The Nationals have a solid history of homegrown stars. The young franchise earned its first World Series thanks to a core of players raised within the organization, such as Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto. That era of Nationals baseball feels long gone, and now we are left searching for the next homegrown star. With the MLB draft coming up soon, the team is hoping to find the next great National with the #2 overall pick.
The first round of the draft is the most likely place to find a future star player, especially when you have one of the highest picks. The Nationals know this well, from their experience drafting superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper at #1 overall in consecutive years. When the team acquired those stars from the draft and ownership pushed an increase in payroll, the Nationals entered a long competitive window. That is the blueprint to follow for the Nationals going forward, as they hope for a future as bright as their past once was.
Here's the bad news, though. The Nationals have made some awful picks in the first round in recent years. There hasn't been a Strasburg, Harper, or Rendon found by the team in all the years since they were picked, and nobody has come especially close. As we await the team's selection at #2 this year, let's review the past 10 first rounders the team has made. Because the team had no first round selections in 2013 or 2015, we'll go back to every pick since 2012, the year after Anthony Rendon was drafted #6 overall.
The College Pitchers
The first and largest group of picks to discuss is first-round college pitchers. Including Dane Dunning, who was picked #34 overall in the supplemental first round in 2016, the Nationals have selected five first-round arms out of college since 2012. Erick Fedde was selected at #18 in 2014, Seth Romero was the #25 pick in 2017, followed by #17 Jackson Rutledge in 2019 and #22 Cade Cavalli in 2020.
When you put your top draft pick into a college arm, you are searching for a top-line starter, or at least a solid pitcher who can stay in the middle of an MLB rotation. Among those five picks, only Dane Dunning comes close to meeting that criteria, and he's with the Texas Rangers. Dunning, now at age 28, has made 70 starts with the White Sox and Rangers with a 4.11 career ERA. He has turned into a solid player after he was traded by the Nationals to get Adam Eaton. He's comfortably a 3rd/4th starter in his prime years right now, which is a good outcome for a 34th overall pick. That outcome doesn't really matter to the Nationals, though, as they shipped him off to allow other organizations to handle his development.
The other pitchers are mostly failures. Erick Fedde was barely a major-league quality pitcher in his Nationals career, with a 5.41 career ERA over 88 starts. He at least made the majors for a while, but never turned into the kind of player you hope you can find in the first round. Seth Romero fared even worse than that, with a series of injuries and issues off the field over the years. Romero is no longer with the organization, and it looks like he'll never have a real MLB career.
Dunning, Fedde, and Romero have combined to generate about zero value for the Nationals at the major league level, except for helping to get Adam Eaton to Washington. Rutledge and Cavalli still could make their way into the Nationals rotation in the future, but neither are considered likely impact players. Rutledge's development has gone slowly between injuries and the 2020 lockdown season, but he's finally made it to AA at age 24 and is looking pretty solid this year. He's fallen behind his 2019 draft class, though, which has already generated several young, productive stars.
Cade Cavalli has carried a high prospect pedigree with him since his days at the University of Oklahoma, but there's no guarantees for him. He has MLB-level stuff and tremendous arm talent, but he needs a lot more polish and command to succeed. He's on the long path to recovery from Tommy John surgery, so it'll be another year or more before he's ready to resume his development. Based on the organizations track record, Cavalli is facing an uphill battle. I'm certain many fans will disagree and insist that Cavalli will achieve greatness, but the reality is that there are dozens of pitching prospects with better injury history, who have made better impressions at younger ages, and are with organizations who are much better at developing young pitchers.
The High School Pitchers
Lucas Giolito was picked #16 overall in 2012 out of Harvard-Westlake High School. By age 21, he was one of the league's top pitching prospects and made his MLB debut for the Nats. Before he could pitch a full season with the Nationals, he was shipped to the White Sox for Adam Eaton alongside Dane Dunning and Reynaldo Lopez.
Giolito has turned into a great pitcher, sometimes inconsistent, but sometimes looking like a true ace. He's made over 150 starts for the White Sox, he's been an All-Star and a three-time Cy Young vote-getter, and has thrown a no-hitter. He's a great player to have drafted, but maybe not a great player to have traded. Whether you think it was worth getting Adam Eaton or not, it's hard to see Giolito's success when every other first-round pitcher has struggled.
Mason Denaburg was picked out of Merritt Island High School in 2018 with the #27 pick. He's about the same age as Jackson Rutledge and has developed even more slowly. He's currently repeating single-A and has pitched more out of the bullpen this season, to a 9.00 ERA so far. There's no indication he'll ever be an impact MLB player, such is the risk of drafting pitchers out of high school.
The High School Bats
This is the final group of picks to discuss, as the Nationals haven't selected a first-round college position player since Anthony Rendon in 2011. Carter Kieboom was the #28 pick in 2016 and was followed by 5 consecutive years of first-round pitchers. Brady House broke that trend in 2021, he was selected with the #11 pick, and Elijah Green was the most recent first rounder at #5 overall in 2022.
Carter Kieboom has had a difficult career. He was once a top-100 prospect, thought of as the next great Nationals infielder. He hit a home run in his MLB debut in 2019, and hasn't accomplished much else. He's been horrible in 414 career plate appearances, and has been injured multiple times. He's been mediocre at AAA this year and will likely return to the MLB at some point, but it's been a disaster so far.
Brady House is a similar player to Kieboom. He has a great righty bat, has been moved off of shortstop to be a third baseman, is a top-100 prospect, and has had a few injuries. House is only 20 and there's no predicting what the future might be for him in the next decade. Ideally, House will join the current Nationals young core and contribute on a competitive roster. The team will be expecting nothing less, as House's draft position at #11 was the team's first top-15 pick since 2011, due to the long stretch of winning seasons in between.
Elijah Green is even younger, and has a ton of potential. The book is still yet to be written on these recent draft picks, and the team really needs some return from the first round. There are only 3 players the Nationals have ever picked higher in the draft than Elijah Green: Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, and Stephen Strasburg. Green is already struggling with strikeouts in A-ball. He has a long, long way to go.
The Nationals have the #2 pick this year, and will likely have a top-5 pick in the next draft, and maybe even the one after that. Dylan Crews and Paul Skenes are already better prospects than most of the players mentioned above ever were or ever will be. Either of them can break this awful track record of first rounders.
The Nationals also have the benefit of picking #40 overall and at the first spot of every following round in the draft this year. Plenty of current stars were found in the 2nd round, plenty were found in the 3rd, and plenty were found later than that. None of those players were found by the Nationals, though (except for maybe Robbie Ray). There's only one even vaguely successful 2nd round pick in Nationals history so far, Jordan Zimmermann.
To keep up with teams like the Braves, the Nationals absolutely need to start making better picks in the later rounds. Because they haven't, their current roster is filled with waiver claims, minor league free agents, and replacement-level filler. This isn't a team that is currently bursting with young talent. Most of the top young players and prospects in the organization were acquired in trades, and even the best versions of themselves combined is not enough to reach the elite tier of the league.
This is all a bleak reminder of what has went wrong, and what has led us to where the team is right now. All it takes is one Paul Skenes, or one Dylan Crews, to change that history. There are never any guarantees with prospects and with player development, but there is always an optimistic fanbase ready to imagine a future dominant team.