The Nationals have the 2nd overall pick in the upcoming MLB draft, earned after finishing the 2022 season with the worst record in baseball. In past years, simply suffering through a season with the worst record in baseball would guarantee the top draft pick. Alas, this past offseason the inaugural MLB draft lottery was instituted and the Nats had to settle for the second overall pick, losing out in the draft lottery to the Pirates.
This year’s crop of amateur prospects is widely rated as an above average draft class and most draft projections have LSU outfielder Dylan Crews pegged as the top pick with LSU RHP Paul Skenes rated as the likely second pick. However, rumblings this weekend suggest the Pirates might draft Skenes first overall and sign him to a below slot bonus, which would leave Crews available at #2.
Regardless, Crews and Skenes are rated as the top two players in the draft. Both are unbelievable prospects, with Crews putting up an absurd .426/.567/.713 slash line in his Junior year and Skenes also putting up videogame numbers this year at LSU with a 1.69 ERA across 122.2 innings with 209 K’s and only 20 BB’s. I will try to convince you that, if he’s still available, the Nationals should not draft him.
Now, this is not to take away at all from Paul Skenes or his immense talent level. Skenes throws a fastball that averages 96 – 99 mph and can touch 102 along with a wipeout slider and a solid changeup. He has dominated this college season and watching him carve up college hitters en route to a College World Series title has been must see TV.
No, my issue with drafting Skenes has to do with the track record of taking pitchers this high in the draft. Any baseball draft pick comes with a ton of question marks and no high school or college player is a guarantee to contribute at the big-league level. However, not all draft picks come with the same risk profile. Drafting pitchers, out of high school or college, comes with a ton of injury risk to go along with the litany of risks that come with drafting any amateur player.
A 2021 research paper studying Wins Above Replacement and the MLB draft found that, among first round draft picks on average, high school hitters had the highest career average WAR, followed by college hitters, then high-school pitchers, then college pitchers.
Pitchers are simply more likely to experience a career ending or career altering injury than position players and while there have certainly been all-star caliber pitchers drafted in the first round, there have been many more pitchers whose careers have been derailed due to injury. A position player drafted in the first round could also never make it to the major leagues, but if they do it’s more likely to be the result of playing poorly than an injury. Nevertheless, the takeaway from the study is clear: there is a higher success rate for drafting hitters in the first round compared to pitchers, in terms of career WAR.
Zooming in on the Nats track record in first round draft picks also shows a lower success rate for pitchers than position players. Below is a list of the Nationals previous first round draft picks, starting with Stephen Strasburg in 2009:
· 2009: Stephen Strasburg (RHP)
· 2009: Drew Storen (RHP)
· 2010: Bryce Harper (OF)
· 2011: Anthony Rendon (IF)
· 2011: Alex Meyer (RHP)
· 2011: Brian Goodwin (OF)
· 2012: Lucas Giolito (RHP)
· 2013: N/A
· 2014: Erick Fedde (RHP)
· 2015: N/A
· 2016: Carter Kieboom (IF)
· 2016: Dane Dunning (RHP)
· 2017: Seth Romero (LHP)
· 2018: Mason Denaburg (RHP)
· 2019: Jackson Rutledge (RHP)
· 2020: Cade Cavalli (RHP)
· 2021: Brady House (IF)
· 2022: Elijah Green (OF)
Judging draft pick success is tough, but let’s give it a shot. The above list totals 10 total pitchers drafted in the first round. I would say the only resounding success was the Strasburg pick, which is a bit of an outlier as he was a can’t miss, generational prospect that was all but certain to be a big-leaguer. Beyond that, the Giolito pick was beneficial for the Nats since they were able to trade him before the 2017 season for a solid group of players and Storen had some solid years as a high leverage reliever, although I’d argue you should shoot higher than relief pitchers with a first-round pick.
Beyond those three picks is a group of pitchers who struggled to develop into solid big-league arms, dealt with injury issues, or a combination of the two. It’s still too early to tell for a few of these picks, notably Cavalli and Rutledge, but they have both dealt with severe injuries of their own, which is never a great sign. All in all, none of those other draft picks have developed into impact pitchers for the Nationals.
In contrast, the first-round position players the Nats have taken have had a much higher success rate, albeit with a smaller sample size. Harper (another generational, can’t miss prospect) and Rendon were both resounding successes, while Brian Goodwin was a solid contributor for a few years before being released. The jury is still out on Kieboom, House, and Green, although things are looking murky for Kieboom’s chances of making an impact in the majors.
The 2023 draft class is deep, and if the Nats opt to skip Skenes they will have plenty of options. Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford could be the next best option. He had an unbelievable year at Florida, putting up numbers similar to Dylan Crews and showcasing his immense power in the College World Series. In normal years when the draft class is not so stacked, Langford would potentially go #1 overall and would offer plenty of upside to the Nationals as the 2nd overall pick.
Overall, determining the right draft pick is always a tough choice. Maybe the Nats draft Paul Skenes and he becomes the next best MLB pitcher, wins multiple Cy Young awards and makes me look foolish for writing this. Let’s hope all that happens. But the Nationals cannot afford a miss in this year’s draft and based on historical draft data, I would be more comfortable if the Nats opted for drafting a position player instead of the incredibly talented Paul Skenes.