Monday marks the first day of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, the first one that imposes strict financial and draft choice penalties for teams that dare pay above slot salaries or spend beyond their MLB-determined allotment. Teams who defy the new rules face the loss of draft choices and fines as high as 75% on the dollar. Also, the Nationals have the 8th lowest amount of money to spend on this season’s draft based on MLB’s inscrutable calculations (or as punishment for their many above-slot deals the past three drafts).
The new rules demand the Washington Nationals, who have paid top dollar for hard-to-sign non-first round picks such as A.J. Cole, Matt Purke, and Jack McGeary, adopt a new strategy. The revised guidelines make maneuvers like these, which raise the hackles of Commissioner Bud Selig, extremely unlikely. (Nationals’ fans might remind Mr. Selig that they had to do something to overcome the past evisceration of the Washington farm system while the Montreal Expos were under his “stewardship” as well as the current pauper’s pittance they receive from MASN, compared to other media deals in similarly sized markets).
Mike Rizzo and his crack team of scouts and statisticians will have to find excellent, financially tenable players now. Above slot deals will be rare. However, with the loss of four top prospects in the Gio Gonzalez trade (despite losing yesterday he was named May’s National League Pitcher of the Month), the club needs to replenish pitching and position player talent throughout its minor league system.
The Nationals have the 16th choice in each round, so scouting and noticing talent other clubs overlook will be more important than ever. In mock drafts, the Nationals have been tied to first round picks such as Andrew Heaney, lefty pitcher from Oklahoma State, Deven Marrero, shortstop, Arizona State (though most have him going higher, perhaps to Pittsburgh with the 8th selection), Lucas Giolito, right-handed pitcher from Harvard-Westlake High School in California (though Rizzo usually prefers college men for his early round choices), Marcus Stroman, right-handed pitcher from Duke, Lance McCullers, righty pitcher, Florida High School (though he has signability issues), Micahel Wacha, right-handed pitcher from Texas A&M and Stephen Piscotty, third baseman, Stanford. However, the mock drafts are literally all over the place and the Nationals’ selection could easily be someone else. If Rizzo follows past form, expect Washington’s first choice to be a pitcher.
While getting a player in the first round who can excel in the major leagues within a year or two is vital, the choices the Nationals make in the next 15 rounds or so have near equal importance. Good teams find major leaguers at this level as the Nationals have with players such as Stephen Lombardozzi, Ian Desmond, John Lannan, and, albeit for Oakland now, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock.
With their injuries and hitting struggles at the major league level this season, the importance of system-wide depth is obvious. While new constraints make this draft Rizzo’s most challenging, his team’s success in choosing the right players will go a long way in determining if the Nationals, an up-and-coming team, can enjoy sustained success.