most talented players on the board in 2013.

That didn’t stop the Nationals, led boldly by GM Mike Rizzo and Scouting Director Kris Kline, from pulling the trigger on Giolito at 16. The Nationals’ bonus pool of $4,436,200 meant they could spend up to $4,658,010 total on their first ten picks without relinquishing a pick in next year’s draft, less than Giolito’s reported demands alone.  Negotiations went down to the wire between Giolito and the Nats, but he agreed to a $2.925M deal seconds before today’s deadline. As long as he can return from the injury with his nasty stuff intact, the righty will be an absolute steal for Washington.

The Nationals’ bonus pool was less than a third of what they spent on their top 10 picks in 2011, according to Baseball America. Their total draft expenditures of just a hair over $15M were second only to the Pirates, who possessed the top pick overall in the draft. Before taking Purke, Mike Rizzo’s draft crew had already showcased their aggressiveness in the GM’s second draft at the helm. With the sixth pick overall, they stopped the slide of Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, a player who received consideration as high as second overall and eventually received a bonus of $6M. The Nats’ “cheap” pick was Kentucky righty Alex Meyer, who got a $2M bonus as the 23rd pick. They then took five-tool outfielder Brian Goodwin with the first pick in the supplemental round, giving him a $3M bonus that was nearly twice as large as any other pick in the round and the tenth largest bonus in the draft overall.

While the team isn’t able to spend like it was in 2011 due to the new CBA, Rizzo and his staff have clearly adapted their hyper-aggressive strategy to fit the new rules. While Giolito may be their only big-dollar signing of the draft, taking by far the best talent on the board at 16 and then managing to sign him without incurring the loss of future draft picks is a credit to the team’s skilled front office’s planning and adaptability. While it will take years to concretely judge either of the team’s last two draft classes with the benefit of hindsight, for now I have to applaud their staff on picking players they can legitimately hope will develop into stars. In baseball, teams win on the backs of their stars, and while a generational talent like Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper doesn’t simply fall into your lap every year, Washington has taken advantage of every opportunity to try to find studs that can support their superstars, often taking tremendous risks to do so.

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